NEW YORK — Over the winter I moved from New York City to Portland, Ore. The reasons for my move were purely logical. New York was expensive and stressful. Portland, I reasoned, would offer me the space and time to do my work.
Upon arriving, I rented a house and happily went out in search of “my people.” I went to parks, bookstores, bars, on dates. I even tried golfing. It wasn’t that I didn’t meet people. I did. I just felt no connection to any of them.
Once social and upbeat, I became morose and mildly paranoid. I knew I needed to connect to people to feel better, but I felt as though I physically could not handle any more empty interactions. I woke up in the night panicked. In the afternoon, loneliness came in waves like a fever. I had no idea how to fix it.
Feeling uncertain, I began to research loneliness and came across several alarming recent studies. Loneliness is not just making us sick, it is killing us. Loneliness is a serious health risk. Studies of elderly people and social isolation concluded that those without adequate social interaction were twice as likely to die prematurely.
The increased mortality risk is comparable to that from smoking. And loneliness is about twice as dangerous as obesity.
Social isolation impairs immune function and boosts inflammation, which can lead to arthritis, type II diabetes and heart disease. Loneliness is breaking our hearts but as a culture, we rarely talk about it.
Loneliness has doubled: 40 percent of adults in two recent surveys said they were lonely — up from 20 percent in the 1980s.
All of our Internet interactions aren’t helping and may be making loneliness worse. A recent study of Facebook users found that the amount of time you spend on the social network is inversely related to how happy you feel throughout the day.
In a society that judges you based on how expansive your social networks appear, loneliness is difficult to fess up to. It feels shameful.
About a decade ago, my mom was going through a divorce from my stepfather. Lonely and desperate for connection, she called a cousin she hadn’t talked to in several years. On the phone, her cousin was derisive: “Don’t you have any friends?”
While dealing with my own loneliness in Portland, I often found myself thinking, “If I were a better person I wouldn’t be lonely.”
“Admitting you are lonely is like holding a big L up on your forehead,” says John T. Cacioppo of the University of Chicago, who studies how loneliness and social isolation affect people’s health.
Most of us know what it is like to be lonely in a room full of people, which is the same reason even a celebrity can be deeply lonely. You could be surrounded by hundreds of adoring fans, but if there is no one you can rely on, no one who knows you, you will feel isolated.
In terms of human interactions, the number of people we know is not the best measure. To be socially satisfied, we don’t need all that many people. According to Cacioppo the key is in the quality, not the quantity of those people. We just need several on whom we can depend and who depend on us in return.
As a culture, we obsess over strategies to prevent obesity. We provide resources to help people quit smoking. But I have never had a doctor ask me how much meaningful social interaction I am getting. Even if a doctor did ask, it is not as though there is a prescription for meaningful social interaction.
Both Denmark and Great Britain are devoting more time and energy to finding solutions and staging interventions for lonely people, particularly the elderly.
When we are lonely, we lose impulse control and engage in what scientists call “social evasion.” We become less concerned with interactions and more concerned with self-preservation, as I was when I couldn’t even imagine trying to talk to another human. Evolutionary psychologists speculate that loneliness triggers our basic, fight versus flight survival mechanisms, and we stick to the periphery, away from people we do not know if we can trust.
One of the reasons we avoid discussing loneliness is that fixing it obviously isn’t a simple endeavor.
Even though the Internet has possibly contributed to our isolation, it might hold a key to fixing it. Cacioppo is excited by online dating statistics showing that couples who found each other online and stayed together shared more of a connection and were less likely to divorce than couples who met offline. If these statistics hold up, it would stand to reason friendships could also be found in this way, easing those whose instincts tell them to stay on the periphery back into the world with common bonds forged over the Internet.
Me? I moved back to New York.