What’s worse for you: smoking 15 cigarettes a day or feeling lonely? According to Dr. Julianne Holt-Lunstad from Brigham Young University, chronic loneliness can be just as detrimental to an individual’s well-being as several other more widely recognized health concerns, including a lack of physical activity, the use of tobacco products, and even air pollution. Throughout her lecture entitled “Connection is Prevention,” Holt-Lunstad reiterated the fact that loneliness is a significant health concern that does not (but should) receive just as much attention as other issues because of its connection to early mortality. Her lecture was sponsored by the Institute for Collaboration on Health, Intervention and Policy (InCHIP) and was held in the Dodd Center.
The various definitions of loneliness make it hard to prioritize the issue as a major health concern and attain resources to combat it, Holt-Lunstad said. Loneliness could be defined in terms of the structure, function or quality of relationships. Although loneliness is defined, the issue needs more attention.
“It’s only through greater prioritization and greater resources that we will actually be able to tackle this important issue,” Holt-Lunstad said.
For most of her talk, Holt-Lunstad considered loneliness to be “an individual’s perceived lack of social connection.” She stated that this social connection is a “fundamental human need” and that loneliness is the “biological motive to reconnect socially.” Just as hunger is the biological motive that drives an individual to eat and thirst is the biological motive that drives an individual to drink, loneliness is the biological motive drives an individual to attain crucial social connections.
Though such social interaction is arguably as important to humans as eating or drinking, many people find themselves lonely in this increasingly connected world. Just now are governments and researchers beginning to take notice. The UK, for example, has recently appointed a minister for loneliness.
To solve this problem, Holt-Lunstad stated, researchers and policymakers must approach it from several different angles. Not only can loneliness stem from circumstances relating to poor health (for example, an undiagnosed hearing problem hindering an individual’s ability to participate in a conversation), it can come from life transitions (like the death of a spouse) or arise as a result of societal barriers preventing meaningful social connections (discrimination, for instance). And not only does the amount of social interaction matter, quality of interaction and relationships plays a big role in one’s perceptions of loneliness.
“Just like we need food and water to survive, quality also matters,” Holt-Lunstad said. “Water can be dirty or tainted, food can be spoiled and poor quality can put you at risk….Social connection needs to be addressed in this comprehensive way because if we only address one of these we are going to possibly miss risk associated with the others.”
Audience members found Holt-Lunstad’s discussion of loneliness as a social issue to be informative and thorough. They found her graphical depiction of how loneliness stacks up against other health issues to be especially helpful in visualizing how much of a problem loneliness is.
“What I learned per say was how it relates to other health outcomes,” said Colleen Vernola, who works with Wellness and Prevention Services. “I had heard some things I knew about [how] loneliness and disconnection were related to health outcomes but to see how they relate on a graph to the other ones is what I learned.”
Holt-Lunstad concluded her presentation on a hopeful note. She discussed her experience teaching a study abroad program in Sardinia. Not only did she teach her students about the importance of social connection, she learned about the trust that goes into developing those connections. Throughout the area, she noticed that keys were left in doors. When she asked a local about it, he responded that people leave their keys in the door in case their neighbor needs anything.
“I was struck by the incredible level of trust that existed in this community,” Holt-Lunstad said. “It’s my hope that through greater social connection that we cannot only have healthier communities, but this can also help to rebuild trust in our society and the fraying fabric of our society so that we can live in stronger, more connected communities.”
Stephanie Santillo is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.