In May of this year the global healthcare company Cigna released a survey about loneliness with depressing results. The data, gathered from 20,000 respondents, indicated that one in every six Americans has a mental health condition of some kind—and that a common pathology among all those conditions is loneliness: a lack of belonging, community ties, and close bonds piling up to what can become an overwhelming sense of isolation.
“Loneliness has the same impact on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day,” wrote Dr. Douglas Nemecek, the chief medical officer for Behavioral Health at Cigna, in the survey’s introduction. What that means is: It could potentially kill you.
Other findings included that millennials and Gen-Z are lonelier than their predecessors, and that there was “no major difference between men and women and no major difference between races” when it came to loneliness. Students were shown to be lonelier than retirees; social media usage was revealed, counterintuitively, not to be a predictor of loneliness on its own. At the same time, people who engaged more with others in real life, as opposed to interacting online, were less likely to be lonely than their peers.
“It should not require a massive survey to prove: The more time you spend with others, the more connected you feel with the world.”
That last sentence may seem like an obvious takeaway—one that should not require a massive survey to prove. The more time you spend with others, the more connected you feel with the world. Yet, we are living during an era in which opportunities to form day-to-day relationships with other people seem increasingly less available.
The rise of telecommuting has changed the place of “coworkers” in our lives; apps like Instagram and Facebook have made it possible to “know” people and cultivate “friendships” without any meaning or commitment. Tinder and other dating apps might claim to aim at helping people find relationships (in any number of incarnations); still, the success of those businesses depends on people returning to the platforms—in other words, needing more. People marry later, have children later, form families differently than in the decades before—not negatives unto themselves, but inarguably a new weave of social fabric.
In shorthand: For all the hand-wringing about how young people choose to retreat into their devices, it’s not entirely a choice. The world seems increasingly less structured around opportunities for interaction; community, once the norm, has become something to intentionally seek out—and developing it requires a set of skills that, for many, grow rustier by the day.
And now: It’s that time of year again—the one in which loneliness that may have been kept at bay throughout spring, summer, and fall has come shrieking back at high volume. In her nonfiction novel, The Lonely City, Olivia Liang wrote that loneliness feels like a kind of hunger: “like being hungry when everyone around you is readying for a feast.” To extend Liang’s metaphor: During the highly-charged holidays, the lonely among us look at our plates and might see, with painful clarity, only what’s missing.
“For all the hand-wringing about how young people choose to retreat into their devices, it’s not entirely a choice. The world seems increasingly less structured around opportunities for interaction.”
But what can we do to feel, if not full, then satisfied with what we have, during the days where we’re more prone to emptiness?
It’s a question that I’ve worked to answer in my own life over the past several years, after losing my father in 2015. I don’t remember what we did that first year of holidays—as in, the actual events are a blank stretch in my mind. I do know I joined my then-partner, now husband, and his parents at their home, a train ride away from our apartment in Brooklyn. I’m certain I spent most of the day red-rimmed, and at least some of it hiding in the bathroom with the faucet running, on FaceTime with my sister. Those first few holidays were miserable—but they would have been that was no matter how I spent them. Had I flown home to be with my own family, I would have been miserable, missing the only person I wanted to see. Absence—loneliness—was everywhere.
Even now, it still is. But with time, and intention, it is no longer the only thing I can see on my plate.
What I’ve learned is this: Picking back up with old traditions isn’t an option—they only remind me of what’s missing—but starting new ones that nod at the ones from my memories help. I still haven’t been “home” for the holidays, but I have rendezvoused with my sister and my mom in other places, swapping airfare and activities for gifts and decorating the tree.
If we aren’t together, I make time in the morning to talk with my family over FaceTime and give myself enough of a buffer that, if I cry (I always cry), I can get it out before leaving to spend time with my partners’ family: Even though I know they would understand and be supportive, it’s a way keeping my sadness from creeping into everyone’s day.
“Olivia Liang wrote that loneliness feels like a kind of hunger: ‘like being hungry when everyone around you is readying for a feast.’”
With practice, I’ve gotten better at preparing my partner—and myself—for what will help me feel less lonesome, and more like our own unit of two. What that has meant is creating traditions that aren’t about anyone except for us (and accepting that those traditions are built around the time we commit to other people we love). I take extra care to build activities that make me feel grateful into the surrounding days: yoga class at my local studio, where the teachers and students know one another by name; cooking with my father’s kitchen gear, one of his dish towels thrown over my shoulder. I snooze without abandon. It helps.
Still, our loneliness epidemic as a nation—the one that is much bigger than anyone’s singular grief or isolation—requires a much wider-sweeping solution than our own incremental progress. Loneliness may get heightened attention during the holidays but it’s hardly limited to any particular time.
To that end, we shouldn’t be asking how to get through loneliness during the holidays. Instead, maybe we should focus on how to relieve it—as individuals, as a community—in all the days, weeks, and months during the rest of the year?