Are you lonesome tonight?

By Carol Walker

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The crooning of Elvis Presley singing his song is going through my mind as I think about a service called “Cuddlist,” which offers cuddles and other non-sexual physical affection to people who are just plain lonely. I’m not sure I would appreciate that service. One guy responded by saying, “I ain’t paying nobody for a fake hug.”

Cuddlist and other organizations such as LISTENforloneliness (group therapy), The UnLonely Project  (providing creative expression) and The Lonely Hour (a podcast) are some of the American attempts to alleviate a widespread problem of loneliness. According to surveys, about 40 percent of the population in America reports feeling lonely — a significant number — and that loneliness can lead to health issues, decreased productivity at work and an impaired quality of life.

Vice Admiral Vivek H. Murthy, the 19th Surgeon General of the United States, from 2014 to 2017, said when he was a practicing physician, loneliness was the most common pathology among his patients, and it is on the increase. He defines loneliness as “the feeling of having inadequate social connections.”  People are more geographically mobile and they often live apart from friends and family, many are telecommuting, working from their computers at home. Even in an office setting, individuals often sit in front of a computer screen with little interaction with other employees. At home, individuals have a hard time disconnecting from their electronic devices.

Murthy said, “… The world is filled with people with hundreds of friends on Facebook and thousands of followers on Instagram who feel profoundly alone.”

Social scientists discovered in 2001 that loneliness can be as detrimental to the body as obesity or smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Today, 17 years late, other maladies have been added to the list associated with loneliness: increased stress, infection and inflammation rates, cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes, joint disease, dementia and a decreased life span.

It affects people on the job. A survey of 1,600 workers by the Harvard Business Review found that the loneliest employees performed poorly, were less satisfied and quit more often. Without strong social connections at work, self-esteem is damaged, stress increases and it is harder to endure stressful situations at work. Stress can affect the prefrontal cortex, which governs decision making, planning, abstract thinking and analysis, all things necessary on the job.

While at the Surgeon General’s office Murthy developed something called “Inside Scoop,” which during a five-minute period at weekly staff meetings encouraged employees to share something about themselves through pictures. It created an immediate positive impact as people began to feel more connected to one another, with the outcome being more productivity, confidence to take on new tasks and feeling valued by others.

His advice when it comes to the workplace is to first evaluate the current state of connections on the job, look at ways to strengthen social connections and create opportunities to learn about colleagues’ personal lives. Employees should look for ways to encourage and help others and accept help when offered.

When it comes to life off the clock and in the neighborhoods in a 2017 study sponsored by AARP, it was determined that the least lonely individuals generally met regularly with friends, in person, take part in activities that span the generations and have a purpose in life. That makes me ask the question, who are the people I know who don’t have or take an opportunity to meet regularly with other individuals? How can we help others become a part of intergenerational activities? How can we encourage others to find a purpose in life?

There are numerous civic groups in our community that could offer help in this area, and churches as well could provide an antidote for all of the particular things mentioned that can take away the loneliness. Billy Graham often said and I believe it is true, “There is a God-shaped vacuum in all of us that can only be filled by Him.” That would be a great starting place to cure a lonely heart.

Murthy says the world is suffering from an epidemic of loneliness, and “we must take action now to build the connections that are the foundation of strong companies and strong communities and that ensure greater health and well-being for all of us.”

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