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During a pandemic, how can we overcome an epidemic of loneliness?

Steve Yount, a senior fellow with the Denison Forum, is a former newspaper editor and public-relations executive working with Christian ministries.

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Feeling lonely? You’re not alone.

Loneliness, already of epidemic proportions before the coronavirus hit, has surged in the United States. With many people trapped in their homes, only venturing out for groceries and other essentials, social connections have become more frayed than ever. Even with vaccines increasingly available, medical experts still urge caution in our personal interactions. 

Preliminary findings from research conducted in October by Harvard’s Making Caring Common Project indicated that more than one-third of respondents had felt lonely frequently—if not all the time—in the previous four weeks, up almost 50 percent from before the pandemic. 

“The pandemic—which pushed us even more into a mostly virtual existence—made the existing isolation of the digital age even worse,” Brett McCracken, senior editor for the Gospel Coalition, wrote in an email interview. 

McCracken, also the author of books such as Uncomfortable: The Awkward and Essential Challenge of Christian Community, added, “The last thing we needed in our ‘mostly interacting with people through screens’ world was more digital interacting and social distancing. Our phones and computers have already distanced us socially. The added difficulty now of in-person, tangible relational connection (and governments telling us constantly to stay home and keep our distance!) naturally has made us more isolated.” 

Digital tools like Zoom, even though helpful during the pandemic, can’t replace real human contact. 

We were made for relationships 

The Bible makes it clear we were created to have relationships. As if to emphasize their importance, God said in the second chapter of the Bible, before creating Eve, “It is not good that the man should be alone” (Genesis 2:18). 

Cal Newport wrote in his book Digital Minimalism that we were designed for “rich, face-to-face encounters.” MIT professor Sherry Turkle told Newport that bits of social media interaction did not add up to real-world connection. “Face-to-face conversation is the most human—and humanizing—thing we do,” she said. “Fully present to one another, we learn to listen. It’s where we develop the capacity for empathy. It’s where we experience the joy of being heard, of being understood.” 

At one time or another, we all experience the pain of loneliness, feeling out of place at a party or yearning to talk to a friend, or anyone who will listen to our problems. 

Billy Baker, a reporter for the Boston Globe, wrote an article in 2017 about middle-aged men struggling to maintain friendships. The story quickly went viral, becoming one of the most popular stories the Globe had ever published. 

Baker received thousands of emails from around the world, so many that the newspaper offered to have an intern keep up with his correspondence. Baker eventually wrote a book on the topic, We Need to Hang Out: A Memoir of Making Friends

He defined the problem this way: “‘Loneliness’ is a subjective state, where the distress you feel comes from the discrepancy between the social connections you desire and the social connections you actually have.” 

Senior adults have missed going to church during the pandemic, and studies had already shown a high rate of loneliness among the elderly. But the Harvard study conducted during the pandemic surprisingly found that more than 60 percent of adults 18–25 also had experienced “serious loneliness.” Many young people surveyed said they felt no one cared about them and that others didn’t always respond when they reached out. 

“These things can become self-defeating,” psychologist Richard Weissbourd told the Harvard Gazette. “When you feel like you’re trying hard while other people are not trying hard, or you feel like you’re going to get rejected again, you withdraw, which increases your loneliness and your anxiety about social situations.” 

Loneliness can contribute to a variety of physical ailments, including heart disease, stroke, and dementia. It has also been linked to suicide, depression and addiction

Loneliness kills,” said Robert Waldinger, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. “It’s as powerful as smoking or alcoholism.” 

How the loneliness epidemic has surged

Many factors have contributed to the epidemic of loneliness. McCracken, the Christian author, said that increasingly subjective standards of truth contribute to our feelings of isolation. 

“‘Your truth’ autonomy invariably leads to loneliness,” he wrote in The Wisdom Pyramid: Feeding Your Soul in a Post-Truth World. “It erroneously suggests we can live unencumbered and uninfluenced by the various structures that surround us (families, churches, cultures, biology, etc.). But it becomes impossible to form community when everyone is their own island, with no necessary reliance on larger truths or embeddedness within a bigger story.” 

Also, people living alone now make up more than one-fourth of US households. 

“As cities grow and households shrink, we see more people than ever before, but know fewer of them,” Jamil Zaki wrote in The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World. “Rituals that bring us into regular contact—attending church, participating in team sports, even grocery shopping—have given way to solitary pursuits, often carried out over the Internet. At a corner store, two strangers might make small talk about basketball, school systems, or video games, getting to know all sorts of details about each other.” 

How to fight loneliness  

The pandemic hasn’t been all bad as far as loneliness is concerned. “Now, in the world of coronavirus, no one is embarrassed to say they’re lonely,” Harvard’s Jeremy Nobel said. 

And that has drawn new attention to the problem, with innovative thinkers like Nobel and his Harvard colleagues proposing out-of-the-box remedies for loneliness. Nobel, founder of The UnLonely Project, believes that expressing yourself through the arts, such as painting, writing, and dancing, can serve as an antidote to loneliness. 

The Making Caring Common Project report, titled “Loneliness in America: How the Pandemic Has Deepened an Epidemic of Loneliness and What We Can Do About It,” called for a broad social response to the problem, including government involvement. Interestingly, the UK appointed a cabinet minister for loneliness three years ago. 

US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy, who coined the phrase “loneliness epidemic,” has written a book on the topic, Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World

“One of the realizations I had in writing the book was that service is a powerful antidote to loneliness,” Murthy said in an interview with NBA.com. “I think the time of COVID-19 presents an opportunity for all of us to find ways to serve others. Service could be checking on a neighbor to make sure they’re doing okay, calling a friend whom you know is struggling, or dropping food off to a work colleague who may be having a hard time teleworking and homeschooling their kids at the same time.” 

McCracken recommended finding safe ways to prioritize in-person connection, such as using masks and social distancing or meeting outdoors. 

“Digital connection alone just doesn’t cut it,” he said. 

Of course, things will open up as more and more people are vaccinated, but there is no medical remedy for loneliness, and isolation has become almost normal in our digital world.

God created us for relationships. In exchange for that blessing, we should shoulder a burden to reach out to others. As we begin to venture out again, let’s remember, much like God said in Genesis, it’s not good for any of us to be alone.

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