“Everyone Desires Long Life, Not One Old Age” Jonathan Swift, early English satirist
My older son, Hoby, is a human performance expert (photo). One of his latest adventures involved engaging a panel on the topic of longevity. The surveys afterwards indicated that longevity is indeed of major importance to many. Some of the takeaways from the longevity panel are ones you might expect...like sleep and exercise.
One significant factor impacting longevity might surprise you, however. It’s the news of the day. And the panel Hoby assembled seemed to have nailed it.
Community. Yep. Hard to believe perhaps. You'll find out the reason shortly. Much of what people (like the longevity panel) are reporting supports the findings of the U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy. (I’ve just received his book, Together. He tells his own story of loneliness, depression, and recovery in the book.)
One of the better summations of the report comes from Dr. Mark Hyman, author of Young Forever. It’s entitled – THIS Makes You Young.
Dr. Hyman presents the following excerpts. I have also added in brackets some of my thoughts as well as a story about my father.
The Grim Statistics on Loneliness in the US
Scientists have been studying loneliness for a while now, and what they’ve found is as astonishing as it is disturbing.
First of all, studies have shown that close to half of all adults in the US experience loneliness on a daily basis—and that was before Covid. (One can only imagine what the numbers are now.) That means this issue is extremely widespread, with literally one-in-two people suffering from chronic loneliness. Dr. Murthy goes so far as to say, “Loneliness and isolation represent profound threats to our health and well-being.” That is crazy—but true!
Here are just a few of the insane statistics about the dangers of loneliness for you to consider:
· Loneliness increases the risk of premature death by 26 percent.
· Lacking social connection can increase the risk of premature death as much as smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day. You are literally healthier as a pack-a-day smoker with strong relationships than a nonsmoker living without a good network.
· Having poor social connections is linked to a 29 percent increased risk of heart disease and a 32 percent increased risk of stroke.
· Among older adults, social isolation puts you at greater risk of hypertension than diabetes.
· Speaking of diabetes, having a strong social support network has repeatedly been shown to improve overall health outcomes for people with type 1 and type 2 diabetes.
· Chronic loneliness and social isolation can increase the risk of developing dementia by approximately 50 percent in older adults.
· Loneliness and low social support are also associated with an increased risk of self-harm and suicide.
And as mind-blowing as these statistics are, they are just the tip of the iceberg. There are many, many more facts and figures in the Surgeon General’s advisory that are equally jaw-dropping.
The results are in: loneliness and isolation are among the worst possible things that can happen to a person. But why is this the case?
Why Social Connection Is So Vital for Health
In a nutshell, we are designed for community.
For the vast majority of our existence, humans have lived and worked together, side by side, in communities. Without living in community, earlier generations of humans would almost certainly have died—teamwork was an essential survival strategy. As the report so accurately states, “Social connection is as essential to our long-term survival as food and water.”
But in recent years, we’ve started to become ever more isolated from one another. Many of us live in homes with just our immediate families, or even by ourselves. We watch TV and movies at home. We do our shopping online from the couch. We can even get our food delivered to us without the need to ever see another living person.
We’ve also dived head-first into the world of screens. Americans spend an average of six hours per day on digital media. A third of US adults say they are online “almost constantly.” Eighty percent of people are on social media. While there are benefits to this technology (it allows us to be more connected to others on a global scale the likes of which we’ve never seen before), there are also drawbacks. It displaces face-to-face interactions, deteriorates our attention spans, and diminishes our self-esteem.
The result is we have begun to adopt a lifestyle that’s antithetical to who we are as humans. Instead of physically living out our lives together in community, we’ve isolated and insulated ourselves from other people. This has led to the adverse health outcomes I mentioned above, not to mention contributing to the large-scale political and social division in our country today.
Practical Steps to Combat Loneliness—for Yourself and Others
The Surgeon General’s report has a number of recommendations for addressing the loneliness epidemic, most of which are aimed at government agencies and other large organizations. Coupled with the statistics I mentioned above, it might seem like this problem is insurmountable from an individual person’s standpoint. In fact, you might be wondering what—if anything—you personally can do about it.
I’m happy to tell you that while the government and other organizations have their own part to play in ending this epidemic, there is actually a lot you can do. And as individuals working together, we can even have an impact on society as a whole.
Here are some practical steps you personally can take that come from the advisory report itself. (And I wholeheartedly agree with all of them.)
Invest time in your relationships. Make time in your day to engage with friends and family in high-quality ways. Regularly reach out to them to see how they are doing.
Minimize distractions during conversations. Have the self-discipline to put away your phone or device when spending time with loved ones (it’s hard, I know!). This will dramatically increase the quality of the time you spend with them and the benefits you (and they) derive.
Seek out opportunities to serve. Make it a point to be more others-centric. [***] Help your friends or coworkers with a project. Mow your neighbor’s lawn if they can’t do it themselves. Call your parents or kids and ask what you can do to help them. Participate in service events in your area. Get involved with religious or community organizations in your neighborhood or city.
[In my opinion, one of the most important questions you and I can ask ourselves each morning is – “How can I be useful’? I have been a coach in various capacities now for several decades. I fear that we have encouraged a culture of ego and self-absorption which has led to anxiety, depression, despair, and hopelessness. One of the best ways to turn ourselves around is to consider how we can be useful …tapping into our particular resources and interests – which does take some self-awareness as well as other-awareness. It’s a win-win for everyone. One organization I know of Only 7 Seconds reminds people that it only takes seven seconds to send a short text which lets people know you are thinking about them.
I often remember my father when I think about how we can use our talents, interests, and resources. Dad had a severe heart attack when he was young – 49. The doctor said he would not live out the year. However, my father did a turnaround with his life. He could not do much physically, but one of the things that he could do was to call people on their birthdays, sing to them, and assure them that they were loved and that their lives mattered. Whenever I went out with him, it seemed like the whole world wanted to talk to him…and he to them. He must have had 300 people or more that he called throughout the year for many years. At his funeral, those calls were the main thing people mentioned to me through their smiles and tears – how they appreciated him…that sometimes his was the only call they received. We don’t need many resources to make a difference. And, btw, my dad lived 30 more years. His doctor died before he did]
Practice gratitude. Practicing gratitude is one of the absolute best things you can do for your health and wellness, but it can also help strengthen social bonds and improve relationship satisfaction. Plus the more you exhibit gratitude, the more likely it will rub off on others around you.
Reduce practices that lead to feelings of disconnection. Limit the amount of time you spend on social media. Establish healthy boundaries when it comes to dealing with unhealthy people in your life. Make it a point to spend more time with people and less time in front of screens.
Get help when you’re struggling. Regardless of how disconnected or lonely you might feel, you are not alone. Find a trusted friend or family or a good counselor to help if you’re struggling. And if you are in a crisis or having suicidal thoughts, call 988 right now.
Loneliness is an epidemic in the US [and in much of the world] that is out to destroy us, but we don’t have to take it lying down. We can stand up and fight by doing the very things that make us human—engaging with others as a community in healthy ways. I would encourage you to learn more about the epidemic of loneliness and find ways to reach out to others intentionally and with love and respect. Our lives might quite literally depend on it.
How might we stay young and journey together to The Good Life by taking the Surgeon General’s Advisory seriously?