Isolation and Desolation: The Need for Connection

On February 8, 2022, the U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy testified on Capitol Hill, stating that loneliness has become a public health epidemic. Dr. Murthy was quoted as saying, “We now know that loneliness is a common feeling that many people experience. It’s like hunger or thirst. It’s a feeling the body sends us when something we need for survival is missing.” While researching this issue, he found that about half of U.S. adults report experiencing loneliness, with young people ages 15 to 24 showing the greatest changes in response.

Following the spread of COVID-19, schools and workplaces closed and Americans were faced with daily decisions about where and how to spend their time. Workplace social activities were often limited to online meetings. Engagement in social supports like community centers, extracurricular activities, and the houses of worship sharply declined as people sought to avoid the risk of spreading the new virus. The internet offered an ability for many to work remotely, and staying at home became the norm for millions of people. Even the typical daily contact with others facilitated through trips to the store ended for those who selected to use delivery services.

Researchers in the areas of sociology and mental health have been studying the effects of decreased in-person social contact over the past decade and a half. These studies have indicated that having poor social relationships increases the risk of stroke and heart disease and does not offer the same buffer against the development of psychiatric disorders including depression, anxiety, and dementia. Lack of social support also raises the risk of premature death by almost 30%. Isolation is a killer.

Dr. Brene Brown, professor, writer, and sociological researcher, stated, “Connection is why we’re here. We are hardwired to connect with others, it’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives, and without it there is suffering.” A basic need of all human beings and social shifts in recent years have left many of us in greater isolation, feeling unwell without a clear understanding of what has happened to us or how to get back to a sense of well-being.

While in-person contact remains at lower levels than before the pandemic, the use of online modes of communication to connect has continued to increase. Research is ongoing, but studies both shortly prior to the pandemic and as recent as 2023 suggest that the quality of relationships offered online does not equal that of spending time with others in person. For some the gloss of social platforms results in comparison, jealousy, and a lack of life satisfaction. This can be especially true for teens and young adults who are still forming their identity. This does not mean that online contact cannot offer some benefit, but that it is limited and is not meant to be our only method of connection with others. The use of social media by young people also needs to be monitored, limited, and guided with support from caring adults.

A massive shift in our social fabric has resulted in significant changes in the daily rhythms that many of us have become accustomed to. Feeling more alone in facing the burdens of day-to-day life has resulted to higher levels of chronic stress. Not surprisingly, the antidote to this new challenge is finding intentional ways to build healthy connections within our lives. It is important to recognize that connection looks different for all of us and that some people naturally need more outward connection than others. Also, the kind of connection that is most meaningful to one person will be different from that of another. Here are some ideas for connecting to consider:

  • Reconnect with family and friends. Make a list of people that you have not been able to connect with in a while. Choose one or two that you will reach out to. Even a short conversation over coffee may be just what you need.
  • Build in time with casual acquaintances or strangers. Just the simple act of a cheerful smile, greeting, or small talk with the cashier in the store or with your mail carrier provides benefits to both of you. Emotions are catching and you may be the one who turns around someone else’s day.
  • Find a furry friend. Spending time with animals suppresses stress hormones for those who enjoy them. Pets also provide an avenue for social engagement with other pet owners when taking walks or trips to the pet store. If you don’t feel that you are able to care for a pet full time, volunteering in an animal shelter may be a potential option.
  • Revel in nature. Make time for a walk or jog in a nearby park or nature area. Movement, fresh air, and sunshine all provide wonderful benefits. If you feel like it, bring a friend along.
  • Find mindful ways to connect with yourself. Activities like yoga, tai chi, and meditation calm the mind and body. Science also recognizes the benefits of spirituality, prayer, and connection to a higher purpose.

Connection is important and can be found in a wide variety of ways. Find the form of connection that works best for you and take steps to add it to your life. If you like, check out our new podcast Out Front with Family Forward as we explore the topic of connection.