Did you know that loneliness is considered a major health issue? It’s true.
There are now calls to treat it as seriously as smoking and obesity because there is evidence to suggest a link between loneliness and an early death.
Due to the fact that we are, by nature, social animals, prolonged feelings of loneliness can be devastating to our health.
As such we have come up with several ways to reduce feelings of isolation, all of which have positive and negative aspects. Here are five major ways in which we may try to stave off loneliness.
Recent studies have built on a body of existing research that says television really can help us feel less lonely.
Psychologists, dubbing the phenomena as “social surrogacy,” have observed that people are not only more likely to watch their favorite TV shows when they feel lonely, but actually will use this as a means to make themselves feel better.
In a recent test, subjects were asked to recall a fight they had with a loved one, in effect to create feelings of low self-esteem and isolation. They were then given a choice of whether to write about a TV show they loved or one they hated.
Somewhat unsurprisingly, subjects were more likely to write about the shows they enjoyed.
They were also more likely to report purposefully seeking out enjoyment from watching their favorite program after experiencing a (simulated or real) fight.
The TV shows acted in a way to buffer their emotional hurt and allow them a feeling of social belonging.
Moreover, separate studies have suggested that for those people who find social interaction difficult, television programs can in fact help to facilitate better understanding of social cues, like facial expressions and the linguistic graces more socially aware people would take for granted.
There’s a downside of course. There are some startling statistics on the casual links between television watching and poor overall health. More than that though, people who use television as a means of social surrogacy may become reliant and miss out on fostering better relationships with those around them.
2) The Internet & Social Media
It seems hardly a week goes by without a scare story in the press on how the Internet and social media is banishing face-to-face interaction. We are meant to assume that’s a negative thing. Actually, it might not be.
Businesses have reported advantages to cutting out the “messy” sides of in-person interaction, cutting misunderstandings that can happen when face-to-face.
Moreover, college students and teenagers surveyed for a number of recent studies have said that social media allows them a greater reach in their social circles, providing them with ways to stay connected even over long distances.
Negatives do exist, however.
Though studies have shown some people do turn to it for comfort, social media isn’t a cure for loneliness.
There’s also the phenomena of “Facebook depression.” The science of it is still disputed, but certainly some young people have experienced that not feeling the love on social media sites can be emotionally distressing. We also know of the distinct isolation effect of online bullying.
One thing to have emerged from the research into social media and its impact on our lives seems to be it is the quality of our interactions, and not how many “friends” we have, that determines whether we are enriched by this relatively new form of communication.
Image credit: ivanpw.
There is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that religion has a particular appeal to the lonely.
There is even some evidence to suggest a correlation between religion and dealing with feelings of loneliness. While some may find the idea of an omnipresent, all-knowing being constantly shadowing you unsettling, it is easy to understand why the lonely may be more likely to seek out supernatural comfort to assuage their isolation.
The main draw of religion for the lonely may not in fact be the promise of a loving god or an afterlife at all, however.
Rather, religion may have social benefits: with choosing a religion often comes a community that is willing to accept those who share their beliefs. Indeed, religion’s power to form what are essentially tribes may be one of the reasons why it has survived evolutionary whittling, though this is one of several theories.
However, religion can be used to isolate others and make them feel lonely. So-called “spiritual warfare” has been used to disfranchise several groups of people, a couple of recent examples being people of color and the LGBT community.
Image credit: aronki.
Lonely people may use their relationships with their pets to replace the human interaction they are lacking.
There’s one area in particular where we know pets can be helpful in dealing with loneliness.
For senior citizens, having a four-legged friend can help to fend of feelings of isolation. It’s not a cure-all by any means, but there is evidence to show that a pet can be a delightful companion when those in the elder community are no longer able to enjoy the social activities they once relied on. There are also a number of other health benefits associated with pet ownership.
However, it can be that we also develop unhealthy attachments to our pets, especially if we’re lonely.
Involving ourselves with our pets to the exclusion of human relationships can lead to deeper feelings of loneliness. The temptation to do this can actually be stronger after a bereavement.
Image credit: jpctalbot.
However, it has been established that one of the many causes of obesity may in fact be comfort eating in order to medicate ourselves against the negative feelings of social isolation and loneliness.
This is especially true of childhood obesity.
The dangers of a negative cycle — guilt over binge eating, isolation and then more binge eating to try and comfort ourselves — is very real.
Food literacy, that is to say knowing the content of our food, portion sizes and how often we should be eating and being able to discern when a healthy relationship with food turns bad, are all ways that we can enjoy our food and even indulge in that little bit of comfort without falling into negative patterns.
Clearly food, just like many of the above loneliness salves, should be used to add enjoyment to our lives and not in the long-term to replace the relationships we lack.
Image credit: John Loo.