The Covid-19 pandemic forced all of us to come face to face with the reality of social isolation and loneliness. But according to human behavior expert Tony Selimi, chronic loneliness has been a growing problem for many years, and the pandemic merely brought it to the forefront. Selimi — who is a speaker, documentarian, and bestselling author of multiple books, including #Loneliness — has a unique take on what loneliness means and how we each experience it differently, as well as what to do about it. Read on to learn the different types of loneliness, the danger of loneliness for your physical and mental health, the causes of loneliness, and how to overcome them so that you can live your fullest life.
The Chronic Loneliness Epidemic
In 2017, the former U.S. Surgeon General wrote that there was a “loneliness epidemic,” and when you begin to look at some of the data, it becomes clear why he made this declaration. Forty percent of Americans report that their social relationships don’t feel meaningful, while 20% feel lonely or socially isolated. These numbers get worse as people get older, with more than one third of adults over 45 reporting chronic loneliness and 43% of seniors reporting the same.
The reasons for the spread of chronic loneliness are manifold and complicated, but looking at demographic trends reveals some distinct contributing factors. The average U.S. household size has declined in the past decade, with the number of people who live alone jumping 10%, so that today over one quarter of Americans live by themselves. There’s also been a reduction in marriage rates as well as more married couples choosing to have fewer children or no children at all, both of which suggest fewer built-in sources of family support. This issue isn’t just constrained to the United States: worldwide, the number of single occupancy households is greater than it’s ever been.
But the home isn’t the only source of chronic loneliness. People are also having fewer meaningful connections out in the world, with the majority of Americans reporting that they don’t participate in any sort of social group. There are falling rates of both volunteerism and religious affiliation, and the average size of a person’s social network (as in, their real-life relationships, not their followers or “friends” on social media) has gotten smaller and less diverse.
Selimi also points out that loneliness doesn’t just come from not being around other people. Indeed, someone could have a job and home in which they’re constantly around people and still feel lonely, because there is a meaningful difference between connection and just being around other people. He explains that if you do meaningful, inspiring work in which you connect with people, it can help you feel connected and energized; if, however, your work stresses you out and you take on the problems of clients or coworkers, it leaves you feeling more disconnected and lonely, and the same goes for home life.
“Let’s say you have a partner who is really unhappy in their work,” he says. “Each night you feel their unhappiness, and it’s an energy suck for you as well. So not only do you need more time to recharge, but that person also feels like they need a lot more alone time because they can’t get out of this spiral of energy sucking. So they start disconnecting there, because they see each other as a problem, not as a solution.”
The Different Types of Loneliness
As Selimi’s example above illustrates, loneliness can take different forms. “Loneliness, like everything else in life, is multifaceted, which means you cannot really pinpoint exactly what loneliness means to a group of people,” he says. “There are many forms of loneliness, but it’s simply a different state in our mind.” Because of this, many people may not even realize that they’re suffering from chronic loneliness if it doesn’t take the form they have in their head.
To better identify loneliness in people’s lives, it can be helpful to fully understand the various types of loneliness that exist. Selimi lays out a comprehensive overview of the types of loneliness and what each means:
“Some people have a need to connect to their own spirit. They have the need to connect to God, to the universe, to whatever they may believe. And there’s this gap between where they actually are vs where they’re trying to get to,” Selimi explains. People who are part of a religious group but are questioning their faith might experience spiritual loneliness, as well as those who have devoted their lives to spiritual pursuits and are struggling to achieve the connection they seek.
“Mental loneliness is when you perceive you’re alone in your mind with whatever is going on in your life,” Selimi says. “You don’t have somebody who can simply listen without giving you any form of feedback.” This is a common problem in relationships, as most people immediately offer advice or feedback when someone shares their feelings, rather than just listening and validating their experience.
“Emotional loneliness is very, very dangerous,” he says, explaining that emotions regulate the entire body, and dysregulation can lead to both mental and physical health problems including depression, chronic fatigue, chronic stress, and more. In Selimi’s view, he sees many health problems as merely the manifestation of emotional loneliness, including cancer. “For me, cancer, for instance, is simply the decision that you at some point made that you want to die,” he says. “That decision could be, I don’t want to deal with this emotion. You might be feeling tremendously hurt, tremendously rejected, and tremendously alone in what you may be going through. And because you don’t have the tools, you don’t have the clarity, you see the option of leaving the body as a solution to your problem. We all have an emotional thermometer, how much emotional stress we can absorb before we go into overload and the body shuts down.”
“Nowadays, people communicate via email and they never even turn around to the colleague behind them and speak to them,” says Selimi. To illustrate, he describes a training he did with the sales team of a company, in which the team of 20 or so people didn’t know one another at all. “They didn’t know each other’s names. They know nothing about each other. They were all focused on how to meet targets,” he says. This type of loneliness can be caused by the divided nature and inhuman communication within companies, as well as by not feeling fulfilled or engaged by a job.
“It’s not a norm anymore to strike up a conversation without people thinking there’s something wrong with you,” Selimi says. “We somehow lost the meaning of connection and the meaning of loving and being civil to one another.” Selimi comes from North Macedonia, the home of Mother Teresa, and he explains that her work was part of the inspiration for his own career. “She did a lot of work around loneliness. She said America has become the loneliest country in the world,” he says. “And that did strike me when I started working with clients around America, because I love America. It represents everybody’s dream out there. But the reality is that in this modern life, we have disconnected in an ocean of infinite connection.”
While this isn’t a comprehensive list of the different types of loneliness, it does capture the primary ways that loneliness shows up for people. In order to address the chronic loneliness epidemic, Selimi says, it’s important to define what form or forms loneliness takes in your own life, and begin to address them from there.
The Danger of Loneliness for Your Mental and Physical Health
It goes without saying that being lonely doesn’t feel good. But what most people don’t consider is the real damage that chronic loneliness could be doing to both your mind and body. “Everything in our body is already connected,” says Selimi. “Every system, every neuron, every cell in our body is connected, but we tend to treat our body as a separate thing. We try to separate that which cannot be separated.”
He goes on to explain that our body is in a constant state of internal communication, transferring billions of individual pieces of information from one place to the next: the nervous system talking to the gut, the gut communicating with the brain, the brain communicating with the heart, the heart with the mind, and so on. Recognizing the intricate connections within, he says, is key to understanding the danger of loneliness. “If you have a weak immune system, that’s a great indication that somewhere within your reality, you have loneliness,” he says to illustrate, explaining that this comes from the connection between the immune system and the gut, and the gut with so many different aspects of our mind and spirit and overall mental health. “[Loneliness] is also one of the big causes of heart issues, because the heart chakra is associated with our ability to love and receive love,” he adds.
In terms of the science behind all of this, there’s a lot of research to back up Selimi’s assertions about how loneliness impacts physical health. The epidemic of chronic loneliness is relatively new, but still, a sizable body of studies have drawn a number of conclusions about the concrete danger of loneliness.
The health effects of chronic loneliness include:
- Increased risk of premature death. In one large review of independent studies, loneliness and social isolation was shown to be as dangerous as various other well-accepted mortality risk factors, including obesity and smoking 15-20 cigarettes a day, and greater social connections was associated with a 50% reduced risk of early death. A later, much larger study found that loneliness, social isolation, and living alone are all associated with an even bigger mortality risk than obesity. Among seniors, there’s a 45% increased risk of death in those who report feeling lonely.
- Increased risk of infant mortality. Infants who lack adequate human contact fail to thrive and often die, despite not having any other health issues.
- Cognitive and mental health issues. Chronic loneliness and social isolation have been identified as significant risk factors for depression, cognitive decline, and dementia.
- Hypertension. Research shows that loneliness can lead to increased blood pressure over time, and that the lonelier a person is, the more their blood pressure will increase.
- Cardiovascular disease. Chronic loneliness and social isolation have been found to be associated with a 29% increased risk of coronary heart disease and a 32% increased risk of stroke. Based on these findings, experts estimate social isolation accounts for $6.7 billion of federal medical spending each year.
- Reduced immune function & reduced immune function. Being chronically lonely keeps your parasympathetic nervous system activated (that’s the nervous system that activates our fight or flight response and protects us from threats). This elevates levels of white blood cells as well as stress hormones like cortisol, contributing to chronic inflammation, which in turn decreases immune function.
The research paints a pretty sobering and sad picture of how chronic loneliness is harming millions of people. The good news is that loneliness isn’t an incurable disease, and there are concrete ways to increase social connection and avoid the dangers of loneliness.
The Causes of Loneliness and How to Address Them
Unsurprisingly, most of the research on effective chronic loneliness interventions has looked directly at reducing social isolation. Researchers have found that friendships can reduce mortality risk and speed up disease recovery, and that simply reaching out to a lonely person can jumpstart their ability to reach out and engage socially on their own. Currently, there are initiatives nationwide that aim to connect isolated seniors with other people, and in the future this may expand to target younger lonely people as well. Other common advice for those experiencing chronic loneliness is to join a community group, volunteer, or get a pet, all of which can be helpful.
Selimi, however, takes a different attitude, which stems from his unique beliefs about the true causes of loneliness. “It all stems from a disconnection with your true self,” he says. This disconnection could have many different sources, but he sees emotional avoidance as a major contributor. “We create many avoidant behaviors, meaning we avoid anything that reminds us of pain, or unrest, or difficult emotions,” he says. “This is one of the biggest energy boosters for loneliness.” He goes on to explain that this avoidant behavior is driven by the amygdala, the part of the brain that is programmed to keep us safe and activates our fight or flight response. In this instance, the “threat” is the painful emotion, and the amygdala shuts down those difficult thoughts in order to keep us safe, leading to profound disconnection with the true self.
Not living in alignment with your authentic values can also lead to disconnection with the self, and, thus, loneliness. This can happen when a person internalizes the values of their parents, society, religion, or some other external force, and ignores their own voice. “When you’re not in alignment with your true authentic values, with your soul’s mission, that makes you lonely,” says Selimi. “When you have an internal conflict, you’ve already created loneliness.”
Unlike other, more obvious causes of loneliness — like living alone, being unmarried, not being engaged in social groups — there’s not a straightforward way to resolve this problem. Rather, it’s a process that involves both inner reflection and outward actions to bring your external reality into alignment when you have internal values. The first step, Selimi says, is to identify what those values are.
“The key is to know your true authentic values,” he says. “When you know those true authentic values, you know what values you want to live in your day-to-day life. By what values do you want to create actions during the day, by what values do you want to go to work. Most people don’t have this alignment in their life. So the first step is really clarifying that, and looking at where there’s discrepancy…Take off the mask, your soul is waiting.” Once your values are in alignment, Selimi says, you’ll be able to take what he calls “inspired action” — actions that come from your true self, that reflect your purpose in life — and these inspired actions are what begin the shift out of loneliness.
While Selimi recognizes the benefits of loneliness solutions like hobby-oriented groups and volunteering, he sees them as short-term solutions. Ultimately, he believes that finding one’s true self and purpose is the key to curing loneliness, but he also knows that not everyone is ready for that process. “Some people aren’t ready to go on a journey to find their authentic self and purpose,” he says. “For some people, picking up a volunteering activity or getting a dog might be what leads them to be able to have a conversation with themselves about their true values and self, because they’ve broken down a few barriers of connecting with others. And maybe it takes two more years, but that could be what helps them get there.”
The WellBe Takeaway on Chronic Loneliness
While loneliness doesn’t get a lot of attention as a threat to health and well-being, it’s becoming increasingly clear that it’s a serious issue. Thankfully, there are ways to reduce loneliness and avoid the negative health consequences while living a more rich and fulfilling life. Here’s what to remember about chronic loneliness:
- There’s a loneliness epidemic, both in the U.S. and worldwide. The epidemic has been growing for years, long before the Covid-19 pandemic forced people to become physically isolated. Some 20% of Americans report feeling lonely, and the number is much higher among seniors. As the population ages, the prevalence of loneliness is expected to increase.
- Loneliness takes many different forms, some of which we may not immediately recognize as loneliness. There are many different types of loneliness, such as spiritual loneliness, mental loneliness, emotional loneliness, career loneliness, and societal loneliness.
- The danger of loneliness extends to physical health. Research has shown that loneliness can increase risk of overall mortality; infant mortality; hypertension; cognitive decline and mental health issues; cardiovascular disease like stroke and coronary heart disease; and chronic inflammation and poor immune function.
- While there are some obvious causes of chronic loneliness — such as living alone, being unmarried, having a small social circle, and so on — Selimi believes that for many people, their chronic loneliness stems from being disconnected from their true self. He says that by identifying your true internal values and bringing your life into alignment with those values, you will be able to take “inspired action” that brings you out of loneliness and into a fulfilling and connected life.
What form does loneliness take in your own life? How could you address it? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
Watch our full interview with Tony Selimi to learn whether or not loneliness can be passed on through genes, how the concept of self-empowerment has inadvertently led to a rise in chronic loneliness, how “human energy fields” impact our relationships with other people, exactly how much time a person should spend alone vs connecting with other people to achieve balance, the importance of objective thinking, how social media has contributed to chronic loneliness, and much more.
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- Pew Research Center. (2009). Social isolation and new technology: How the internet and mobile phones impact Americans’ social networks. Pew Internet & American Life Project.
- Song, Yiying et al. “Regulating emotion to improve physical health through the amygdala.” Social cognitive and affective neuroscience vol. 10,4 (2015): 523-30.
- Holt-Lunstad J, Smith TB, Baker M, Harris T, Stephenson D. Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for mortality: a meta-analytic review. Perspect Psychol Sci. 2015 Mar;10(2):227-37.
- Hawkley, Louise C et al. “Loneliness predicts increased blood pressure: 5-year cross-lagged analyses in middle-aged and older adults.” Psychology and aging vol. 25,1 (2010): 132-41.
The information in this article comes from Tony Selimi, an author, documentarian, speaker, and consultant with an expertise in human behavior. He is the founder and CEO of TJS Cognition, Ltd., a mentoring and coaching company, and the author of several bestselling books, including A Path to Wisdom, The Unfakeable Code, and #Loneliness. He has shared his expertise through TV and radio interviews as well as TEDX talks. You can read more about Tony Selimi here.