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Recognizing Signs of Loneliness

Cigna recently conducted research on loneliness and its impact on our health. Despite the ease with which we tend to joke about being lonely, it can wreak havoc on our physical and emotional health. The Cigna U.S. Loneliness Index, which surveyed over 20,000 American adults, found that around 50% of Americans feel lonely sometimes, around 25% of Americans rarely or never feel as if they have someone who understands them, and the youngest adults now (Generation Z) are currently the loneliest generation.

Evaluating Loneliness

Cigna has a 10-question questionnaire assessing loneliness available to the public. To evaluate potential loneliness, consider some of its questions:

How often do you feel close to people? Feel left out? A key indicator of the level of loneliness you feel is how often you feel close to others as opposed to feeling excluded. The more left out and excluded you feel, the less likely you are to reach out to your friends and family, which reinforces your feelings of exclusion.

How often do you feel that people are around you but not with you? A sense of superficially being surrounded by others leads to stronger feelings of loneliness. Even taking small steps to feel more truly connected to the people you find yourself in contact with everyday – your coworker, the bus driver on your commute, the other members in your dance class – can help diminish the feeling that everyone else is around you but not connected to you.

How often do you feel that there are people you can talk to? Feel that there are people you can turn to? It’s not enough to have dozens of names in your contacts list or get tons of “likes” on your social media posts – you’ll still feel lonely if you don’t believe you could actually talk to or lean on select people in your network.

Knowing Your Risk Factors

After taking Cigna’s questionnaire, take stock of the following buffers against loneliness:

A strong social network/support system acts as a buffer against loneliness. To properly arm yourself against loneliness, engage in daily meaningful interactions with your social connections – spending a week catching up with everyone during vacation or the holidays is not a substitute for sustained communication. High quality family relationships and friendships protect against loneliness, as does being in a committed partnership with someone.

Maintaining good mental and physical health is another way to reduce loneliness. Research has also shown that advancing in age helps protect against loneliness.

Managing your daily schedule is an additional protector. Knowing how to allocate your time to various endeavors (which includes prioritizing connection and contact with your network!) gives you a sense of agency and helps you feel as if you are making good choices.

Also pay attention to these risk factors:

High social anxiety is a risk factor for loneliness. If you think this description fits you, please consider starting therapy to work on feeling more capable of engaging in meaningful ways with the people in your life. Giving in to feelings of social anxiety only makes it harder to break the cycle.

Noticing that you are overusing social media also makes you prone to loneliness. This makes sense – if you know you’re digitally engaging too much with the world and your friends, you’re probably aware that the quality of those connections is lower than what you’d experience during in-person meetups. Additionally, using text-based forms of social media (specifically Twitter in this study) was a risk factor for loneliness when compared to more image-based forms of social media like Facebook or Instagram.Reducing Feelings of Loneliness

Cigna suggests the following interventions for combating loneliness:

  • Regularly call family members or set up a recurring date to grab a meal with them.
  • Make an effort to engage in small talk with the people you may normally ignore in everyday life – the clerk at the store, coworkers you don’t normally talk to, etc.
  • Commit to a new activity that puts you in contact with new people – try the gym, an arts and crafts class, a cooking class, etc.
  • Seek out volunteer opportunities that match with your personal interests.
  • Get the proper amount of sleep each night unimpeded by tech use.

Bruce, L.D., Wu, J. S., Lustig, S. L., Russell, D. W., & Nemecek, D. A. (2019.) Loneliness in the United States: A 2018 national panel survey of demographic, structural, cognitive, and behavioral characteristics. American Journal of Health Promotion.

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