America is in the midst of an epidemic, and the coronavirus is making it worse. That’s right: There’s another fast-spreading public health concern in addition to coronavirus. In 2017, then-surgeon general Vivek Murthy called it “the most widespread health problem in the nation.”
A 2020 survey from health insurer Cigna found that 61% of American adults are lonely, up from 54% in 2018. And that’s just the latest in a long trend of isolation. From 1985 to 2004, researchers at the General Social Survey, a program of the University of Chicago, tracked the size of an American’s confidant network, that is the number of people with whom a respondent said they could discuss important matters of life. In those years, the average network size decreased by a third from 2.94 confidants in 1985 to 2.08 in 2004. And the number of people saying they had no one in whom they could confide tripled.
Now, as a large-scale program of social distancing further removes opportunities for connection, the threat to our sociological health grows. Many of the forums where people engage socially and find community are sitting empty: schools, workplaces, houses of worship.
Which leaves us with digital connection, which is itself problematic. Social media can be used to connect and unite. It allows us to report ourselves safe in a disaster, to connect with old friends far away, or to check on neighbors while keeping our distance. But just as often, it spreads misinformation and stokes suspicion. Social media is great when it empowers us to make sure our neighbors are safe from COVID-19. It’s lousy when it tells us COVID-19 is a conspiracy of media elites bent on world domination.
There is good news. We aren’t fated to wither in social isolation. There are proactive steps we can take.
First, we can be intentional about using technology wisely for meaningful connection. Make a habit of calling someone (calls are better than texts) to check on them every day. Start with family. Then, include neighbors. Just take one more step than usual to proactively connect with another person, and do it today and every day.
Second, we can focus on increasing the quality of time we have with others. Don’t let the extended spring break drift into an endless Netflix marathon. Let’s search for low-tech ways to connect with those with whom we’re sequestered.
Third, talk to strangers. Don’t waste the opportunity to smile at the checker when you’re making your purchase of a reasonable amount of toilet paper. Have that conversation that tacitly acknowledges that we’re all in this together and that we’ll get through. Those tiny moments of connection can have a lasting impact on how we feel.
Loneliness is not the immediate crisis that coronavirus is. But there is a loneliness epidemic slowly but effectively choking off the quality of life for too many Americans. It’s also a health concern. Murthy points to research that says lonely people have a greater risk of heart disease, stroke and dementia. So, in this moment of self-quarantining, not remembering others may only lead us to trade one public health problem for more down the road.
We should follow all medical recommendations such as avoiding close contact, washing our hands, keeping our hands away from our faces and the like. We can’t ignore the medical dangers of spreading this virus. But we would also be foolish to ignore the sociological dangers of isolation. We are all in this together. Forgetting that only feeds another epidemic.