The U.S. Surgeon General is afraid you don’t hangout enough with friends. Seriously, in the Information Age when people have never been more connected, he believes loneliness a public health crisis. Calling it an epidemic of loneliness, the Surgeon General’s report spans 81 pages including references. In the introduction it says:
The health and societal impacts of social isolation and loneliness are a critical public health concern in light of mounting evidence that millions of Americans lack adequate social connection in one or more ways. A 2022 study found that when people were asked how close they felt to others emotionally, only 39% of adults in the U.S. said that they felt very connected to others. An important indicator of this declining social connection is an increase in the proportion of Americans experiencing loneliness. Recent surveys have found that approximately half of U.S. adults report experiencing loneliness, with some of the highest rates among young adults.
Apparently, loneliness is widespread and a major societal concern:
These estimates and multiple other studies indicate that loneliness and isolation are more widespread than many of the other major health issues of our day, including smoking (12.5% of U.S. adults), diabetes (14.7%), and obesity (41.9%), and with comparable levels of risk to health and premature death. Despite such high prevalence, less than 20% of individuals who often or always feel lonely or isolated recognize it as a major problem.
Who would have thought that being so connected to others electronically would result in loneliness. When I was a kid you wrote letters to people too far away to visit. People sent Christmas cards to reconnect with friends and relatives. You sometimes called them long distance to talk, paying $0.20 cents a minute as I recall. That’s roughly $0.60 a minute adjusted for inflation. Now we have cellphones with free long distance. We have email, text messages, video Facetime, Facebook and yet loneliness is an epidemic.
One result of Covid was more people working from home and studying from home. As workers were asked, nudged, or ordered to return to the office – even only for a day or two a week – Americans resisted.
They did not want to interact with their coworkers in an office environment if it meant getting dressed up and commuting to an office. Some moved away from their employer’s locations and cannot commute to the office. I recently read an article in the Wall Street Journal about an office building in San Francisco that was worth $300 million prior to the pandemic and expected to only fetch $60 million today. Fewer people going to the office means fewer tenants combined with a slowing economy and rising interest rates. The building is mostly empty.
I commuted to an office for nearly 30 years. I didn’t like the drive, but I enjoyed the human interaction with coworkers. Many of my coworkers I consider friends. I like my commute better now. From my kitchen it is 40 steps up the back staircase to the desk in my office upstairs. The downside is little human interaction but my dog Clementine often joins me to sleep off a dog biscuit bender.
For a country that is experiencing an epidemic of loneliness we sure seem to be trying awfully hard to avoid direct contact with other humans. Hardly a day goes by but what Amazon drops off a package or two at my house. I don’t miss having to drive into the city to shop for items I can easily have delivered. My local Kroger offers grocery delivery and curbside pickup. Uber sends me email coupons touting food delivery through Uber Eats, lest I not want to suffer the indignity of human interaction at a restaurant.
I suspect the Surgeon General is on to something, but I have a feeling that it’s going to be an uphill battle to get people to connect more in person. Whether it’s a public health epidemic is another story. Between Covid, obesity, an aging population and a dysfunctional health care system, loneliness would seem to be something of an odd initiative for the nation’s top physician.