How loneliness can kill you

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A few weeks ago Elizabeth Renzetti published an incredible essay in The Globe and Mail.  Titled “Life of Solitude: A Loneliness Crisis is Looming”, the essay is a fascinating and harrowing study of the psychological and physical effects of chronic loneliness.  It also reveals how surprisingly common loneliness actually is; 20% of Canadians describe themselves as continually lonely (in the United States the number is a staggering 40%).  That one-in-five number is sobering if you apply it to real-life human beings–imagine a group of 50 of your co-workers; now imagine that 10 of them are always lonely.  Renzetti’s essay is mandatory reading for anyone who works with people, be it in education, healthcare, or any comparable field.  You can read the essay here and I urge you to do so.

There are two facts I found particularly striking in Renzetti’s essay: (1) Loneliness is a health hazard.  Some studies suggest that loneliness is as great a long-term health risk as smoking or obesity.  Loneliness has also been linked to depression, anxiety, reduced immune system functioning, and suicide.  (2) People who suffer from chronic loneliness are usually ashamed of their condition and loathe to admit it; one psychologist interviewed by Renzetti suggests that loneliness carries a greater social stigma than mental illness.  Put simply, people are embarrassed to be lonely in a society that often regards loneliness as a sign of failure.

Social media doesn’t help, either.  In fact, it often exacerbates the problem by presenting people with a misguided impression that everyone else out there is having a great time while they languish alone with their computer.  Renzetti sums up the problem like this: “Talk to enough lonely people and you’ll find they have one thing in common: They look at Facebook and Twitter the way a hungry child looks through a window at a family feast and wonders, ‘Why is everyone having a good time except for me?'”

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