Loneliness Can Kill You — The 21st Century Nightmare

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loneliness epidemic

Human beings are social animals. We thrive in company and die in isolation.

Why then are we lonelier now than ever before? In an age when humans have never been more connected?

To answer this question, an extensive research was conducted by the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) on loneliness, and their findings have shocked the world.

According to this national survey, 35% of the American population above the age of 45 are chronically lonely, with 4 out of 10 of them suffering in silence for more than 6 years. That is an estimated 46.5 million adults.

And that is just in America.

Rise Of The Loneliness Epidemic

loneliness epidemic

Anthropologists and animal biologists know that when you isolate members of a species that is inherently social, the individual starts to become more focused on his personal survival at the cost of the greater good of the tribe.

Human beings are no different.

When we feel isolated, abandoned by our family and friends, and excluded from the social structure, the urge to survive takes over, and we function mainly through the primitive, fear-based parts of our brain.

This increases hostility towards others, impulsiveness, anger, and anti-social tendencies, while decreasing our cognitive abilities and general health.

After all, why should we take care of ourselves (or others) when no one seems to give a damn about our well-being?

In fact, this need for social validation and acceptance is so inherent in our species that when researchers tried to figure out why orphanages had an extremely high infant mortality rate (30-40%), they discovered that babies who were not nuzzled and cared for enough usually died even if they received adequate nourishment.

But is this need for socializing simply a fluke of nature? Or is there something deeper at play here?

The Link Between Human Intelligence And Social Skills

loneliness epidemic

Human beings evolved from apes. But only our species, the Homo sapiens, managed to grow and establish our dominance over this planet.

The reason why we succeeded while all others failed is because our brains started to grow with every passing generation. A growth that did not make any sense physiologically (since larger brains need more fuel to survive), but which made perfect sense when you realize it is the reason why our species thrived.

Why?

Because with the growth of the neocortex we could do things no other animal could do. We could form social structures based on communication of ideas and experiences. We could enunciate sounds (words) that articulated what we had on our minds. And we could pass on our knowledge to the next generation that protected them from follies.

Someone died after eating an unknown berry? Tell the rest of the tribe so no one else does.

But this mode of communication was too slow and fraught with dangers caused by miscommunication and fading memory.

And then came the advent of the written word.

We could immortalize our thoughts on paper (or sheepskin) and pass on our knowledge to generations beyond our immediate sons and daughters. We could write books and know our words would not get twisted. And so we advanced faster with every passing century.

And then came the Age of the Internet.

Is it truly a fluke of nature that we have accomplished more in the last 20 years than the combined effort of the human race in the last 1000 years?

We thrived and established our dominance over this planet because we were social. We could communicate our ideas, form cultures and traditions, and protect each other.

We were formed on the concept of together we stand and divided we fall.

Is it so difficult to see why this loneliness epidemic is so alarming for the vitality of the human race?

Why Are We Lonely?

loneliness epidemic

After poring through sheaves of data collected during the survey, the researchers of AARP realized that people who were younger and earned less income were significantly lonelier than their older and more affluent counterparts.

Makes perfect sense considering the fact that our society values income as a mark of status in the group hierarchy.

Furthermore, they discovered that 51% people who had never married in their life were lonely as compared to 29% of those who were. But gender, race and education had no impact on this phenomenon.

So what are the implications of these numbers?

The Way We Cope With Loneliness

loneliness epidemic

When a social animal finds himself isolated, he lives in flight-or-fight mode. Survival is the only concern on his mind. And that's exactly what happens to lonely individuals.

Because they perceive that they have been abandoned by the rest of the human race, lonely people tend to isolate themselves even more.

They do not attend religious services, meet friends or family, volunteer or even spend time on things they love to do.

In short, they stop caring about themselves or the people around them.

So they eat more, sleep more, watch more TV and abuse substances to give them the dopamine high they do not receive from their surroundings, which is the main reason why they have 50% increased chances of dying younger as compared to their non-lonely counterparts in the same age range.

And social media makes it no better.

The Dangers Of Social Media

loneliness epidemic

The Internet may have brought knowledge within the reach of the average man. But it was social media that let him know the triumphs and tragedies of another average Joe from across the globe.

Social media was the reason why India (and the rest of the world) watched in horror as Donald Trump was elected President of the United States.

Social media was the reason why people who don't watch regular news knew about the attacks in Charlie Hebdo in Paris.

Social media is the reason why a young girl in Ghana knows about Kim Kardashian.

But social media is also the reason why half of us feel like everyone around us is living amazing lives while we drudge through our days like zombies. The reason why we get an adrenaline rush when the number of likes on our profile picture shoots up quickly. And why we get depressed when we realize no one cares about the things we share on our Facebook walls.

Researchers have documented the effect of social media on our brains. And we now know that the dopamine rush we get while engaged on a social media channel is similar to the rush we get when we smoke, drink or abuse drugs.

Knowing this, is it really surprising to know that the suicide rate among teenage girls (and boys) aged 15-19 has spiked to an all-time high in the last 40 years?

Together We Stand: Combating the Loneliness Epidemic Together

loneliness epidemic

Studies have shown that teaching lonely people how to socialize is the least effective way of managing loneliness. Instead, talking about their feelings and expressing why they have low self-esteem to an audience that genuinely cares is the best way to treat this problem.

So if you, or someone you know, is lonely then the following steps can help you combat it effectively:-

#1 Connect With Friends And Family

Every one has two kinds of families - those through blood, and those forged through bond. So if your blood family doesn't care about you, or is highly unsupportive, reach out to your friends for support. And the same applies the other way round.

The basic idea is to connect with those you know truly care about your well-being.

#2 Reduce Your Social Media Engagement

Just like drinking alcohol in moderation does not hamper your life adversely, limiting your time on social media channels can drastically improve your life in "reality".

It's all about knowing how much is too much.

#3 Listen More

Given the state of the world, there is a big possibility that the person you talk to in the gym, or interact with in the workplace is lonely. That means you are not alone.

So if you want to be heard, learn to listen first. You will be surprised how kind people can be when they realize someone genuinely cares to know what they think in a world where everyone is just waiting for their turn to speak.


#4 Share This Information

Ignorance is never bliss.

So if you found this article useful, please share it with your friends and family to help spread the awareness.

You never know who you might help out that way.

Read Next: Excess Smartphone Usage Bad For Mental Health

Read more about: mental health, social media
Story first published: Tuesday, August 8, 2017, 15:04 [IST]
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