The Cost and Pain of Loneliness
In our modern world, we appear to be connected at all times. Our phones, social media, and the rise of Zoom during the pandemic have all led to the ability to constantly interact with other people. At the same time, many of us have struggled with social isolation during the pandemic, resulting in new ways of reaching out to stay connected. Within all that is a realization that we seem to be working against the grain. While we have constant access to “connection,” it seems isolation is rampant in our world. Particularly for adult men, loneliness has been viewed less as a problem needing to be solved and more a prerequisite for modern life. How has this happened? What are the costs? What can be done about it? We can explore each of these questions in the hope to move all of us into a more supportive and caring society.
I remember becoming obsessed with this quote growing up: The cost of being a sheep is boredom. The cost of being a lion is loneliness. It was clear to me that only one of these is acceptable. I was taught from a young age to be a lion. In a world where specialness is rewarded, we are all reinforced for choosing the lonely life of a lion. Competition, attention, success, school, sports, dating. All of these factors lead to an implicit belief that we need to be special to be worthy. And while that specialness comes with a lot of benefits: success, adoration, money, esteem; it may have also come at a great cost. How often are we choosing financial success over meaningful connections? Many children grow up in an environment similar to mine, where attention is given to doing things independently. With that learning history, we are all primed for intentional and unintentional movement toward isolation. Because our culture rewards individuality and personal success, we are far more likely to live isolated lives.
The costs of loneliness and isolation are many. From a physical health perspective, studies suggest that social connectivity is a better predictor of longevity and overall physical health than our genetics. Loneliness also increases the risk of high blood pressure, smoking, stroke, cardiovascular disease, and obesity. Long-term physical health issues aren’t the only costs, however. We know that one population is at the greatest risk of social isolation: middle-aged white men. Suicide rates demonstrate the enormous cost of this isolation as a staggering 70% of suicide deaths are of white men. In a world where we are designed to be shamed for asking for support, it’s not difficult to see how much people are hurting. Even as we have enormous access to media, the enormous suffering so many are experiencing would indicate that loneliness is as serious a health problem as nearly any we’re facing. With all the numbers suggesting change is necessary, what can we possibly do?
Our world is set up for isolation while claiming that we’re more connected than ever. The data suggests otherwise. Countless stories of struggles in isolation during the pandemic suggest otherwise. The environments we’ve grown up and thrived underneath tell us it must be this way, that this is a success. Maybe the cost of being a lion is one that need not be paid. If you got to the end of your life, and someone came to you on your last day, giving you the opportunity to live one day of your younger years again, how would you spend the time? Working, getting ahead in your job, perusing social media? If you’re like me, you would reach out to those you hold dearest. You would spend time listening to them, giving them your full attention. You would tell those you love how special they are, how they change your world. You would hold hands and be quick to hug, to see people just as they are. Because it isn’t only sheep and lions in the world. It’s also children, siblings, and pets. The very connections that bring us into the world. Parents, best friends, those we admire and adore. And it’s possible that the change starts individually. If we are all scared to ask others for help and support, could you become a beginning? When we want those in our lives to rely on us, do we let ourselves rely on them? Ask for help, talk to the people in your life with openness and intention. All of these behaviors allow for another way of being. So many are struggling with loneliness in our isolated world. It’s in this place that we may finally know the meaning of reaching out to others and being reached out to by the ones we love.
Weiss, Avrum (2021). The High Cost of Men’s Loneliness. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/fear-intimacy/202111/the-high-cost-mens-loneliness
Written by Kara Thompson-Miller, Licensed Clinical Social Worker: January 2023 “Why is it so hard to like my body?”: A unassumingly complex question that has been asked by many clients in many different variations, but one that, nonetheless, tends…Read More
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