3 tips to help combat loneliness and improve your health

Thriving solo, together.

Thriving solo, together

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

How bad is the global loneliness epidemic? Last week, British Prime Minister Theresa May created an office, The Minister of Loneliness. The mandate of Tracey Crouch, who's been appointed, is to mitigate the mental and physical toxicity caused by isolation. For Crouch, the "crisis of loneliness" is nothing less than a "poison".   

Should that ring extreme and a ministerial lead on loneliness seem unnecessary, consider that isolation and feelings around it visit brutal things on the human body and mind.   

"For far too many people," says May, "loneliness is the sad reality of modern life." The official announcement also itemized stats from research confirming "9 million people always or often feel lonely", that "200,000 older people have not had a conversation with a friend or relative in more than a month", and as many as "85% of young disabled adults – 18-34 year olds – feel lonely". Even if you don't fit into those demos, you'll appreciate that social media increasingly has us "functioning" in social silos of one.   

Numerous studies have shown that extreme loneliness is unforgiving in the ways it harms one's health — one study says it's as bad as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Loneliness authority and director of the UCLA Social Genomics Core Laboratory, Dr. Steve Cole confirms that "the risk of death is on par with a really enthusiastic smoking habit or being overweight or obese." Cole, who studies the human effects of isolation on a molecular level says, "we are the most inherently social of all animals." Loneliness then is interpreted as a threat to our very natures — like something is decidedly wrong. "That unpleasantness in our psyche signals in our brain that we are insecure and unsafe," he explained to media. "We become deeply disturbed when there's nobody else around or when we're being ostracized or cast out of the tribe. These are threat signals." When that isolation persists for years on end, a perpetual stress response starts to wreak havoc on the body making us sick.

UCLA has even developed a loneliness scale to self-rate problematic isolation. We're mindful of loneliness in Canada too. But the only recent reforms being suggested are in the field of corrections. They aim to ban indefinite solitary confinement as categorically inhumane.

Increasingly, the average citizen works alone too. Technology has made it easy for me to write this from my house —where I spend most days in solitude. I have a robust social life but loneliness is a real concern for many. More and more doctors say the problem of chronic loneliness is serious enough to warrant the counsel of a healthcare professional if not a government sanctioned body to combat isolation across the country.

Happily, there are things, to start, that may help us all leverage a little loneliness.

Make eye contact 

While nothing will ever beat the healing power of a hug, an increased sense of connection may only be a strategic glance away. A study from Purdue University had two groups explore the social power of the gaze. One group was told to lock eyes with passerbys on a populated pathway and another were given express instructions to avoid eye contact on a similar walk. Those who averted their eyes felt less socially connected than those who sought to trade glances. Ultimately, intentional eye contact when crossing paths with a stranger bolstered a feeling of connectedness for both parties — just by virtue of their presence being acknowledged. Another study showed that we actually underestimate other people's interest to connect and assume solitude will generate a preferred positive experience in our day to day —yet those who reached out consistently had a more positive experience (and mood boost) when they connected with a simple "hello" while travelling. What's more, the "pleasure of connection seems contagious" wrote researchers.

Commit to a team sport or activity

No need to dig out your ice skates if they're covered in rust or dust, a low impact solo sport done as a group (think running or walking club) will serve just as well here. Consider that this isn't about fitness levels so much as contact and camaraderie. The health benefits of even a little physical activity have been well documented. But exercising en masse has been shown scientifically to reduce stress while improving quality of life far more than just getting a workout in alone. Aside from forming an allegiance with a community, you'll also be doing your brain a kindness. Numerous studies have correlated exercise with improved mental states and a fortifying sense of self worth. 

Use social media wisely

Something of misnomer, social media is starting to be viewed as problematic for the countless masses that consume its various offerings aggressively in tacit isolation. While damaging isolation is common among seniors, a study from 2016 found that young people who used social frequently saw small but significant drops in mental well-being and higher rates of depression. A survey called The Lonely Society? actually found that 18 to 24 year olds in the UK were 400% more likely battle loneliness "most of the time" than folks in their 70s. Still another study published early last year found that FB use generated feelings of inadequacy and decreased life satisfaction (something which seemed to gravitate around the comparisons social media invites). Scrolling mindlessly, it seems, only exacerbates feelings of isolation and separateness, especially in our teenagers. But, all is not lost in lonely feelings online: one study showed that people who used it to engage actively or plan real life events saw a welcome boost in social capital. So use it sparingly to have quick worthwhile chats, make plans and get out a bit. Maybe create a runners club event where you'll be likely to steal a human glance or two.

While we wonder if it's time for Canada to implement anti-loneliness initiatives of our own, the data continues to point to isolation being aggressively detrimental to both bodies and minds of our young and old. Canadian Minister of Loneliness has a pretty boss ring to it and a life of public service might be rewarding. Or at the very least get me out of the house.

Marc Beaulieu is a Montreal writer, producer, performer, professional host and mental health advocate whose one true love is weird news.