Human beings are social animals, in general. We tend to seek the company of others, to desire and build community, to augment or sometimes substitute blood family for family-by-choice. A lot of us don’t really like being alone, for any stretch of time.
Social connection — our relationships and interactions with family, friends, colleagues, and neighbors — matters to us in ways we don’t necessarily fully grasp or appreciate. According to a 2023 report from the Centers for Disease Control, social connection is a critical and “under appreciated contributor to individual and population health, community safety, resilience, and prosperity.” According to the CDC, lack of social connection can increase the risk of premature death in the same way as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. The problem, the report continues, is that lack of social connection, or loneliness, is reaching epidemic proportions in the United States:
Recent surveys have found that approximately half of U.S. adults report experiencing loneliness, with some of the highest rates among young adults. These estimates and multiple other studies indicate that loneliness and isolation are more widespread than many of the other major health issues of our day, including smoking (12.5% of U.S. adults), diabetes (14.7%), and obesity (41.9%), and with comparable levels of risk to health and premature death. Despite such high prevalence, less than 20% of individuals who often or always
feel lonely or isolated recognize it as a major problem.
Here’s some of the data. The CDC reports that from 2003 to 2020 social isolation (measured by the average time spent alone) increased by 24 hours per month. Household family social engagement (doing social stuff with family you live with) declined by 5 hours per month, companionship (participating in shared leisure activities, like participating in a bowling or golf league) declined by 14 hours per month, social engagement with friends plunged 20 hours per week, non-household family social engagement dropped by 6.5 hours per week, and social engagement with others (such as co-workers or neighbors) fell by 10 hours per month.
So what’s your take on all this? A lot of us cherish our alone time, but according to the CDC, time alone is a slippery slope to loneliness and all the negative health, emotional, and social effects that come with it. What is your experience of being alone, and what is your experience of loneliness. Take a look at the two quotes below. Do these sentiments resonate with you at all?
- “Loneliness is my least favorite thing about life. That thing that I’m most worried about is just being alone without anybody to care for or someone who will care for me.” — Anne Hathaway
- “If you meet a loner, no matter what they tell you, it’s not because they enjoy solitude. It’s because they have tried to blend into the world before, and people continue to disappoint them.” — Jodi Picoult
Religion News Service writer Dwight Lee Wolter has a very different take on the questions of loneliness, however:
Loneliness is not necessarily a state of depravity that requires a cure. Loneliness is not a sin or a weakness, even if the surgeon general calls it a disease. The eradication of loneliness is not always necessary or possible — or even desirable. Indeed, there is much to be learned from loneliness: companionship, prophecy, solidarity, fun and freedom — even creativity.
Without loneliness, we would not have the lessons of Isaiah about the lonely exile. Hildegard of Bingen wrote that, without loneliness, she would not have discovered freedom through contemplation that erases the separation between the seer and the seen and that closes the gap between an authentic and inauthentic self.
Countless beautiful songs, poems, psalms, hymns and liturgies were born of loneliness. Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa and many spiritual leaders of various faith and nonfaith traditions wrote about loneliness and its beneficial effect on their lives. Dorothy Day wrote her book “The Long Loneliness” out of a deep and personal experience with loneliness that did not disempower her soul, but rather helped create a fierce spirit of commitment and community.
Wolter goes so far as to suggest that even God gets lonely. Why else would God, at least in Hebrew and Christian scripture, create humankind in God’s own image?
We’re going to discuss all of this in our conversation tomorrow evening, and probably a lot more. Join us for the discussion starting at 7pm at Casa Real in downtown Oxford.