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Stronger Social Fabric

6 The Effect of Loneliness on Health

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[1] “According to U.S. Census Bureau surveys, Americans have been spending less time with friends and more time alone since before the pandemic, which has only intensified the sense of social isolation,” states the description of the video [Why Americans are lonelier and its effects on our health](v=babsKhg76W4). “Laurie Santos, a Cognitive Scientist and Psychology Professor at Yale University, joins John Yang [on January 8th, 2023] to discuss the health effects of loneliness and what can be done about it.”

[2] Below is a transcript of their conversation. The author revised the verbal exchange for clarity.

[3] “People with robust social connections are likelier to live longer, healthier, and happier lives,” said John Yang. “But according to Census Bureau surveys, people spent less time with friends and more time alone before the pandemic. That only intensified the sense of social isolation and loneliness. Laurie Santos is a Cognitive Scientist and Psychology Professor at Yale University. Her Psychology and the Good Life class is among the most popular courses. She’s turned it into a podcast, The Happiness Lab. Laurie Santos, how pervasive is this problem in America right now?”

[4] “It’s pretty bad; it’s often discussed as an epidemic,” replied Laurie Santos. “Some surveys reveal that around 60% of people in the U. S right now report feeling lonely regularly. That’s pretty devastating from a public health perspective, right? That is worse than rates of obesity. Everything we know suggests that loneliness might be as big of a public health threat in terms of its effect on our bodies and our minds.”

[5] “What’s brought this on?” asked Yang. “Why, the pandemic, I think, aggravated it. Even before the pandemic, people were talking about this.”

[6] “If you look at rates of loneliness, there’s evidence that they’ve been increasing linearly since the 19 seventies, long before the pandemic,” said Santos. “That’s long before some other culprits, iPhones, etc. And so the evidence points to the fact that they’re probably many at once. But those things bring us a much more unhappy and isolated population.”

[7] “What are some of those causes that are running together?” asked Yang.

[8] “One of the big ones we don’t often think about is just time, right? People are busy,” said Santos. “People are spending more time at work. We don’t have enough free time to connect with the people we care about. There are also lots of other exciting demands on our time. Back in the 1970s, there wasn’t Netflix and all these video games and the kinds of things we could do ourselves to entertain ourselves. And I also think this social media wasn’t around in the 1970s, but it has a big effect. Our technology and theory are there to connect us socially. How often have you been to a restaurant and seen people not talking to the folks at their table because they were looking down at their phones? We’re increasingly connecting through our technology, which means missing out on the connections we can experience in real life.”

[9] “What are the health effects of loneliness?” asked Yang.

[10] “There are many surprising [health effects of loneliness],” said Santos. “Individuals reporting feeling lonely are likelier to experience things like dementia, heart disease, and stroke, which affects longevity. People who self-report feeling lonely are likelier to die than those who aren’t. Vivek Murphy, the current Surgeon General, estimates that long-term loneliness damages your health, like smoking 15 cigarettes daily.”

[11] “It used to be that much of this discussion about loneliness focused on older people,” said Yang. Retired people lose that social connection to work, or their spouses or partners may die. But are we seeing this more among younger people now?”

[12] “That’s the most striking thing, especially for me as a College Professor, of the current rates of loneliness among our young people,” said Santos. “So nationally, among college students, we see levels of loneliness around 60%, which struck me. These young students live on campus, often in the dorms with other students. Yet 60% of them reported feeling lonely most of the time.”

[13] “Talk about that,” requested Yang. “They were living in a group situation, yet they were lonely. Are they alone in a crowd?”

[14] “Yeah, I think interacting with their technology prevents connection in real life,” said Santos. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve walked into my dining hall and seen, you know, a crowd of students, each of whom has your big headphones on, looking down at their laptop screens and looking down at their phones. We’re missing out on the connection that can happen when you talk to someone in person and have that real-life social connection.”

[15] “What can people do to avoid this or if people are feeling lonely?” asked Yang. “What advice do you have for them?”

[16] “The first advice is to remember that it’s a common problem,” said Santos. “I think loneliness can feel stigmatizing. It can feel like there’s something wrong with you if you’re feeling lonely. If you realize that, you know upwards of 60% of people out there feel the same. You know, it’s not such a bad thing, right? You can admit to it; I think admitting you feel lonely is part of the first step. I think one thing to do is make sure you’re connecting with the folks you have in your life. One of the problems with being busy is that we don’t often take the time to connect with people. We care about our friends and family, but it’s as simple as picking up the phone to reconnect with them. I think there are also ways that we can try to make new connections. And this is something that I think we often forget to do right again. It’s too easy to stay in our house and watch Netflix. But you know, if you’re watching the basketball game, could you head out to, you know, a pub and watch that basketball game? Can you join a craft group if you do something engaging in knitting or even on a craft? Another big change we’ve seen since the 1970s is that these so-called third places, where people would meet with other friends, like bowling leagues. These things have gone away in the modern day, but we can bring them back. We can also act to make those kinds of collective social connections.”

[17] “Laurie Santos of Yale University,” said Yang. “Thank you very much.”

[18] “Thanks so much for having me on,” said Santos.


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