Home Alone: What Smoking and Loneliness Have in Common

by | Aug 10, 2019

The last time I visited my doctor I was handed a form to fill out while I waited. The form asked a bunch of questions about my feelings. I presumed that this particular clinic is on the outlook for problems that I may be experiencing that could affect my health. I noticed that my doctor later had my form when he came into the examining room. He read through the answers I gave and asked a couple of followup questions. I remember when such questions were asked by therapists rather than doctors. What gives?

What gives is that recent studies have found that people suffering from loneliness are more likely to experience depression, anxiety and stress in their lives. These are factors that affect physical health which is exacerbated by a tendency to be less active. All of this can increase the chances of high blood pressure, diabetes and heart problems. Loneliness, like smoking, is bad for your health.

The questions didn’t ask how many friends I have or how often or how long I spend with friends. The questions wanted to know if I was experiencing “feelings” of loneliness. The reasoning is twofold. First, feelings of loneliness and isolation affect our physical health. Dr Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a professor of psychology and neuroscience with Brigham Young University in Utah found that those who are more socially connected have a 50 percent reduced risk of early death relative to those who are less socially connected.

Dr. Dolores Malaspina, professor of psychiatry, neuroscience and genetics at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York makes this observation: “Humans are a social species with an innate biological drive to connect. Human survival depends on connectedness, with feelings of loneliness serving as a biological signal to socialize.” But what about Instagram? Who are all those pictures going to?

Well apparently, it is not just about the number of Facebook friends that I have. Studies show that meaningful, high-quality relationships have the greatest protective health effect. It turns out that a person can have only a few social connections and no Facebook account and not be lonely. Yet another person might have hundreds of Facebook friends and still be lonely. Loneliness is subjective. It is what you feel when you are not intimately connected with others.

The definition of loneliness is distress caused by a discrepancy between actual social relationships and desired social relationships. In other words, I feel lonely when there is a difference between what I want and what I have, in terms of friends. And we are wired to want friends who know us and care about us. Not just acquaintances who know us superficially and say they care, but then they really don’t know much about us. Do they?

A US News article notes that “social media may help explain why rates of social isolation and loneliness are climbing among youth, as popular platforms blur the lines between appearing – and actually feeling – connected,” according to Joshua M. Smyth, a researcher in the department of biobehavioral health at Pennsylvania State University. Over 42 million U.S. adults ages 45 and older suffer from loneliness according to a 2010 AARP article. When we think of lonely we picture an older person who doesn’t get out much. But this isn’t the only group of us that suffer from loneliness. Another survey conducted in 2018 by Cigna showed that Generation Z, adults between ages 18 and 22, maybe the “loneliest group of Americans.”

A recent article written by journalist, Amy Norton, also in US News, looked at young adults, ages 18 to 24.  Research discovered that approximately one-third of persons in this age group struggle with loneliness. In another report, a survey of 20,000 adults indicated that only 1/2 had meaningful in-person interactions every day. A similar list of health risks was cited including high blood pressure, heart disease, dementia, and depression. Environmental conditions were also cited as connected to loneliness and isolation, including poverty and unemployment. Conditions that affect the vast majority of people in our community.

So often people are afraid to be seen and heard. This fear can lead to avoiding people other than superficial conversations. This leads to loneliness and feelings of isolation.

Robin Joy Meyers was a successful mom and scientist. She had her dream job. She was “living the dream” in terms of family and security. So why did Robin feel like something was missing? Robin poured her heart out about feeling isolated. She didn’t have friends who knew and valued her. Robin shared that she was afraid to be seen and heard. She eventually realized that she was avoiding conversations.

I do not call you servants any longer, because servants do not know what their master is doing. Instead, I call you friends, because I have told you everything…
John 15:15

Hiding starts by not speaking your truth. By not telling your story. The more you stay silent the more fear takes hold of you. Robin had followed a path that others expected of her. A path that eventually led to feelings of fear and isolation.

The good news is that the researchers offered hope. “Spirituality and empathy help a person feel more connected with others,” said Dr. Jeste. “You know you are part of a much larger cosmos. You are never alone. There is something else besides you that will always be there.”

Professor Holt-Lunstad also found that while self-understanding is important, people fighting feelings of loneliness should not underestimate the importance of getting out there and interacting with others who share their values or interests. “Social connection can be thought of as a fundamental need for human beings, like food and water,” Holt-Lunstad added.

However, we all fear rejection and being judged. Putting ourselves “out there” is frightening. Again, there is good news. We have the ability through neural plasticity, to reprogram our brains. The brain can actually reprogram itself through changes in our behavior. You can overcome fears enough to tell your story — enough to be heard. More on this later.

And there is more good news. People want to hear your story. They are waiting for you to speak up. Next Sunday we will take a look at the science behind this desire to hear each other’s story. But this week our focus is on feelings of loneliness that are common among us. And the hope that comes from showing up. This includes showing up on Sunday mornings by the way.

Jesus told His followers that they had become His friends. How did this happen? Spending a lot of time together provides opportunity but we can work alongside others for years and not become friends. Jesus said, “I have told you everything.” In the text, Jesus connects what He has told His friends with that which God told Him. But the relationship between Jesus and God was so intimate that when Jesus spoke, God was speaking. Because Jesus shares this intimacy with His followers they became close friends.

This is where friendship begins and this is what makes friendship different than Facebook friends, Instagram friends or even prayer friends. It is in the storytelling that friends share with one another. When we tell our story we speak our truth. And when we speak our truth we allow for intimacy to take place with our listeners. This is how loneliness is eliminated.

Spirituality and empathy help a person feel more connected with others.

Don’t be lonely. Come join us. We worship each Sunday at 10:30 am. Come learn why it is important to tell your story and how to do so. I lead a short Bible study in the Asbury Café at 9:30 am. You can find more information about us on our website at FlintAsbury.org.

A Community in Love with God, Each Other, and our Neighbors.