One Is the Loneliest Number

It seems as if the issue of loneliness is everywhere.

A few weeks ago I wrote a post about the “isolation epidemic“. In that post, I noted that in 2016, Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy declared that isolation was the most common disease in the U.S. Social isolation and loneliness have been associated with major negative health effects in study after study, leading some researchers to consider long-term isolation to be just as bad for longevity as smoking cigarettes. There are also links to increased risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, and Alzheimer’s.

In the Septmber issue of The Atlantic, Jean Twenge, author of the just released iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy–and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood–and What That Means for the Rest of Us, notes that teens’ feelings of loneliness spiked in 2013 and have remained high since. Rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2011. Sleep deprivation among high school and college students has become a serious issue.College students are sleep deprived.

Twenge notes that it’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades, and believes much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones, and more specifically to their use of social media. The portrait of iGen teens emerging from her research data is one of a lonely, dislocated generation.

Then there was the story from this past Spring when Wanda Mills, 91 year old California woman, left the following note on the door of Marleen Brooks, her neighbor:

Would you consider to become my friend. I’m 90 years old- live alone. All my friends have passed away. I’m so lonesome and scared. Please I pray for someone.

The next day, Brooks and a friend brought cupcakes to Mills. She also took a picture of the letter and posted it on Facebook, urging people to make sure to check on their neighbors  and inviting them to send letters to Mills, and opened a post office box for her.

Then she had an idea: Why not invite people to write to more people than just Mills? In late April, she started a Facebook group called Pen Pals for Seniors, offering to match participants with older people who want to correspond by mail. In a little more than a month, around 6,000 people had responded — far more than she had older people for them to write to. Pen Pals for Seniors strives to combat social isolation and loneliness within senior communities by enabling and assisting others to connect with the elderly and be a crucial part of improving their quality of life.

And then today I was reading an article about writing and the loneliness of creative work. Rachel Carson, author of the classic book Silent Spring, observed when accepting one of her many awards:

Writing is a lonely occupation at best. Of course there are stimulating and even happy associations with friends and colleagues, but during the actual work of creation the writer cuts himself off from all others and confronts his subject alone. He*moves into a realm where he has never been before — perhaps where no one has ever been. It is a lonely place, even a little frightening.

And in a letter of correspondence with a young woman she wrote:

You are wise enough to understand that being “a little lonely” is not a bad thing. A writer’s occupation is one of the loneliest in the world, even if the loneliness is only an inner solitude and isolation, for that he must have at times if he is to be truly creative. And so I believe only the person who knows and is not afraid of loneliness should aspire to be a writer. But there are also rewards that are rich and peculiarly satisfying.

And finally, in another recent post, Can You Live a “Balanced” Life and Still Achieve Greatness?, I opened with the following quote from a friend from 40 years ago:

“If you look at all of the really successful artists, they’re all loners. To get to where they are, they had to sacrifice everything, and they just practice all day, every day.”

While the last two stories are of a different kind of loneliness, a self-imposed one as part of the creative process, the effects may be the same as those experienced by the elderly, teens, and others without strong social connections.

So what to do?

Well the letter writing campaign started by Marleen Brooks is a great idea; perhaps connecting the iGen and the elderly in such a campaign would be a win-win.

Cohousing, as noted in my blog post about the Isolation Epidemic, and explained in more detail in Grace Kim’s TED talk, is another possible solution.

And more education on proper use of smartphones and social media and the potential for harm from such technologies, couldn’t hurt.

Three Dog Night may have been right when they sang “One Is the Loneliest Number”, but having 5,000 Facebook friends or living in a crowded neighborhood doesn’t guard against loneliest either.



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