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Loneliness: a serious health risk

Ryan Denison is the Senior Fellow for Theology at Denison Forum, where he contributes writing and research to many of the ministry’s productions.

He is in the final stages of earning his PhD in church history at BH Carroll Theological Institute after having earned his MDiv at Truett Seminary. Ryan has also taught at BH Carroll and Dallas Baptist University.

He and his wife, Candice, live in East Texas and have two children.

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Lonely girl (Credit: Tom Woodward via Flickr)

In a recent article for The Washington Post, Amy Ellis Nutt examines one of the most under-appreciated health risks facing many people today: loneliness. That people feel lonely from time to time is not a novel concept. However recent research has found “significant links between loneliness and illness” that demonstrate how “social isolation changes the human genome in profound, long-lasting ways.” Scientists have found that such changes, which occur on a cellular level, can cause damage similar to that of smoking, diabetes, and obesity while also placing individuals at greater risk of heart attacks, metastatic cancer, and Alzheimer’s among other diseases.

As neuroscientist John Cacioppo speculates, such cellular changes stem from a time when one’s survival depended on living in community with others and working well with those around you. Because isolation in a more primitive setting would almost invariably lead to death, our bodies developed signals to tell us that something is wrong. He likened is to the way our blood sugar drops to let us know that we need to eat.

The thing is, loneliness is about far more than just being alone. Some of the loneliest people are those who are constantly surrounded by others but feel that they simply don’t belong. And social media often makes the problem worse: viewing the highlights of other people’s lives only compounds the perceived lack of connection that the lonely might feel.

Loneliness is something that all of us are likely to experience at one point or another, but it truly becomes dangerous when it begins to define how we see the world around us. It can quickly become a vicious cycle of emptiness as every moment in which we sense a lack of belonging only makes it harder to engage in the kind of interaction that could eventually break that pattern. And while there are a variety of reasons, some perceived and some legitimate, for why engaging with others can be difficult, oftentimes it comes back to the errant belief that we are better off alone than suffering the occasional yet inevitable hurt that goes along with relating to other fallen people.

As C.S. Lewis once said, “Try to exclude the possibility of suffering and you find that you have excluded life itself.” When we open ourselves up to other people, they will eventually let us down. That should not be news to any of us. However, if we focus on avoiding those moments of suffering, we will also miss out on the beauty and joy that comes from knowing that you are accepted.

And for those that are not overcome by such fears, you can help those lonely souls around you by reaching out to them instead of waiting on them to come to you. When my family and I first moved to Dallas, I fell in with a group of friends that probably wouldn’t be described as the ones your parents dream about meeting. They weren’t bad people by any means but, for the most part, they weren’t Christians either. Yet they did more to model the kind of acceptance and reliability that should characterize every believer than just about anyone else I would meet until college.

You see, most of the people in my youth group had their friends and didn’t really need to add any new ones. I don’t blame them for it, and Lord knows I’ve been guilty of the same. However, it did mean that I initially had to look elsewhere to satisfy that sense of belonging common to every person. As I’ve reflected on that reality in the years since, it’s made me wonder how many times I have failed to take the initiative in welcoming others and how many opportunities I have missed to share God’s love as a result.

As Christians, we should be the most welcoming and accepting people the lonely souls around us could ever hope to meet because we know the extent to which our heavenly Father has gone to welcome us into his family (Galatians 4:1–7, Romans 5:8). And while that acceptance does not mean ignoring another’s sin, it does mean not defining them by it. After all, if we wait until lost people stop acting like lost people to engage with them, that relationship will never happen.

So who do you know that needs a friend today? If it’s you, then pray and ask God for the confidence and courage to take that first step and reach out to someone in friendship, knowing full well that it could end in heartbreak but that the potential rewards far outweigh the potential cost. And if your first thoughts went to someone else, take that first step to reach out to them and demonstrate God’s love in yours. After all, that’s what Christ did for you.