Friday, December 3, 2010

Are You Lonely?

There's a survey from AARP that says loneliness has increased in America over the past decade. Today more than 44 million adults over age 45 suffer from chronic loneliness. According to the Census Bureau 127 million Americans are over age 45.

Why are there more lonely people now? Harvard professor Robert Putnam in his book Bowling Alone tells of a decline in Americans' civic engagement. He says: "Boomers have been more socially disengaged than their parents all their adult lives." This has been mostly because of economic hard times, which causes people to hunker down and withdraw from their communities. This  means that  people aren't doing things--joining groups, going to church, or participating in other social activities. Interestingly, there has been a study which  concluded  that growing old and living alone is not a reliable predicator of who is lonely, since loneliness decreases with age.

Studies show that it  is those people 45 to 49 who are the most lonely; in fact, 35% of people 45+ are lonely. A close second are the 50 to 59 year olds, and then those aged 60 to 69. Only 25 percent of those age 70 or older are lonely. By age 85, people are quite happy regardless of whether they live alone. What all of this is saying is that loneliness decreases with age. The older people have learned to appreciate what life they have left, while boomers are often working longer hours for less money and struggling to make ends meet. That doesn't leave much time for anything else. 

Some people try to fill the void of loneliness by making friends on the internet. It sounds like the perfect substitute, but Facebook can't substitute for real face time. Unfortunately, it can actually make loneliness worse. One loneliness expert named John T. Cacioppo--director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago and a leading authority on the subject--says that "using social networking as a substitute for human contact can be like eating celery when you're hungry. It makes you feel better for a short while, but it isn't real nourishment, so you get hungrier in the long run." 

And one thing that's scary is that loneliness has links to serious medical problems. Cacioppo says that "more than half of the people responding in the survey said they were in poor health and they were lonely. People sleep more poorly exercise less, eat more fats and sugars, and are more anxious when they lonely than when they are not...illness and diability can leave people more isolated and lonely."

So what is important to help keep you from being lonely? The survey says that people who are spiritual are less lonely percentage wise. And people who volunteer. Cacioppo's prescription for happiness: "People who need social connections should think about being alone in the same way a person with high blood pressure thinks about salt." But volunteering is not a guarantee, since some people who volunteer just don't seem to find connections with others. The antidote to loneliness IS social connections and a circle of intimates, but establishing them can be a trial. 

Emily White wrote a book titled Lonely, and says that the first step to eliminating loneliness is educating yourself about it. She learned that chronic loneliness can end only when the person who has it looks in the mirror and sees an entirely different person, someone who draws support and meaning from others instead of just themselves. But a profound change doesn't happen overnight. It takes work and awareness to keep from being lonely. But trying these ideas is worth it if it helps, isn't it?
How lonely are you? Answer these questions with 1=never 2=rarely 3=sometimes 4=always 
Scoring: Add up your responses. An average loneliness score is 20. 25 and higher reflects a high level of loneliness. 30 or higher reflects a very high level of loneliness.
  1. How often do you feel unhappy doing so many things alone?
  2. How often do you feel you have no one to talk to?
  3. How often do you feel you cannot tolerate being so alone?
  4. How often do you feel as if no one understands you?
  5. How often do you find yourself waiting for people to call or write?
  6. How often do you feel completely alone?
  7. How often do you feel unable to reach out and communicate with those around you?
  8. How often do you feel starved for company?
  9. How often do you feel it is difficult for you to make friends?
  10. How often do you feel shut out and excluded by others? 
So what can one do to keep loneliness away? There's no easy cure, but these steps can lower your risk.
  1. Nurture your personal relationships.
  2. Don't substitute electronic communication for face-to-face contact.
  3. Take time to volunteer.
  4. Join a social club or community organization.
  5. Stay in touch with former colleagues after you retire.
  6. Educate yourself about loneliness.
For the full article on being lonely, see the November/December issue of AARP magazine.
I hope your Friday is a good one!

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