Psychology Today 3/12/19
We live in a time of overpopulation on the one hand and extreme loneliness on the other. We crowd into urban areas, but still feel alone. Or we buy large homes and then wish they were filled with more life and laughter. Our national loneliness rate is staggering. A 2018 CIGNA study showed that loneliness is currently a public health crisis: Nearly half of Americans feel lonely. Loneliness has become so prevalent that pharmaceutical companies are even looking into creating a drug for loneliness. Research shows that loneliness can be worse for our health than smoking, obesity, and high blood pressure. It can lead to depression, anxiety, and premature death. In this time of hyper-connection, how can this be? And what can we do?
There are reasons for our loneliness epidemic that we can do little about: Jobs and opportunities are spreading families farther and farther apart, even as family structures and communities grow more complex and tenuous. And as brain imaging research shows us, it really does hurt. We have a deep-seated need for social connection and often suffer when we are lonely, as loneliness expert John Cacioppo describes in his book, Loneliness. The good news, however, is that there are some powerful things we can do to feel more connected no matter where we are.
At some point you may realize that all humans, whether or not they belong to your tribe or share your opinions, have the same deep need for social connection and love. A profound way of increasing social connection is through compassion and altruism for those who may not think like you. In researching my book, The Happiness Track, it became very clear to me that compassion for others (when balanced with self-care) is one of the greatest sources of happiness there are. It not only leads to physical and emotional well-being, it even improves our chances of living longer and more fulfilled lives. Research by psychologists Ed Diener and Martin Seligman suggests that altruism leads to better mental and physical health and speeds up recovery from disease. Furthermore, research by Stephanie Brown, at Stony Brook University, and Sara Konrath, at the University of Michigan, has shown that it may even lengthen our lives (provided that the reasons for volunteering were altruistic rather than self-serving).
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