The epidemic of loneliness

A concern for all institutions

“Mom, I’m so bored.”

“No one ever died of boredom. Find something to do.”

What parent hasn’t said that? And boredom — at least for the child me — usually meant I had no one to play with. I was lonely.

It turns out that, while dying of boredom was unlikely, dying from loneliness is.

Former Surgeon General of the United States, Vice Admiral Vivek Murthy (2014-2017), has called loneliness “a growing health epidemic.” In the September 2017 “Harvard Business Review,” Murthy wrote: “Loneliness and weak social connections are associated with a reduction in lifespan similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day and even greater than that associated with obesity.”

He added that our “technologically connected age has led to increasing rates of isolation with “40 percent of adults in America” feeling lonely.

A 2015 study at Brigham Young University (published in “Perspectives on Psychological Science”) noted that loneliness increased the risk of death by 26 percent, as did being socially isolated (a 29 percent increase).

Americans are not alone in the loneliness epidemic. On Jan. 17, British Prime Minister Theresa May announced a new government position: “Minister of Loneliness.” According to May, more than 9 million people in the U.K. report feeling lonely, about 14 percent of the population. May called loneliness “the sad reality of modern life.”

Surprisingly, older people are less lonely than younger people. An often cited AARP study (2010) noted that more adults between the ages of 45 and 60 reported being lonely (41 to 43 percent) than those over 70 (25 percent).

What best addresses this loneliness epidemic? Several factors reduce loneliness — marriage, a close friendship, involvement in social activities (including attending church) and having a long-term residence all factor in, according to AARP.

Rachel Reeves, a British Labour Party minister of parliament, co-chaired the commission that gave PM May her statistics. Reeves cites weakening connections to church, workplace, trade unions and even the local pub as feeding the “giant evil” of loneliness. In December, she told “The Guardian” newspaper that “when the culture and the communities that once connected us to one another disappear, we can be left feeling abandoned and cut off from society.”

Murthy’s words agree. He advised that “to truly solve loneliness requires the engagement of institutions where people spend the bulk of their time: families, schools, social organizations and the workplace.”

Now that corporations will receive tax cuts through recent tax reform, perhaps they could use some of those extra funds for building social connections among their employees, supporting employees’ family ties and even finding innovative ways to combat isolation. A 2010 Gallup report cited Massachusetts Institute of Technology research showing that even “idle chitchat (in the workplace) might actually be valuable to productivity. … (E)ven small increases in social cohesiveness lead to large gains in production.”

All this will benefit not only employees, but employers via increased productivity, more enthusiasm about projects, less sick time and reduced health insurance expenses. The old maxim used to be, “What’s good for GM is good for America.” Perhaps today, it would work better as “What’s good for American employees is good for GM.”

If corporations — and that means church-based corporations as well — choose to lead the way in addressing the loneliness epidemic, the U.S. will be stronger and may never face the possibility of something called “the U.S. Department of Loneliness.”