Commentary

Blessed are the lonely

Originally Appeared in : 9810-5/10/18

After college, living frugally on graduation money I’d received, I spent almost a year in a small town in Italy. It was a place I’d come to love after having studied there during the summer of my junior year. As a single woman living alone, without much spending money and few friends, I had a lot of time by myself.

 

Most days, I would take long walks through town and in the surrounding countryside. I never thought twice about these solitary walks until a friend told me that the townspeople thought I was “crazy” because in their culture only the “crazy people” walked alone.

 

On my solitary walks I noted that, indeed, the Italians I encountered walked in couples or groups. And those walks, particularly through the piazzas, were social occasions.

 

Another strong memory from my time in Italy was formed from a sense of communion I felt with a group of women I never met. While alone in my apartment many evenings, I could hear several women praying the rosary from the apartment next door. Although I considered myself agnostic at the time, I was drawn to the meditative recitation. The loneliness I experienced as a foreign visitor was mitigated by my regularly overhearing their prayer. In a transcendent way, I, a non-Catholic, was included, even though I wasn’t.

 

These memories were revisited when I read an article about the high incidence of loneliness among American people. One might assume that the loneliest Americans would be the elderly population; however, a Cigna survey reported on by Rhitu Chatterjee in her article “Americans Are Lonely a Lot, and Young People Bear the Heaviest Burden” (May 1, 2018, NPR) reveals that nearly 50 percent of Americans surveyed report they feel “alone or left out always or sometimes.”

 

Dr. Douglas Nemecek, the chief medical officer for behavioral health at Cigna, reported that older generations were less lonely than younger ones.
Members of Generation Z, born between the mid-1990s and the early 2000s, reported the highest rate of loneliness, and Millennials (somewhat older) had a slightly lower report than Generation Z. These generations reported being lonely more often than Baby Boomers and The Greatest Generation (people ages 72 and above).

 

Older generations may point to the younger generations’ use of screen time as a cause of their sense of loneliness and isolation. And to a large extent, they would be correct.

 

The NPR article reports: “… research published in 2017 by psychologist Jean Twenge at San Diego State University suggests that more screen time and social media may have caused a rise in depression and suicide among American adolescents. The study also found that people who spend less time looking at screens and more time having face-to-face social interactions are less likely to be depressive or suicidal.”

 

While the Cigna survey did not associate social media and screen time with loneliness, Jacqueline Holt-Lunstad, a psychologist at Brigham Young University, suggests that how one uses social media plays a significant part in how lonely the user feels. Those who participate in social media as a way to connect with others are less likely to feel lonely than those who simply scroll through and observe others’ social media activity without engaging with them.

 

“If you’re passively using it, if you’re just scrolling feeds, that’s associated with more negative effects,” she says. “But if you’re using it to reach out and connect to people to facilitate other kinds of [in-person] interactions, it’s associated with more positive effects.”

 

Research shows that the more daily in-person social interactions we have, the less likely we are to report being lonely.

 

The NPR article includes reference to a correlation between loneliness and a person’s physical well-being. Researchers are recommending that physicians take into account their patients’ social interactions (or lack thereof) when assessing their overall well-being. Those patients who appear isolated would be at greater risk of developing health problems.

 

So, what can we do to reduce the sense of isolation and loneliness that seems to pervade our culture, especially among the young?

 

First, parents can be more vigilant and closely monitor the amount of time their children and teens spend on social media. Second, mental health providers and physicians can be aware of the serious consequences of social isolation and encourage opportunities for those in their care to engage with others regularly. Finally, Americans need to be made as conscious of the need for daily person-to-person interaction as a health benefit as they are currently aware of the importance of diet, exercise, and avoidance of tobacco.

 

Rather than sit in front of a screen (television or computer), we can all step out and engage with others more frequently than we currently do. Not only are we benefiting ourselves, but we can reduce the loneliness of others.

 

While loneliness doesn’t usually inhibit our ability to function in society, in recent years, we’ve seen the dangers of extreme social isolation. Too often, it’s revealed after the fact that those who commit mass shootings were socially isolated, enraged individuals with few connections to the community.

 

And for us Catholics? We can make our churches more welcoming to those who are not regularly participating in parish life. Young adults are far more inclined to participate in parish life if they feel welcomed. It takes effort to reach out to people who are new to your parish or those who may be Catholic but don’t regularly attend Mass. Doing so must be a conscious decision on the part of parish leaders. Our concerted efforts directed toward engaging these communities can go a long way to reducing the loneliness they suffer. Just as I experienced a sense of communion with the women who prayed the rosary next door, we never know the effect we may have on those who find themselves on the “outside.”

 

Unlike my Italian friends from years ago, Americans tend toward individualism. We pride ourselves on “going it alone.” It’s time we recognize that such a mentality is not a healthy way of life.

 

Mary Hood Hart is a freelance writer and educator living in Pittsboro, NC. She can be reached at maryhoodhart@gmail.com

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