And we know that the body is beautifully equipped with natural self-healing mechanisms. We make cancer cells every day. We fight our own heart disease every day. We have natural longevity enhancements built into our bodies. But here’s the kicker. Those natural self-healing mechanisms only work when the nervous system is in what Herbert Benson at Harvard called the relaxation response. This is the parasympathetic nervous system. When we know that we belong, when we can feel ourselves in love, in community, in tribe, then the nervous system relaxes.
But you think about the single mom who’s by herself trying to raise three kids and get to her job and the kids are sick and she doesn’t have any help. And what about her social life and what about her self-care? Her nervous system is in stress response all the time. And this puts her at risk of disease and decreases her longevity. And we, Americans, you know we’re only supposed to be in stress response when we’re getting chased by a tiger. But evidence shows that we’re in stress response more than 50 times per day. And lonely people are in stress response even more than that.
So this is the part where I’m going to talk to your mind in case you don’t believe loneliness and health are related. Air pollution increases your mortality by 6%, obesity by 23%, alcohol abuse by 37%, loneliness by 45%. Loneliness is as dangerous for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes per day.
There was a study in Alameda County that showed that people with the fewest social ties were 3 times more likely to have died over a 9-year period. There was another study in UCSF of 3,000 women with breast cancer that showed that people who go through their cancer journey alone are 4 times more likely to die from their disease than those who have 10 or more friends. Lonely people have higher rates of heart disease: cancer, dementia, high blood pressure, diabetes, infection, anxiety, depression, insomnia, suicide and alcoholism, addictions.
There was one great study done by Harvard where they followed 700 men over 75 years to look at wellness and well-being in general. And Robert Waldinger, one of the researchers said, “Over and over, over these 75 years, our study has shown that the people who fared the best were the people who leaned in to relationships, with family, with friends, with community”. But 1 in 5 Americans is lonely. This is 60 million people. This is a massive public health epidemic.
But when was the last time your doctor prescribed healing your loneliness as part of your wellness plan or as part of a healing journey? So what do we do about this? What is the cure for loneliness? Is it to get as many people in our social circles as possible? And if so, what about the introverts among us? I’m super introverted, right? Is it about quantity? Well, no, we know that. We know that you can feel lonelier in a crowd of others than when you’re alone.
So is it about having a significant something, a spouse, a child? But we know that nothing feels lonelier than feeling separate from the people that you love the most. So many of us have had those feelings of deep connection in nature is about that. And many of us have had intense spiritual experiences, mystical experiences — experiences in prayer, meditation is about connection with the divine. Charles Eisenstein says that it comes, it stems from what he calls the story of separation. This I think is that primal wound — that wound that says I’m separate from you, I’m separate from you, I’m separate from the trees and the stars and the oceans and the mountains. I’m separate from the people in Syria, from all of the people that are doing horrible things to our country right now. Those are other — those are not connected to me. But it’s also I’m separate from that force of love that flows through us, that animates us, that’s our very life force, that force of love that you might call the divine.
Brené Brown says the number one barrier to belonging is fitting in. If I’m feeling like I have to pretend to be something that I’m not in order to belong with you all, I’m going to feel lonely even if I’ve got 1,800 people here in the room with me. But there’s another way to do this.
So what is the loneliness prescription? And I want to start by saying we don’t know. We don’t know. But here’s some ideas that maybe we can play with and see if it resonates. And I want to give you a hint, because really it’s a paradox. Healing loneliness is an inside job but you can’t do it alone. We need each other and sometimes we need therapists and spiritual counselors and clergy. It starts with befriending yourself. As long as you’re out war with yourself, with those inner voices that are telling you that you don’t belong, that you’re not lovable, that you’re not enough, that you don’t deserve to be part of a community, you’re going to have a hard time magnetizing towards the people that are right here to love you. We have to heal shame and perfectionism, not just in ourselves but in how we relate to others, because if I’m in shame and I’m hiding myself from you, or if I think I have to be perfect and I’m not allowed to reveal my vulnerabilities to you, I’m going to separate myself. And again even if I’m surrounded by people, my nervous system is going to go into threat, it’s going to put me at risk of disease.