The social distancing we’re all practicing due to the pandemic has given rise to some alarming consequences: When we don’t socialize, our health declines. This was happening long before 2020, of course. But the pandemic has dramatically worsened the situation.
Researchers have studied people who feel lonely, and have noticed sharp downturns in their health. The National Institute on Aging says, “Research has linked social isolation and loneliness to higher risks for a variety of physical and mental conditions: high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, a weakened immune system, anxiety, depression, cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease, and even death.” Other studies add drug abuse, suicide, and alcoholism to the list.
Of course, people with many friends and relatives can also feel lonely—it isn’t necessarily the result of living alone. It’s feeling detached. Not cared about. Unloved. We literally need human connections.
Look at the world. We don’t set out to live far from other people. With rare exception, people form villages and cities. We build our houses close to one another. We long to connect, to know and be known. We gather, like ants, dolphins, or penguins. We are not naturally loners, like Jaguars, Wolverines, or Marine Turtles.
But despite being basically social creatures, some of us fall through the cracks. So many have joined this group of the un-grouped that many have called it a new epidemic. The Center for Disease Control quoted a report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) which points out that more than one-third of adults aged 45 and older feel lonely, and nearly one-fourth of adults aged 65 and older are considered to be socially isolated. That’s huge!
Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at BYU Julianne Holt-Lundstat studied tens of thousands of middle-aged people. She’s quoted in a TED talk by Susan Pinker, echoing these same concerns. Holt-Lundstat’s research shows that social isolation has a greater impact on our longevity than exercise, diet, marital status, doctor visits, heart issues, or weight. Simply having face-to-face contact makes a monumental difference. Even just taking a moment to speak to people you see during the day can impact your longevity.
So what are we to do? I see this as a two-pronged project. First, let us step up and address the loneliness of others. I’m guessing every ward or branch has people who feel they don’t fit in somehow. Some have fears and insecurities that keep them distant. Even some of the members you see every week are pasting on a smile, but feel terribly lonely inside.
Now that churches are slowly reopening, let’s not miss a chance to “bump elbows” with people, welcome the new ones, exchange numbers, and really get to know one another. Yes, taking the Sacrament is the most important part of attending church. But let’s not discount the importance of socializing with one another as well. Reach outside your usual circle of friends and notice those sitting by themselves, or standing alone in a hallway. Your kind voice could be a healing balm for them.
Let’s minister better than we ever have, knowing how many people are all alone in their homes. There are elderly folks whose children never call or visit. There are freshly divorced people, immigrants struggling with language, LGBTQ people who want to be in safe circles where they’re understood—the list is endless. We can call, send a note, drop off a treat, or arrange to serve in some other way. Genuine love is always welcome.
Second, heal thyself. If you’re the one who’s lonely, you can address it. Instead of waiting for people to welcome you to church, smile and greet people yourself. “Hi there, I’m new…” You can start a book club, enroll in a class, walk around the neighborhood and make friends, volunteer, invite someone over for dinner. Get two tickets to an event and invite someone else who seems lonely. In short, don’t just sit and despair; get moving.
Look at the people who found joy in the Bible and in the Book of Mormon. They courageously reached out to others. They served them. They forgot their own worries and thought of others. If you can embrace this attitude and refuse to feel neglected, you won’t feel lonely for long. Your phone might ring more than you’d like, your home might fill with more people than you imagined, and you might have to trim down an exhausting schedule. But you will definitely not feel unimportant in this world.
And let’s remember Elder Jeffrey R. Holland’s characteristic humor when he said, “No misfortune is so bad that whining about it won’t make it worse.” We need to stop whining (even quietly to ourselves), and follow Christ’s example of loving others.
No one knows what the future will bring. You may be the busy carpool mom right now, but life can turn on a dime, and your turn at feeling lonely could come tomorrow. Let’s all remember the Greatest Healer who is always there for us, always wanting to form a closer connection. Drawing close to the Savior can give us such warmth and assurance that loneliness can evaporate simply because we’ve chosen to place Him at the center of our lives.
And let’s look at loneliness not as an evil, but as a common condition. It can be a healthy feeling that teaches us what we’re missing in life. Closer examination of why we feel lonely could lead to making positive changes.
As Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf said, “Please understand that what you see and experience now is not what forever will be. You will not feel loneliness, sorrow, pain, or discouragement forever. We have the faithful promise of God that He will neither forget nor forsake those who incline their hearts to him.”
Perhaps we will be alone one day. But we can be among those who say they’re “alone but not lonely,” because they’ve filled their lives with so much giving. Surely you have neighbors you haven’t met yet. Let’s reach out and see if we can ease two aching hearts—theirs and ours.
Hilton’s books, humor blog, and Youtube Mom videos can be found on her website. She currently serves as an Inter-Faith Specialist for Church Communications.