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Cruel summer

Loneliness plagues our social-media-drenched society, and summer is the season of greatest isolation

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Cruel summer
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This summer, as millions of Americans slather on the SPF and race for the beach, many others will be stuck at home, feeling lonely and forgotten as they aimlessly scroll through your happy Instagram photos. Put “loneliness of summer” into a search engine and you’ll find articles defining summer as “a season of intense loneliness and isolation. All your friends are on vacation for weeks at a time. … Ecstatic Facebook updates about festivals, BBQ’s and exotic holiday destinations only seem to rub your nose in the fact that you’re stuck at home.”

My pen pal Louise, who just went through a bad season herself, is one of the 9 million lonely Brits who admit to having bad summers and other lonely seasons as well. The 55-year-old from London told me she has fought with her adult son, looked for love in the wrong places, and wrestled with mental illness. Yet more than anything else, loneliness pains her most: “I crave company so much, but when I’m with people I find it so hard to talk. I could really use a hug.”

That 9 million figure comes from the U.K.-based Campaign to End Loneliness, which took a big jump in recognition when Prime Minister Theresa May recently appointed a “minister for loneliness.” It’s easy to dismiss such a title and such an idea: How can a government bureaucracy possibly have success in dealing with something so personal and private? But while solutions are not easy, the problem is real on both sides of the Atlantic.

Nearly 33 million American adults live alone, including a third of our nation’s elderly. Although living alone is not the same as loneliness, modern technology and working patterns leave some people depressed about their minimal interaction with other human beings—but too unhappy to do anything about it. Just last month, a survey of 20,000 Americans by global health service company Cigna revealed that 46 percent confessed to feeling lonely.

Millennials report feeling the least connected, but a 2010 AARP survey showed over a third of adults over 45 saying they were lonely: The survey noted that lonely adults were less likely than others to participate in activities that would help build a social network, like volunteering or attending religious services. So it’s worth considering the initiatives—from 24-hour hotlines to befriending classes to regular home visits—that the United Kingdom is churning out to help its disunited residents.

‘The world is filled with people with hundreds of friends on Facebook and thousands of followers on Instagram who feel profoundly alone.’

Louise received visits from “befriending” volunteers. She attended group discussions at the local mental health center and texted other lonely people on social media sites like Reddit, which is where I met her. She tried to cure her loneliness and found the therapies helped on some days. On others, she was back on the couch.

Some U.K. groups are turning the loneliness problem into a data-driven science. Dispatching volunteer “befrienders” to lonely, mostly elderly residents still remains the gold standard, but some groups have used survey data to develop heat maps that help locate the loneliest neighborhoods. Rather than waiting for self-referrals, the organizations target venues where they would most likely encounter lonely strangers in need of support, like hospital discharge rooms. Then they send in volunteers.

Befriending programs haven’t been around for a long time, so it’s hard to know long-term benefits. One 2017 study examining befriending interventions—where volunteers regularly met with people who struggled with distressing physical and mental conditions—showed they didn’t significantly reduce feelings of loneliness. Still, having someone nearby doesn’t hurt. Louise said having a befriender regularly visit her kept her from sinking into sadness.

On this side of the Atlantic, researchers believe as many as 60 million Americans are lonely. That’s no surprise given an aging population, later marriage, more divorce, and our addiction to social media. Gallup estimates that 43 percent of Americans have done some work remotely. Add in smart devices that ironically obviate the need to talk to anyone, bigger houses that keep neighbors at bay, declining civic participation, automated tellers, and online shopping—and before you realize it, required human interaction is at an all-time low.

When former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy was a practicing physician, loneliness was the most common pathology among his patients. He sees “a real increase in loneliness now compared to recent decades. … It is dangerous to assume that online relationships are equivalent to offline relationships. The world is filled with people with hundreds of friends on Facebook and thousands of followers on Instagram who feel profoundly alone.”

Research is confirming that loneliness weakens our bodies, ruins our productivity, and hurts our companies’ bottom lines. Social scientists in 2001 were the first to say loneliness had the same physical effects as obesity or smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Almost 20 years later, the list of maladies grows—increased rates of infection, cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes, dementia, and ultimately an early grave. A Harvard Business Review survey of 1,600 workers published in March found that the loneliest employees performed poorly, quit more often, and felt less satisfied.

BRINGING BACK INTERACTION isn’t so simple. Some American attempts: “LISTENforloneliness” (group therapy), “The UnLonely Project” (an outlet for creative expression), The Lonely Hour (a story-sharing, stigma-minimizing podcast), and “Cuddlist,” which offers cuddles and other forms of nonsexual physical affection. But lonely people I corresponded with online told me they were not impressed. “David” wrote about the cuddling service, “I ain’t paying nobody for a fake hug,” and Ellen did not “think a befriending service or anything like that would help me at all. It’s not real.”

Some healthcare providers are even beginning to treat loneliness as a medical condition. CareMore, a California-based subsidiary of healthcare provider Anthem, has started screening its elderly patients for loneliness. Last year, AARP set up Connect2Affect, an outreach program to help identify socially isolated seniors. So far, it only offers an online questionnaire and directs seniors and caregivers to type in their zip code to visit civic organizations nearby.

Most of these small programs still require lonely people to step forward. Only the group therapy service beckons a lonely person to do a rigorous self-examination and probe deeper into the reasons for his loneliness. The rest mostly put the onus on the lonely person to self-assess his loneliness, determine what works best for him, and seek it out for as long as he’s interested.

As I got to know lonely people like David and Ellen better, I started to understand the solution runs deeper than just supplying a listening ear. Ellen, a 24-year-old working in customer service in California, told me she needs help getting past small talk: “I can win over an old lady ordering a cake, but I struggle with in-depth conversations.” David, a 60-year-old writer in Illinois, longs for a companion besides his dogs: “I miss my sons. I miss having something to do all the time. I miss someone showing interest in me.”

Unsurprisingly, prisoners are lonely. “William” told me he wants a hug and someone to write to him: “Letters for me are nonexistent. They will bring joy into my existence, and light to my otherwise miserable days.”

ANTI-LONELINESS ORGANIZERS AGREE religious involvement and the social aspects of church help lonely people, but none of their programs has significant participation from church or religious organizations. A 2017 study by the AARP-sponsored Global Council on Brain Health found the least-lonely individuals generally meet regularly with friends in person, participate in intergenerational activities, and have a purpose in life. Church attendance would fill all the criteria, yet the study stops short of recommending religious participation or recruiting churches to help tackle loneliness.

On a brisk Friday night in March, I walked into Grace Presbyterian Church in Vienna, Va., for its semiannual women’s conference. Women greeted me warmly, took my coat, and ushered me into the fellowship hall, where I saw bright yellow daffodils, votive candles, and a strong turnout of Christian women eager to talk about loneliness—and not just in detached, hyper-spiritual terms.

One woman mentioned a brother who always left a pot of beans on the table every Sunday morning because he knew he’d never get a lunch invitation after church. Another told me her own loneliness prompted her to befriend a man at a grocery store who often stood in the longest checkout line just so he could talk to someone. A mother said she’d attended 10 churches in the last five years as she struggled to find authentic friendship.

Lydia Brownback, the conference speaker and author of the book Finding God in My Loneliness, said what’s critically missing in loneliness initiatives is a call for lonely people to switch their self-centered perspective to one of “curving outward” and finding a deeper meaning in their life. She added it doesn’t help that Christians still have a stigma toward loneliness: “Everyone’s lonely, but we call it different things, anxiety, depression, mental illness. We need to call it what it is.”

Nobody has done studies on the effects of Brownback’s “curving outward” idea, but it seems to have worked for at least one lonely person. After a month of daily chats with me, Louise’s mood started to lift. She now gets dressed, makes herself a breakfast of spelt toast and smashed avocado, and gets out of the house to visit a friend—no easy task for a woman who regularly spent days at home alone. Where once she would write me each evening, these days I rarely get a note from her—and that’s OK.

Out of all the lonely people I wrote to, Louise was the most consistent and the most interested in the lives of others—me included. She credits her online friends and the local befriender for keeping her afloat through the lonely stretches, but still, it’s hard to explain what changed: “It’s not that you feel happy or ecstatic, you just feel normal, you know? And the feeling of loneliness is just—gone.”

Juliana Chan Erikson Juliana is a correspondent and a member of WORLD's investigative unit, the Caleb Team. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and earned a master's degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. Juliana resides in the Washington, D.C. metro area with her husband and 3 children.


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