Oprah’s “Just Say Hello” program.
Our prehistoric ancestors traveled in groups – not only to protect each other but also for companionship. Those early humans had the right idea. Humans have a basic need for companionship and isolation can have a dramatic negative effect on health and general outlook on life. Oprah Winfrey has a campaign to combat what she views as the growing epidemic of loneliness, especially among teens and tweens.
In a 2012 study it was found that older people who are lonely or isolated are 64% more likely to develop some form of dementia than their counterparts who have an active social life.
Air pollution has been found to increase a person’s mortality risk by 6%. Obesity raises a person’s mortality risk by 23%, and excessive alcohol raises mortality risk by 37%. Loneliness raises our risk by 45%!
Despite loneliness making us sad and sick, as a society we seem to be growing more detached and isolated. Texting and emails have replaced telephone calls. While the Internet provides connection, those relationships are too shallow to satisfy the need for a real friendship over time. Younger Americans often live far away from parents and siblings, and are praised for their maturity and independence.
People often confuse loneliness with depression, and no one wants to admit they are lonely. A University of Chicago psychology professor, John T. Cacioppo, PhD, co-authored a book called Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection. He estimates that at any given time at least one in five Americans (roughly 60 million) are suffering from loneliness.
Loneliness is all around us. A recent NY Times article by Frank Bruni talked about loneliness being the “real campus scourge” for freshmen at college. They feel alone even though there are many people around them. Loneliness is a common reason that college students drop out. Mental health experts and college administrators try to create attractive, open campus-life activities and offer more honesty about the loneliness factor in transitioning to college from high school.
People are especially vulnerable to loneliness during relationship break-ups, while being bullied or intimidated at school, college or work, living away from home for the first time, when friends move away for work or school, after losing a job, when moving to a new location and after a change in a stage of life like children leaving home or retiring from work.
What to do to combat loneliness:
Get busy – boredom and too much free time can lead to loneliness. Volunteer or get involved in something centered around an interest or a talent. It feels good to be needed.
Make eye contact with strangers. A Purdue University study found that people who made eye contact with strangers reported feeling less isolated than those who felt invisible and that strangers looked right through them.
Cultivate friendships by reaching out. We spend so much time exercising, eating right and staying healthy, but social connection is also important for our health. We don’t prioritize spending time with friends and family. Reaching out, even in small ways, can make us feel included.
Oprah Winfrey has partnered with Skype to combat loneliness and encourage more face to face internet interaction. I strongly recommend watching Oprah’s short Just Say Hello video. It reminded me of how powerful a smile or greeting is, especially from a stranger. It can lift up your entire day. I am always happy when I take the time to reach out to an old friend with a quick ‘hello’. Reconnecting with family or old friends can reestablish a connection to someone important to you.
Finally, enjoy some alone time – many people have an aversion to being alone, especially if they are accustomed to being constantly around other people. I love my time alone and I encouraged my daughters to learn to be on their own. Being alone is a time to recharge your batteries, and to do exactly what you want to do.
AARP launched a website last year called Connect2Affect to spread information about loneliness and how it affects health. There is a self-assessment survey on the website to help people determine how socially isolated they are. The website also has tips on how to become more connected.
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