Putnams work is a classic on American Society becoming more and more disconnected and lonely. The research on physical illness and the associated mental illness and depression addresses why we, as civic participants in society, need to connect and help others do the same. Here’s an expert from the original article:
“Loneliness is a problem of epidemic proportions, affecting millions from all walks of life. But while its roots are complex, remedies may be within reach.
It’s been 17 years since Robert Putnam’s best-selling book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community sounded the alarm about societal changes driving new levels of isolation and alienation; by now, most of us know that loneliness isn’t a problem to be laughed off. Researchers warn that we are in the midst of a loneliness epidemic, and they aren’t being metaphorical when they speak of loneliness as a disease. Stephanie, 35:
“Since college I’ve lived in San Francisco, Paris, London, Shanghai and New York, and I’ve had to recreate my social family in each place. It’s hard. I force myself to reach out and say, ‘Hey, do you want to hang out with me?’ I’ve realized there really are nice people everywhere.”
Loneliness poses a serious physical risk—it can be, quite literally, deadly. As a predictor of premature death, insufficient social connection is a bigger risk factor than obesity and the equivalent of smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day, according to Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a psychology professor at Brigham Young University and one of the leading figures in loneliness research. And, she says, the epidemic is only getting worse.
New research is upending much of what we’ve long taken for granted about loneliness. More than just a mopey, Charlie Brown-esque mindset, loneliness causes serious hurt, acting on the same parts of the brain as physical pain.
And while past research has treated loneliness as a synonym for social isolation, recent studies are revealing that the subjective feeling of loneliness—the internal experience of disconnection or rejection—is at the heart of the problem. More of us than ever before are feeling its sting, whether we’re young or old, married or single, urban-dwelling or living in remote mountain villages. (In fact, some remote mountain villagers are much less likely to be lonely, as we’ll see.)
This is what makes loneliness so insidious: It hides in plain sight and, unlike smoking or obesity, isn’t typically seen as a threat, even though it takes a greater toll on our well-being. The need for intervention is urgent, says Harvard physician and public-health researcher Jeremy Nobel. “It’s time for PSAs,” he says. “Something like ‘This is your brain. This is your brain on loneliness.'”
Take the Fight to Loneliness
Once we understand the toll loneliness takes on our mental and physical health, what can we do to protect ourselves?
DO TALK TO STRANGERS
Small talk isn’t so small, so take the plunge and converse with someone beside you on the bus or in line at a store.”Just chatting makes us happier and healthier,” says Susan Pinker, author of The Village Effect. “We can feel much better after just 30 seconds of talking to someone in person, whereas we don’t get that benefit from online interaction.”
GIVE IT SEVEN MINUTES
According to the “seven-minute rule,” it takes that long to know if a conversation is going to be interesting. Sherry Turkle, the author of Alone Together and Reclaiming Conversation, acknowledges that it can be hard, “but it’s when we stumble, hesitate, and have those ‘lulls’ that we reveal ourselves most to each other.”
SCHEDULE FACE TIME
What does face-to-face contact with friends and family give us that virtual communication lacks? For one thing, it boosts our production of endorphins, the brain chemicals that ease pain and enhance well-being. That’s one reason in-person interaction improves our physical health, researchers say.
IF YOU CAN’T GET FACE TIME, CHOOSE FACETIME
Being there in person is always best, but video conferencing by Skype or FaceTime can help people divided by distance maintain the bonds they built-in person, according to researchers. Phone calls are the next best thing—hearing the other person’s voice is a form of connection—while relationships conducted primarily by email or text tend to wither fastest.
USE FACEBOOK WISELY
Social media isn’t inherently alienating, says Harvard epidemiologist Jeremy Nobel, but to create sustainable connections, it should be used purposefully. “If you’re just using Facebook to show pictures of yourself smiling on vacation, you’re not going to connect authentically,” he says. Instead, within the larger platforms, create smaller social networks, such as an online book club where you can share meaningful personal reactions with a select group of people.
BE A GOOD NEIGHBOR
Getting to know your neighbors yields more benefits than access to a cup of sugar when you run out. One study found that higher “neighborhood social cohesion” lowers your risk for a heart attack. So invite your neighbors over for coffee and offer to feed their cats when they go out of town. You’ll be happier and healthier for it.
THROW A DINNER PARTY
“Eating together is a form of social glue,” writes Susan Pinker in The Village Effect. Evidence of communal eating dates back at least 12,000 years: Sharing food was a way to resolve conflicts and create a group identity among hunter-gatherers long before villages existed.
Participating in the creative arts—from joining a chorus to organizing a craft night—helps us connect deeply without talking directly about ourselves, Nobel says. “A lot of people can’t find the spoken words to express their feelings, but they can draw them, write expressively about them, or even dance them,” he says. “When someone else pays attention to them and allows them to resonate with their own experience, it’s as if an electric circuit gets completed, and they’re connected.”
TALK ABOUT IT
When Julia Bainbridge struggled with loneliness as a single New Yorker, she started a podcast, The Lonely Hour, and found that just talking about her feelings made her feel less lonely. She was surprised to find out how many people felt the same way—and what a relief it was to know that she wasn’t alone in her loneliness. Whether to a podcast audience, a friend, or a therapist, we can all benefit from talking about feelings of isolation.
REACH OUT AND TOUCH SOMEONE—LITERALLY
Hugging, holding hands, or even just patting someone on the back is powerful medicine. Physical touch can lower our physiological stress response, helping fight infection and inflammation. And it cues our brains to release oxytocin, which helps strengthen social bonds.”