Vivek Murthy, who was nominated by Joe Biden, as the 21st surgeon general of the United States and became the highest authority on public health in the country, said, in early May, that loneliness can be as harmful as smoking. According to him, there is strong reason to believe that loneliness would increase the risk of anxiety, depression, heart disease, stroke and even dementia. Since then, various authorities have been asked to address the issue with the same urgency that other serious diseases, such as obesity and drug abuse, are debated.
It is estimated that about half of American adults experience loneliness on a daily basis, a situation that, it is worth noting, already haunted many people before the covid-19 pandemic.
Murthy came out armed with statistics and a series of scientific studies. According to one of them, loneliness increases the risk of premature death by 26% and social isolation by 29%. Another study, which discussed social connection, showed that the risk of premature death linked to isolation and loneliness is close to that linked to the consumption of up to 15 cigarettes a day, something as harmful as the dangers of obesity and physical inactivity. Loneliness has also been reported as one of the main triggers for self-harm. “Given the profound consequences of loneliness and isolation, we have an opportunity to make the same investments in addressing social connection as we did in addressing tobacco use, combating obesity and the addiction crisis,” said Murthy, who sees loneliness and isolation as threats to public health.
Some scholars compare the pain of loneliness to that of hunger, that is, as a biological sign that something is wrong. According to The Washington Post, one of the most widely accepted definitions of loneliness is that it is an anguish that people feel when reality does not meet their ideal of social relationships. But loneliness is not synonymous with being alone, just as being surrounded by people does not guarantee being immune to it.
Experts opine that since loneliness can lead to chronic stress and, consequently, a greater inflammatory response, it would leave tissues and blood vessels damaged. Scholars from the School of Medicine at the University of California and the University of Chicago, both in the United States, had already discovered complex responses of the immune system in lonely people and, among the abnormalities, that monocytes, a type of white blood cell that makes up one of the the body’s first lines of defence against infection, can appear drastically altered in socially isolated people. Immature monocytes, which can proliferate in the blood of lonely people, would cause inflammation and reduce the action of antibodies.
Psychologist Simone Mendes, who works with public health, observes that, currently, psychological clinics have noticed a considerable increase in people seeking treatment. “Complaints are commonly related to physical reactions, such as persistent pain, insomnia, relational conflicts, addictions of the most diverse orders and compulsions. But, when we deepen the demand, what becomes evident is that we are facing a generation that has been affected in its social relations”, reports Simone. For her, “although we live in a society with greater diversity and more possibilities for social experiences, the inability to achieve emotional balance, healthy living and lack of self-knowledge have favoured illness due to fear of abandonment and rejection, transforming relationships in a deregulating experience and using solitude as an outlet to escape anguish”.
FIGHTING THE PROBLEM
Simone mentions that there are ways for loneliness to be overcome and lists one of them: “helping people to validate the idea that being alone is a possibility of self-knowledge, of exploring one’s potential and that not always being alone is synonymous with failure and unimportant”. In addition, she believes that it is essential to “rescue the importance of good social relationships as a protective factor against mental and emotional illness”. She points out as an antidote actions of insertion in family, religious and cultural activities in the neighbourhood and in the community.
It is curious to note that, although the highest rates of social isolation include older adults, it is young adults who are more likely to report feeling lonely. “The rate of lonely young adults has increased significantly. My experience shows the influence of urban violence, family violence, the existence of parents disconnected from relationships and who only seek to provide materially, the excessive use of screens, which distances eye to eye, physical contact and appreciation of reality , and also immediacy as possibilities of natural frustration. In relation to social networks, the various followers or virtual friends can foster much more pain and loneliness than such basic bonds and belonging”.
Simone also considers that “the looping of emotions that permeate people’s lives can be co-responsible for deep existential voids and that many seek to anaesthetise the pain with alcohol, drugs, excessive use of screens, excessive exposure of life and privacy, self-mutilation, compulsions by purchases and acquisitions that are incompatible with the essence of true meaning of life.”
DON’T LEAVE THE HOUSE EMPTY
Bishop Renato Cardoso explains that the worst loneliness is spiritual and, therefore, God wants to dwell within us: “He wants to live in us so that we do not become like an empty house. If you’ve ever walked into an empty house, you know you can hear the echo of your own voice. There are many people whose soul is so empty that you can even hear the echo inside their soul. To avoid this spiritual solitude, God, proposes to dwell within the person”. The Bishop considers that many people who have financial conditions promote parties every weekend to reduce loneliness. “You are desperate looking for someone to talk to and to be by your side, when you can have God inside you. God is not against you having friends or living in social situations, but your life cannot depend on them. There are many people who are socially dependent and, therefore, cannot be alone.”
The person who lives with spiritual loneliness is turned in on himself and ignores God. “This emptiness is basically the absence of the Holy Spirit within her. God is by our side and fills everything around us, but just as a person can die of thirst in the ocean, there are those who die spiritually even though the Spirit of life is beside them because they do not open their heart for Him to enter.
Spiritual loneliness can only be resolved in one way: when you open the heart of your life to the Lord Jesus. When you have Him inside you, you will never feel alone again. He said that if anyone seeks Him with all their heart, they will find Him (Jeremiah 29:13). The choice is yours”, concludes the Bishop.