The loneliness epidemic

Social disconnection is far more widespread than previously recognized. On May 1, 2023, the United States Surgeon General Dr. Vivek H. Murthy declared loneliness a national public health priority. With approximately one in two adults reporting having feelings of loneliness, finding pathways toward reconnection is key in combating this social health crisis. 


The effects of loneliness are not solely mental or psychological. Loneliness triggers a sense of stress in the human body. When that stress persists for long periods of time, the body takes a physical toll in addition to a mental one. “That’s when [loneliness] can have harmful effects — increasing levels of inflammation, damaging tissues and blood vessels, and increasing our risk of illnesses like heart disease and diabetes,” Murthy said in an interview with Journalist Scott Galloway on The Prof G Pod.


According to a 2017 study published in “American Psychology,” chronic loneliness and isolation impact mortality rates at the same rate that smoking 15 cigarettes a day would. 


Beyond loneliness’ effect on the individual, the consequences of such rampant loneliness can be felt across workplaces, schools, homes and community centers. After a period of pandemic-driven isolation, reintegration into community spaces has not been smooth. 


Dorian Wiederholt Kassar, a speaker and facilitator working with young adults, and who has taught U period sessions with Urban students, said in an interview with The Urban Legend, “There’s a lack of cohesiveness in most spaces, which is scary. Everyone wants to get cohesive again, but it’s harder than it looks, especially after a collective trauma.” 


While the effect that the COVID-19 pandemic had on social connection is still being disputed, lockdown certainly weakened social skills. Returning to fast-paced school and work environments, like Urban, after a period of interrupted learning and limited social interaction can cause spaces to become more fragmented. 


“In communal spaces, there’s a big quantity of people being out of sync with one another and being misattuned to one another and their needs,” Wiederholt Kassar said. 


In fragmented and out of sync communities, investing in relationships becomes all the more important. In an interview with The Urban Legend, Kasley Killam, an expert on social health, said, “Developing strong relationships is a source of resilience and a resource to lean into when disaster strikes, like when a pandemic hits.” 


However, in the midst of impending climate catastrophe, political unrest and a slew of other pressing global issues, people may be wondering: what’s the point? This view is what Wiederholt Kassar considers part of the problem. “If we’re just on a ball spinning through the sky and the whole thing is meaningless, there’s no inspiration there. There isn’t a motivation to act,” he said. 


There’s a connection point between meaninglessness and loneliness; people feel lost when they don’t have a sense of purpose, which further alienates them from others. Dr. Jonathan Sherin, the previous director of the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health, determined that everyone needs three things: people, place and purpose. Everyone needs people to love, places to live and feel rooted in, but also a sense of purpose. 


Finding inspiration is key to finding a sense of purpose. Wiederholt Kassar recalled a small interaction with his meditation teacher that sparked a moment of inspiration for himself. “I was looking at the teacher, who’s been through hell, and it’s like staring at the sun, the amount of love he can hold. That’s inspiring to me. That gives me some juice to see that I’m doing something on the planet that’s meaningful,” he said. 


Certainly, finding inspiration and purpose cannot be done alone. In the face of a world filled with problems, someone’s reaction to this reality is often shaped by the people they are surrounded by.


“One of the factors that goes into whether people look at the challenges we’re facing and feel optimistic and motivated or totally dismayed and overwhelmed is their relationships,” Killam said. “Do they feel like they have people they can vent to and call when they feel stressed out? Do they have people that inspire them?” Finding camaraderie and connection with other people builds the foundation for which individuals can find their sense of purpose. 


Authentic relationship building is a lifelong process that requires investment. The intangibility of authenticity may seem daunting, but Wiederholt Kassar encourages pushing to establish personal safety to pave the way to be authentic. 


“We try to manufacture authenticity when we’re stressed. But authenticity is not something you manufacture, it’s something you are when the conditions are right,” he said. “Am I a safe place for myself to be uncomfortable, awkward and confused? The more true that is as a statement, the more there will be an authenticity emerging from that.”