When you start to feel down, a lot of people will suggest that you get out of your house and be around other people. That can be hard to do when you’re super depressed, even when you know that feeling lonely and isolated often makes any case of the blues even worse. Well, a new study suggests that loneliness is definitely a cause of death for people and confirms previous research that being lonely is just as bad for your health as obesity or smoking.
The new study, done by Christina Victor of Brunel University in London, also suggests that there are some things people can do to prevent loneliness, but overall, it’s not an easy public health issue to solve, since you can’t tell someone is lonely unless they tell you.
In other words, you should take your persistent FOMO seriously and talk about it when it makes you feel awful.
Victor began her study thinking about how there are PSAs in Britain around the holidays that urge people to go visit their elder family members or neighbors during the holidays so that they don’t feel left out. But with research she found that old people — who we tend to think of as more lonely than others since they can often be confined to their homes and no longer socialize the way they used to — are actually more lonely in summer than during the holidays.
It’s actually pretty logical: Around the holidays, there are more things going on and often an increased flow of people stopping by. There are party invitations and holiday cards stuffed in the mailbox. People come out of the woodwork during the holidays. But the summer can be really lonely, given that people go away and do their own thing on vacations and work schedules become a little more lax and unregulated than usual. It’s easy to slip into a summer funk, no matter what your age.
Victor’s research shows that there are a lot of misconceptions about loneliness, defined as a major discrepancy between your actual social contact and your desired social contact. There’s a difference between being alone and feeling lonely. There are tons of people in the world who are just fine on their own, amusing themselves with no desire to increase their interactions with other people. So you shouldn’t feel sad every time you hear that an older woman lives alone with her cat or see the same man sit in the coffee shop all by himself, every day.
Not all old people are lonely. Not all people who live alone are lonely.
Actually, you can also be young, surrounded by people, and still feel super lonely. If you’re sitting home alone on Saturday night and loving your Netflix binge, that’s great. But there are tons of other people who are sitting home alone and really wishing they had someone to talk to or hang out with. According to experts, strangers really aren’t great at making us feel less lonely; They can even make it worse in some cases. The best cure for loneliness isn’t just to buck up and get better at being alone, though that can be part of it. Connecting with people you love and nourishing your relationships is a much better way to chip away at those lonely feelings.
So what makes loneliness so unhealthy?
According to a 2015 study, feeling lonely can have real physical effects. A meta analysis of studies done at Brigham Young University found that people who are lonely have higher risks of heart disease and infection and had a 50 percent risk of early death as compared to those with “good social connections.” For comparison’s sake, obesity raises the chance of dying before 70 years old by just 30 percent. Another study done by Harvard University found that having fewer than 20 friends raised your risk of stroke. Yikes, right? It’s a real physiological response, according to Forbes:
So it’s not like loneliness kills you, but in the same way that chronic stress can affect your body, loneliness can really wear your organs down. Aside from the physiological reasons, loneliness can have an indirect effect on your mental and behavioral health. Even *perceived* loneliness can affect your health. Loneliness is correlated to depression and anxiety, and by extension, is connected to suicide. On the other hand, the more you’re alone, you might pick up bad habits like binge eating, drinking, or smoking, all of which also add to your mortality rate.
In Britain, they’re treating loneliness like an “epidemic,” according to the Telegraph. Laura Alcock-Ferguson, Director of the Campaign to End Loneliness, said of her work:
That means making sure people of all ages have access to social outings and events, or even sending volunteers to people’s homes to visit, since some elderly people go weeks without seeing anyone at all. But don’t write off your own loneliness just because you’re young. It happens to everyone, remember?
The next time you get a legit pang of FOMO and feel super alone, don’t feel like you’re overreacting or being crazy. Call a friend and talk about it, since it’s likely they can relate too hard to what you’re talking about even if they don’t bring it up because it feels sort of embarrassing. For some people, even just wrangling the friends you can’t see all the time into a group chat can help, too. You can blame it on science and tell them that incessant GIFs and texts is just better for everyone’s health. Hey, there’s no science proving that’s not true.