Loneliness, an American Epidemic
All humans are lonely sometimes. It is common to experience seasons of loneliness in life. Becoming an empty nester presents a transition from having young adults around the house to much more time spent alone. As we age and are left without a spouse we go from possibly decades of marriage to living by ourselves. Divorce presents the same challenge. These are common seasons of change.
In America, something else has become common. Social isolation has become a lifestyle for a large sector of the population.
In a study on Social Isolation in America by McPherson, Smith-Lovin and Brashears people were asked about their core network structures. From 1985 to 2004, the number of Americans saying there is no one with whom they can discuss important matters with nearly tripled. They have 1/3 less connection with neighbors and local community, putting more stress on their need for connection with close family members, particularly spouses and parents. “The number of people who have someone to talk to about matters that are important to them has declined dramatically… we have gone from a quarter of the American population being isolated … to almost half of the population falling into that category.”
Shankar Vedantam authored an article for the Washington Post which asserts that social isolation is growing in the US. “Americans go on 60 percent fewer picnics today and families eat dinner together 40 percent less often compared with 1965, he said. They are less likely to meet at clubs or go bowling in groups. (Robert) Putnam has estimated that every 10-minute increase in commutes makes it 10 percent less likely that people will establish and maintain close social ties.”
Two independent studies illustrate our need for relationship. Both UC Berkeley and University of Michigan studies indicate that social isolation is not only tough emotionally, but actually bad for our health. They conclude that adults who do not cultivate nurturing relationships have double the premature death rates as those who have frequent, caring contact with others. According to Robert D. Putnam in his book, Bowling Alone, having close and frequent connections with other members of a community makes an individual healthier. The data indicates that “social isolation is as significant to mortality as smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, and lack of physical exercise,” according to James S. House of the University of Michigan.
Loneliness Can Kill
In her lengthy article, The Lethality of Loneliness, Judith Shulevitz states that “Psychobiologists…have proved that long-lasting loneliness not only makes you sick; it can kill you.”
I once asked someone from Nigeria what the hardest thing about being in America was and he told me that the social isolation he felt here was terrible. He would rather have the material poverty of Nigeria than the relational poverty that we live in here.
In Nigeria, social isolation is not common. Unlike America, Nigerians know how to live in community. If you have enough food for yourself and someone comes to dinner unannounced, you have enough for two, no matter how little it is. You do not call to schedule an appointment with your friend. You knock on the door and sit and talk face to face. When you are in need, your friends gather around you because that’s what friends do. We would do well to consider the African proverb: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Unfortunately, Americans often prefer to go fast.
An African Story
In Alan Cohen’s book, Wisdom of the Heart, he tells the story of a tribe in Africa. It goes something like this:
When a woman in a certain African tribe knows she is pregnant, she goes out into the wilderness with a few friends and together they pray and meditate until they hear the song of that individual child. They recognize that every soul has its own resonance that expresses its unique flavor and purpose. Then the women attune to the song and sing it out loud.
Then they return to the tribe and teach it to everyone else. When the child is born, the community gathers and sings the child’s song to him or her.
Later, when the child enters education, marries, and passes through the initiation to adulthood, the village gathers and chants the child’s song. Finally, when the soul is about to pass from this world, the family and friends gather at the person’s bed, and they sing the person into the next life.
In the African tribe there is one other occasion upon which the villagers sing to the child.
If at any time during the person’s life they commit a crime or deviant social act, the individual is called to the center of the village and the people in the community make a circle around them. Then they sing their own unique song to them. The tribe recognizes that the correction for negative behavior is not punishment; it is love and the remembrance of one’s true identity.
You see, when you recognize your own song, you have no desire or need to do anything that would hurt others.
Donna Roberts has oft been quoted that, “A friend is someone who knows your song and sings it to you when you have forgotten it.” Those who love you are not misled by mistakes you have made or false images you hold about yourself. They remember your beauty when you think you are ugly; your innocence when you feel condemned; your wholeness when you feel broken; and your real purpose when you feel confused.
Good News and Bad News
I have good news and bad news. Statistics reveal that there is, indeed, a high degree of relational poverty in the U.S. This is bad news for those who desire to live in healthy, close community. Our culture scores an epic fail on the relational scale.
The good news is that there are many options for creating a new standard for living in healthy relationships. There ARE those who understand how to create healthy community. The skills are known and can be learned. There is great hope for living a life rich in strong connection with others. Do not despair!
What Can I Do?
The first step is to assess your own degree of relational health. Take this UCLA Loneliness Scale Score it and date it. Don’t get discouraged if your score is not as high as you had hoped. Remember, we come from a culture with poor relational skills. The key is to decide what you want to do with those results. Determine what you would like to change and seek out the many resources available to support you on that journey.
A great resource is the nine month Living from the Heart course beginning this October. I keep the group down to a cozy living room full and create lots of opportunity learn the skills necessary for growing healthy relationships. In a safe, non-judgmental environment people address issues of trust, intimacy, vulnerability, and letting go of personal control. They become aware of patterns that are no longer working in their life and find new options for creating the love and joy bonds that they so deeply desire. I utilize weekly instruction, group coaching, daily individual exercises, expressive art and writing, and many other tools to help you connect with others from the authentic places of your heart and spirit. Click here to learn more about Living from the Heart.
I encourage you to spend the time and energy to rate your current relational status, set and pursue your goals to rate your current relational status, set and pursue your goals to improve in the areas that are most important to you, and then return to the test again in a year and see how your score has changed. When you choose to make the journey with those you love at your side, you may not get there quickly, but you might be amazed at how far we can go together!