All the lonely people

July 11th, 2018

Recently, I visited Manhattan for the first time along with my children. As we entered the city, we were immediately overwhelmed by the mass of humanity squeezed onto this small strip of land. More than 1.6 million people live and work in Manhattan, a space that occupies only 22 square miles. When you’re from a city like Austin, Texas, which has less than a million people scattered over 305 square miles, that contrast is quite stark. Yet, as my daughter remarked, New York City seems like such a lonely place despite the ever-present swarm of people.

When you watch the faces in the crowds, on the subways and in the streets, you see a lot of lonely people. New Yorkers tend to keep to themselves and rarely initiate conversation. As I indulged my people-watching habit on the subway, I began to wonder how many of these silent, tired beings had someone to talk to when they got home.

Of course, I understand that just because someone looks lonely, it doesn’t mean they are. All kinds of introverted folk are part of deeply rooted communities and have lives full of meaningful friendships. Unfortunately, based on the research we have, a large percentage of those people on the subway probably do feel lonely. Loneliness is widespread among Americans, and more recent research continues to confirm this finding.

In fact, loneliness is growing and has reached epidemic levels. An article on the Business Insider website examines the findings of a survey of 20,000 Americans conducted earlier this year by the global health company Cigna and released in May. Not only did the research find that more of us are lonely, but it also found that the negative effects of loneliness on our physical and mental health are startling. Loneliness is a public health threat on the same level as obesity and is nearly as bad as smoking. 

Specific findings

Cigna’s news release on its national study of loneliness states that almost half of Americans report always or sometimes feeling alone or left out. Over a quarter feel that they rarely or never have someone who really understands them. Over 40 percent of Americans feel they don’t have meaningful relationships. The same amount report feeling isolated from others. Living alone increases the chances someone will report feeling lonely, but only slightly. Single parents, even if they live with their kids, are more likely to report feelings of loneliness.

According to Cigna, only about half of Americans have meaningful in-person interactions on a daily basis. Emerging adults (ages 18–22 and sometimes referred to as Generation Z) are the loneliest generation and claim to be in worse health than older adults. Other studies have found a strong correlation between mental health and social media use, but Cigna’s study found that social media use alone isn’t a predictor of loneliness.

The study used the UCLA Loneliness Scale, a series of 20 questions that measure one’s subjective feelings of loneliness, as well as feelings of social isolation. Examples of statements include the following: There is no one I can turn to; I do not feel alone; I feel part of a group of friends. Participants rate each item on a scale from 1 (Never) to 4 (Often). Possible loneliness scores range from 20 to 80. A score of 43 or higher qualifies as lonely. The average score on the Cigna study was 44, meaning that most Americans would be considered lonely.

Now that we’ve looked at the data, let’s consider how these terms are defined. An article titled “A Cure for Disconnection” in Psychology Today provides this. The term loneliness is subjective, but it’s most closely related to sadness due to a lack of friendships. One can feel lonely in a crowd of people. Social isolation is a more objective term that includes living alone and having very few social ties. While you might think the objective measure would be more useful for our analysis, a study by Angie LeRoy, a doctoral candidate at the University of Houston, found that subjective loneliness was a far bigger risk factor than social isolation because of the gap between the social relationships a person desires and the social relationships they actually have. “Feeling” lonely is what causes emotional pain, and emotional pain can cause a variety of health issues. 

The role of churches

The Cigna study found that people who find a balance in sleep, time with family, physical activity and work report feeling less lonely. With this in mind, how can churches help those who feel lonely? If regular sleep is good, how can churches encourage rest? Do we overwork our volunteers and staff members? Do we uphold the value of Sabbath, or do we overschedule weekends with church activities? The same questions could be asked of family time. How can we create a community that comes together regularly as a body of Christ but also encourages quality time with family?

Some churches excel at encouraging exercise and healthy eating. Many churches support authentic relationships through small groups, social gatherings and care programs. These can become places where vulnerability and honesty are regarded as sacred. Sadly, many regular churchgoers still find church to be a lonely place. Most of our programs and worship experiences are geared toward extroverts, families, couples, and those who fit into social situations easily.

Community has always been vital to the Christian experience. Our tradition is one of breaking bread together in homes and carrying one another’s burdens. Church is where we find lifelong friends who walk with us through birth to death and all the messiness in between. I’ve been fortunate to have many brothers and sisters in Christ whom I name not just as friends but as confidants.

Yet the mission statement of The United Methodist Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, and part of being a disciple is learning to commune with God in solitude. My relationship with Christ shouldn’t be dependent upon my social life or the behavior of my friends. In his book Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life, Henri J. M. Nouwen says that learning to be in solitude with God can heal the pain of loneliness and give us a compassionate heart. “The movement from loneliness to solitude is a movement by which we reach out to our innermost being to find there our great healing powers, not as a unique property to be defended but as a gift to be shared with all human beings,” Nouwen teaches.

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups.

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