For experts who believe loneliness is a health epidemic, they want to stress it can happen at any age.
While conversations around loneliness often revolve around groups like seniors or single parents, Prof. Julianne Holt-Lunstad of Brigham Young University’s psychology and neuroscience program in Utah, says young adults were also at high risk of being lonely.
This social isolation, she adds, can also make it hard for some people to find meaningful relationships.
Meaningful social relationships
“We now have robust evidence that our social relationships can have a profound effect on our health either for good or for bad,” she recently told ABC4 Utah. “It’s about having positive, meaningful, close relationships.”
Holt-Lunstad, who has previously done studies on the topic, says countless studies have found the key to combating loneliness is keeping these relationships as we age.
She says not only this, but true social relationships mean making time for people face-to-face and spending less time engaging with them on social media.
“Most of the evidence we found linked health outcome close relationships, typically in which there is a degree in trust, support and positivity,” she tells Global News. “These aren’t just people that you barely know.”
And while friendships and relationships decades ago may have been mostly face-to-face, Holt-Lunstad said the addition of technology and how we interact with it on a social level has impacted how we connect with people. Sending a text is probably easier to check in on someone, than making time to meet for coffee.
She adds not only this, but there has also been a shift in how we occupy our time.
“There is an emphasis on being successful and being busy… it’s almost a badge of honour,” she says. “We’ve gotten to a point where we are working more hours than we we spend time with friends and family… there may be a lack of work-life balance.”
What the research shows
Previous studies have shown the mortality rate among single fathers, in particular, were three times higher compared to the mortality rates of single moms and of dads with partners. While researchers weren’t able to pinpoint the exact reason single fathers were dying, lead author and scientists like Dr. Maria Chiu say social isolation is part of it.
She tells Global News there has been little research on single fathers in general, and for the most part in Ontario, single fathers don’t receive as much support as single mothers do in terms of outreach groups or peer groups. They are also less likely to reach out for help.
She adds when it comes to meaningful relationships, it gets harder and harder for single parents. “Single parents are less likely to have those connections, and social isolation is prevalent with the added stress of looking after children.”
How to cultivate these relationships
Meaningful relationships are a two-way street, experts add, and to really create one means putting in effort. Chiu says instead of just sending a friend an email, meet face-to-face so you can spend time sharing stories or strategies.
Holt-Lunstad says if you’re having a hard time cultivating these relationships, start by supporting others in need. This could mean joining a volunteer group or even seeing how you can help a friend or family member going through a rough patch. This face-to-face interaction will help you feel less lonely.
She also puts an emphasis on allowing yourself to be open with your family and friends. “This intimacy is built gradually over time, but the essence of it is if we disclose something, the other person does the same.”
Chiu says we also need to start taking our feelings of being isolated or alone more seriously, just like any health issue.
“Loneliness is a real epidemic and it shouldn’t be overlooked because physical health and mental health are so intertwined.”
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