Scientists, philosophers and psychologists have tried to figure out what makes humans happy and healthy since time immemorial. Most have assumed good genes play a role in achieving these goals, but it seems study after study has proven everyone wrong. One of the best things we can do to be happy and healthy is to avoid social isolation and loneliness.
Psychology Today reported that scientific evidence has proven that loneliness and social isolation could have serious health consequences. Psychiatrist Robert Waldinger, director of the ongoing Harvard Study of Adult Development begun in 1938, said in his viral TED Talk on happiness, “loneliness kills.”
Yet since Waldinger gave that talk in 2016, tech has moved forward by leaps and bounds. Many believe we’re more connected than ever before now thanks to increasingly sophisticated social media and virtual platforms that let us converse face to face. After all, these tools got us through the worst of the pandemic, right?
How Technology and Social Media Can Contribute to Loneliness
It seems Americans are lonelier than ever today. A new study from health insurer Cigna puts the number at 58 percent of U.S. adults and nearly 80 percent of people aged 18 to 24 — and no, we can’t blame it on Covid. These numbers match pre-pandemic levels in America.
The New York Times called it a loneliness epidemic this spring. Despite staying connected via smartphones, social media, video calls and chat apps, we still feel more lonely than ever. Research has shown constant virtual connections often intensify feelings of loneliness and isolation and exacerbate mental health issues such as anxiety and depression.
As Stanford University psychiatrist Elias Aboujaoude explained to CNET, “The time and energy spent on social media’s countless connections may be happening at the expense of more rooted, genuinely supportive and truly close relationships.” That helps explain why loneliness continues to rise in the U.S. and many other places worldwide, or why we can be lonely at work, with friends, in a group or even in a crowd.
Why Loneliness Matters
Loneliness can have negative effects on our physical and mental health. But as a wellness consultant to small- and mid-sized businesses, what I find most stunning is the fiscal side of this equation. The impact loneliness has on our bodies and brains adds up to an economic cost to society — and it trickles down to impact us as individuals and business owners.
Consider these stunning numbers: AARP found older adults who lack social contact cost Medicare $6.7 billion more annually, and a Cigna study found lonely workers cost employers more than $154 billion annually in avoidable absenteeism and turnover intention. Bottom line, loneliness compromises us personally and professionally.
What We Can Do About Loneliness
More than anything else, close relationships bring people lifelong happiness, the ongoing Harvard Study of Adult Development has shown. So, we must take loneliness as a sign; there are repercussions, so when we feel lonely, we must do something to change it.
5 Ways to Prevent Loneliness Personally and Professionally
Here are some ways to alleviate loneliness before it impacts your health and well-being personally and professionally.
1. Intentionally create a community at work.
Loneliness takes a toll not only on our mental and physical health but also on our productivity. As a leader, fostering community at your business or with your colleagues is not only the right thing to do, it makes financial sense. Some community-building strategies include getting back together in person, starting support networks, encouraging and streamlining collaboration and communication, improving the support your company offers team members, and offering more personal and professional growth opportunities.
2. Focus on the right friends and strengthen those relationships.
Choose friends wisely. A new study has found that loneliness can hit at any time in life, and it’s not necessarily linked to having no friends. Instead, you may not have the kind of friends you want. Eliminate toxic relationships from your life and nurture existing relationships that are meaningful; strengthening them can be a good way to combat loneliness.
3. Find activities that support connections.
As a leader, make sure your company offers opportunities for team members to engage in community service, nonprofit work and group classes of all kinds, to improve both personal and professional skills. As a global wellness advocate, I believe there’s no question that well-being is a lifestyle priority. Connecting with others helps you have greater self-awareness, keeps you focused and can help build resilience when dealing with stress.
4. Say ‘hello’ first.
Don’t wait for an invitation; be that person who introduces themselves by name and takes the initiative to invite someone to have coffee or take a walk. Do it wherever you go — at conferences, classes, parties, while traveling and more. Studies have shown that talking to strangers can make us not only less lonely but also happier, more connected to our communities, mentally sharper and more optimistic according to The Atlantic. As a practicing yoga therapist, it’s my favorite pastime because friendliness and kindness are foundational principles of yoga.
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5. Practice self-care.
The benefits of taking care of yourself, getting out and enjoying nature, and making time to connect with friends face to face can’t be overstated. Focusing on your emotional and spiritual self-care is important, even critical. Your best option to make sure you really follow through is to develop a personal self-care plan.
Perfecting connecting is essential, and it’s not a complicated process. You have to go out and spend high-quality, unplugged time with yourself and others. Although it does take practice, when you build good relationships, you’ll enrich your mental and physical power to create a happier, healthier life.