How to Defeat Our 'Epidemic of Loneliness'

Photo by Sasha Freemind on Unsplash

It doesn’t come as a shock to say that we live in a time when people are more isolated than ever. We’re in an era where everything is at our fingertips. People don’t have to leave their homes to go to work, watch entertainment, order groceries, or eat from their favorite restaurants.

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Back in 2014, I wrote about a similar phenomenon going on in Japan in which young men isolated themselves from the world around them. They’re known as the hikikomori (withdrawn).

“Young men like Matsu turn into hikikomori because of the pressures of society or family expectations,” I wrote back then. “When Matsu wanted to choose a particular career path, his father wanted something different for him, something Matsu didn’t want. When his parents allowed their younger son to pursue the dream Matsu had for himself, he withdrew.”

Although our modern isolation in the U.S. is a little different from that in Japanese culture, Americans are withdrawing often by choice due to convenience and lack of connection. This isolation can lead to loneliness, especially for people who don’t have family close by, friends with whom they regularly connect in person, or a church family. This phenomenon has become enough of a problem that Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy has issued a report on what he calls “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation.”

Murthy’s report is epic; it clocks in at 82 pages. In the introduction, he relates how he began to hear people talk about feeling isolated nearly a decade ago.

“People began to tell me they felt isolated, invisible, and insignificant,” he writes. “Even when they couldn’t put their finger on the word ‘lonely,’ time and time again, people of all ages and socioeconomic backgrounds, from every corner of the country, would tell me, ‘I have to shoulder all of life’s burdens by myself,’ or ‘if I disappear tomorrow, no one will even notice.’”

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It’s sad, and there are obvious mental-health implications, but there are also physical problems that isolation brings. An Associated Press article that coincides with Murthy’s report details some of the detriments that loneliness can have for our health.

“The loneliness epidemic is hitting young people, ages 15 to 24, especially hard. The age group reported a 70% drop in time spent with friends during the same period,” writes the AP’s Amanda Seitz. “Loneliness increases the risk of premature death by nearly 30%, with the report revealing that those with poor social relationships also had a greater risk of stroke and heart disease. Isolation also elevates a person’s likelihood for experiencing depression, anxiety, and dementia, according to the research.”

Murthy brings up something for which government officials like himself need to take responsibility.

“In the scientific literature, I found confirmation of what I was hearing. In recent years, about one-in-two adults in America reported experiencing loneliness,” he writes. “And that was before the COVID-19 pandemic cut off so many of us from friends, loved ones, and support systems, exacerbating loneliness and isolation.”

It’s convenient to blame it on the pandemic when it was government policies at the federal and state levels that helped intensify isolation and loneliness among Americans. The initial “15 days to slow the spread” dragged on for months in some areas of the country, and many people still live their lives that way, ordering their groceries instead of shopping and Doordashing instead of eating out.

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Flashback: Japan’s Epidemic of Hikikomori

Of course, we can’t change the past, but we can do something about the present. How can we fix this epidemic? Naturally, across Murthy’s 82 pages, he offers suggestions, most of which call for government involvement and sound like meaningless platitudes:

The Six Pillars to Advance Social Connection

Pillar 1: Strengthen Social Infrastructure in Local Communities

Pillar 2: Enact Pro-Connection Public Policies

Pillar 3: Mobilize the Health Sector

Pillar 4: Reform Digital Environments

Pillar 5: Deepen our Knowledge

Pillar 6: Cultivate a Culture of Connection

Common sense tells us that a large portion of the responsibility for resisting isolation relies on individuals and families. It’s up to everyone to choose to interact with others — and not just in one’s peer group. Cross-generational personal interaction is crucial, too.

“In the past, most human beings have had daily contact with people of multiple generations,” pointed out Dr. Albert Mohler on his podcast on Wednesday morning. “The very old and the very young have often been in the very same house. And in between people who are neither very old nor very young, but instrumental in taking care of both the very young and the very old. And joy is found in the very old and the very young and all in between, sharing in one social context.”

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I’m blessed to get to be around multiple generations of family members on a daily basis, and that interaction is refreshing for a guy who spends his day working from home. I also lead a small group at church on Monday nights with people who range from their mid-20s to their early-70s, and we have terrific discussions week after week.

We’re not meant to be solitary hikikomori creatures. Even our cultural institutions are designed for us to flourish in community. Mohler explained this from a Christian perspective when he said, “From the very beginning of Christianity, from the very beginning of the experience of Christians, Christianity has been a communal, relational experience.”

I know plenty of people who only experience church online, and those people miss out on the rich community that the church offers in person. The same goes for synagogues, mosques, temples, and even civic organizations. The way we defeat this “epidemic of loneliness” is to interact in community with others — families, friends, church family — and not just our peers but across generations. We can beat this, but it takes effort and desire on each person’s part. Government can’t do it.

Community is good for everyone’s health, and it makes each one of us a better person.

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