We all know what things can kill us: smoking, drinking alcohol, not exercising, having an unhealthy diet, not getting enough sleep, the list goes on and on. But did you know that being lonely is just as risky?
In February of 2020, the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) declared, “Social isolation is a major public health concern.” Just one month later, the coronavirus pandemic forced people worldwide to deliberately isolate and distance themselves socially.
Dr. Julianne Holt-Lunstad, professor of psychology at BYU, studies the power of social connection on mental and physical health. Her research has built a body of evidence proving exactly what NASEM stated: that society should be very concerned about the risks of isolation and loneliness.
“Loneliness is associated with increased death by 26%. Conversely, another meta-analysis that included 148 studies, examined the protective effects of being socially connected and we found that social connection increases our odds of survival by 50%,” said Holt-Lunstad as she presented the 29th annual Martin B. Hickman Outstanding Scholar Lecture.
Her research also reveals that social isolation and loneliness are associated with greater incidents of major psychological, cognitive, and physical morbidities. Holt-Lunstad’s research is now focused on the relationship between the physical symptoms of loneliness and harmful inflammation.
The global pandemic exacerbated this already urgent health concern. Holt-Lunstad described it like this: “Loneliness was prevalent prior to the pandemic, but increased in prevalence and severity over the pandemic.” Individuals living alone and older adults seemed to be most isolated, but longitudinal studies showed that the pandemic increased feelings of loneliness among most people.
We take certain aspects of physical health seriously because there are national health guidelines. Recommendations from experts for how to eat, how often to exercise, how much sleep we need, etc. are taught in schools and by doctors when we get check-ups.
So if loneliness and isolation present serious mortality risks, why don’t we hear about it more often? Why aren’t there school programs like D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) teaching kids about the risks of isolation?
C.S. Lewis stated, “Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art… It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which gives value to survival.” Lewis’ point of view describes how many people, including public policy makers, perceive loneliness. Social connection can seem more like a bonus than a necessity, but meaningful connection with others can be just as important for mental and physical well being as drinking enough water.
Loneliness is our body giving a biological signal that we need to socially reconnect. Just like hunger and thirst remind us to eat and drink, loneliness reminds us how vital meaningful relationships are for our health.
Holt-Lunstad and her colleagues are working to find widespread solutions to the loneliness and isolation epidemic through public policy and regulation, but she emphasizes the importance of small actions that can improve social connection.
She and her colleagues ran a study during the pandemic in which nearly 4,500 participants were randomly assigned challenges to connect socially. Participants were told to perform one act of kindness for a neighbor once a week for four weeks. The study found that when individuals actively chose to reach out to neighbors in a positive way, they became significantly less lonely, social anxiety was reduced, neighborhood quality improved, and conflict reduced.
The results of the study showed that a social connection intervention can be performed with no resources or training; anyone can take action and improve the social connection in their life.
Holt-Lunstad concluded with an invitation: “All I ask is that you take a moment to do something kind for someone else, because our evidence shows that one of the best ways to help yourself is to help others.”
The Hickman Lecture is presented annually by a faculty member who received the Martin B. Hickman Scholar Award for being a distinguished faculty member whose professional contributions to the college emulate excellence. Learn from previous outstanding faculty members here.
Learn more about Julianne Holt-Lunstad’s research at julianneholtlunstad.byu.edu.