Loneliness epidemic demands immediate attention − and the fix isn’t that hard, UB psychologist says

Two people working at a café.

Release Date: May 5, 2023

Shira Gabriel, PhD, professor of psychology, University at Buffalo.
“Loneliness also makes us suspicious of others, so at a societal level, increased loneliness has us looking at more rage, shootings and violence. ”
Shira Gabriel, PhD, professor of psychology
University at Buffalo

BUFFALO, N.Y. – A University at Buffalo psychologist is strongly recommending immediate action to combat the epidemic of loneliness and isolation detailed in a recent advisory issued by the U.S. Surgeon General.

Concerns about loneliness are not new. Humans have always needed social connection, and they suffer without it, almost as much as they would in the absence of food, shelter and water, according to Shira Gabriel, PhD, a professor of psychology in the UB College of Arts and Sciences who has conducted extensive research on people’s social nature and the sense of self.

But loneliness is becoming alarmingly common and Gabriel, an expert in social psychology, says ignoring such a growing problem carries with it the risk of serious consequences for people and where they live.

“At the individual level, loneliness has profound effects on mental and physical health, possibly leading to depression, anxiety, suicide and increased risk of heart disease and stroke,” she says.

“Loneliness also makes us suspicious of others, so at a societal level, increased loneliness has us looking at more rage, shootings and violence. Think of a cornered animal who assumes that all other animals are out to get him. How does he act? He lashes out with indiscriminate violence, just like we’re seeing with greater frequency in America today.”

Help yourself, but also look out for others

Even casual social connections are helpful, according to Gabriel. If you work alone or remotely, consider an alternate location that might offer company, such as a coffee shop. Research suggests that the casual connections found in these environments are actually predictive of well-being, while also providing a sense of connection to the world.

“We all need to make more casual conversation,” she says. “Those quick and fun moments make us and others happier.”

Reaching out to someone who you think might be lonely is equally important as being mindful of your own state of mind. Invite them to a group activity they would enjoy. Share a meal with them or a cup of coffee. Wave to a lonely neighbor, smile, or drop off extra food if you’ve prepared more than your family can eat.

“Research shows that tiny gestures can have a positive impact on people’s lives by making them feel like part of a community,” says Gabriel. “If you don’t have a lot of time and scheduling these things will cause you stress, remember that sending a text once in while means a lot.

“You have the power, with a very small act, to make a real difference in someone’s life.”

Think in broad terms — there may be connections you haven’t considered

Gabriel suggests that people miss out on new friendships because they assume other people don’t want to be friends with them. 

“If you see people you want to be friends with, reach out to them. Most people underestimate how much other people want to talk to them and be friends with them.  Most of us are unnecessarily insecure.”

Furthermore, she says that people don’t realize how important a broader sense of social connection is to well-being. People chase having a romantic partner or best friend without realizing that there are many ways to socially connect – and they are all important.

“My research suggests that we can feel connected in many ways, from close friends and family to casual work friends, quick conversations with acquaintances, being in crowds of people at concerts, and connecting to people online and even through books and TV shows.”

Gabriel’s advice? Listen to yourself. What makes you happy? When do you feel your best?

“Find those answers, then try to get more of that,” she says. 

The risk to young people

Recent surveys have found that about 1 in 2 adults report feeling lonely, and that was before any COVID-19 pandemic-imposed restrictions were implemented. Young adults reported some of the highest rates of loneliness, which might seem peculiar given the widespread use of technology associated with this group.

“Technology can help maintain social connections, but it has to be used in the best possible way,” says Gabriel.

“For example, active use of social media can make people feel connected. Posting and commenting and interacting with others on social media tends to be related to increased connection,” she says. “Passively scrolling and just seeing what others are doing (and you aren’t doing) can make people feel lonely. So, when you use social media, use it to connect, not to compare.”

Communities can help too

In addition to individual-level steps to curb loneliness, there are community-level possibilities that deserve strong consideration.

“This includes any event where people can gather and feel connection to others, like street fairs, concerts, or food truck gatherings,” says Gabriel. “It would also be great if people in the media and the government stopped dividing the world and seeing those who disagree with them on major issues as enemies.

“It’s hard to talk to strangers when you feel like half of the people out there might be enemies. We need to all do what we can to discourage such thinking. It is making people feel more isolated and more aggressive.”

The bottom line, according to Gabriel, is that many kinds of interactions — and even small acts of kindness— can make a real difference in our lives and the lives of those around us.

“If each of us made a commitment to being just a little friendlier and kinder – to ourselves and to others – we could go a long way in addressing this epidemic of loneliness,” she says.

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