Back in 1966, the Beatles asked in “Eleanor Rigby” where all the lonely people came from and where they all belong.
Fifty-seven years later, the question remains just as pertinent and, in the estimation of U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy, even more urgent.
According to a report released this past by week by Murthy’s office, the United States is enduring an epidemic of loneliness. It damages both the mental and physical health of individuals who are locked in a cycle of loneliness, and it has larger ramifications for society. It helps feed political polarization, degrades communities and can lead to violence. On an individual level, it can result in adverse health outcomes, leading to a greater risk for heart disease, stroke and other conditions. The report says that social isolation can be as detrimental to someone’s health as smoking 15 cigarettes every day.
Murthy writes in the report, “Given the profound consequences of loneliness and isolation, we have an opportunity, and an obligation, to make the same investments in addressing social connection that we have made in addressing tobacco use, obesity and the addiction crisis.”
Of course, the enforced and necessary isolation that came with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic three years ago is one of the reasons Americans are now more lonely, but it’s just one of them. Consider that in the 17 years between 2003 and 2020, the amount of time people aged 15 to 24 spent with their friends in person dropped by an astounding 70%. Today, half of Americans say they have three or fewer close friends, double the number in 1990. And a mere 16% say they feel connected to their communities. A little more than 30% of Americans now live alone, and the number of households that have just one person in them doubled between 1960 and 2022.
Why are we so lonely? We are much more mobile than we once we were. It was easier to feel a strong attachment to a place when you spent your whole life there, and your parents and grandparents had a history there. It’s not as easy if your life takes you from Pittsburgh to, say, Atlanta, Detroit, and other points on the map, where you might spend a couple of years before being transferred or seeking a brighter opportunity elsewhere.
And that is tied with another point – Americans work pretty hard. We put in more hours than workers in other developed nations, and all the time toiling can take a toll on friendships and getting involved in activities outside the workplace. Murthy himself admitted in an essay in The New York Times that he was so consumed by his job when he was surgeon general in the second term of President Obama that he let friendships fall by the wayside.
We get married later in life or not at all, which are not in and of themselves bad developments, but that can contribute to loneliness. We have fewer children, too, or none at all. Social media and immersion in the online world have diverted people from face-to-face interactions, with people who spend the most time engaged with their devices experiencing more disconnection and loneliness.
Among the report’s recommendations are teaching children about the value of healthy relationships, rethinking how we use our devices and, in Murthy’s words, “creating a space in our lives without our devices so we can be more present with one another.”
John F. Kennedy, another 1960s icon, asked us what we could do for our country. Right now, it might be something as simple as joining an organization or calling a friend.
With what we see daily on TV and on our streets it is no wonder people are staying home and away from the public. We need to clean up our streets of drugs, panhandling,guns and miscellaneous general violence before those lonely people venture forth again.
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