Loneliness is killing us, the unspoken epidemic

Erick Murrer

The bright pink cherry blossom petals have long fallen off the trees encircling Centennial Mall. Rapidly growing leaves take their place and soak in the nourishing sunlight.

Every day in my isolation, I’ve paid attention to these brilliant changes. Plugging in my headphones, I plod up the Hill, tuning out the noise and chatter until I reach my destination. Twenty-some thousand Hilltoppers probably have a similar regimen. I wonder, how many others feel lonely and disconnected when going through these same motions?

A growing number of college students infrequently socialize, according to the American Freshman Survey, with 38.8 percent of surveyed students spending less than five hours per week with friends. Contrast this with 1987 figures which found two-thirds of students spent 16 hours or more socializing.

Truly, a public health crisis is in the making. Transcending all demographics, loneliness is an epidemic which is literally killing us.

After 35 years of multiple studies, Brigham Young University researchers have found that loneliness and isolation increase the likelihood of premature death by 32 percent (on par with the risk of obesity). In our ever “connected” world of the Internet and social media, reaching out to someone is as easy as tapping a few buttons, but the amount of people that say they have no one to talk to has tripled in the last 20 years.

Some have attributed the modern rise of loneliness to longer work days, increased television consumption and the decline of participation in community organizations. While these dynamics are certainly valid, I think there are bigger issues at play rooted in the misplaced cultural values of our society.

We live in an age which fundamentally doesn’t regard social interaction and togetherness. Paid vacation or parental and bereavement leave is considered a nicety and not seen as being crucial to the overall productivity of a company. While business approaches are changing in light of millennial management, the system as a whole continues to exhibit characteristics of an era that tells us it’s more important to stay in the office than to find community and belong with others.

Even more concerning is we confuse quality social time with obsessive social media usage, designating our worth in the currency of generated “likes.” Social media is a breeding ground for isolation and self-esteem issues in which users consistently hyper-edit their lives to put their best (fake) foot forward. Gone are the days when time over coffee counted as meaningful interaction, and here to stay are the shallow one-liners like “happy birthday” posted on our bleak timelines.

French-German Nobel Laureate Albert Schweitzer aptly noted, “We are all so much together, but we are all dying of loneliness.” Despite urbanization and technological advancement, these words continue to ring true in our society, reveling in a sense of self-absorbed individualism.

Loneliness is preventable. When will we take it upon ourselves to break the cycle and save our fellow man from a lonely, cursed existence?

So as we enter the final stretch of the spring semester finishing up major projects and preparing for finals, make time for yourself, your family and your friends. Even though we might die alone, having good friends along the way never hurt anybody.