Are you lonely? If so, you are not alone.
A survey released this week of 20,000 U.S. adults found that nearly half of people suffer from feelings of loneliness. The evaluation of loneliness was measured by an often-used score of 43 or higher on the University of California, Los Angeles “Loneliness Scale,” a 20-item questionnaire developed to measure feelings of loneliness and social isolation.
Loneliness is both a health issue and a social issue and, often times, subjective. “We view a person’s physical, mental and social health as being entirely connected,” David Cordani, president and chief executive officer of Cigna, said in a statement. “We’re seeing a lack of human connection, which ultimately leads to a lack of vitality,” he said, “or a disconnect between mind and body.”
The findings build on previous research that showed loneliness is on the rise among younger people, and is not just a critical issue for older people. Regardless of the age of the person affected, loneliness is just as much of a health risk as being obese. An American Psychological Association study released in August concluded that lonely people are at a greater risk for premature death.
Here’s what else the Cigna report found:
• Only around half of Americans (53%) say they have meaningful, daily face-to-face social interactions, including an extended conversation with a friend or spending quality time with family.
• Members of Generation Z (adults aged 18-22 for the purposes of this study) say they are the loneliest generation and claim to be in worse health than older generations.
• Social media use alone is not a predictor of loneliness, as heavy users have a loneliness score (43.5) that is only slightly higher than people who say they never use social media (41.7).
Of course, as people age and lose family members and friends, and cut down on work, they are susceptible to loneliness. A 2012 University of California, San Francisco study found that people aged 60 years old and older who said they felt lonely were 45% more at risk of dying earlier than those who did not feel lonely, and were also more prone to mental and physical decline.
More surprising: That study found 43% of older adults felt lonely, even though only 18% actually lived alone. For older people, this raises questions about the quality of institutional and community care. Loneliness, the researchers said, is more a feeling of isolation and desolation, while depression is a mental health issue where people may feel hopeless and suffer from an extreme lack of energy.
Other studies show a link between loneliness and social media
People who spent the most time on social media had twice the odds of having greater perceived social isolation, a 2017 study of more than 1,700 people published in the “American Journal of Preventive Medicine.” Social isolation, a state in which an individual lacks a sense of social belonging and fulfilling relationships, is associated with increased morbidity and mortality.
Over-dependence on social networks as a social outlet can also lead to what some doctors call “Facebook Depression,” according to a 2010 report, “The Impact of Social Media on Children, Adolescents and Family,” by the American Academy of Pediatrics. Another report released last year found that the more you use Facebook, the less satisfied you feel about life.
Excessive browsing can also be a problem. A 2015 study in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking suggested young people who are heavy users of social media—spending more than two hours a day—are more likely to report poor mental health and psychological distress, symptoms of which include anxiety and depression.
Lonely people also behave differently as consumers
Spending money on experiences rather than stuff may also help stave off isolation, other research suggests. Materialism can lead to loneliness, which can lead to more materialism, according to a 2013 study published in the Journal of Consumer Research by Rik Pieters, a professor of marketing at Tilburg University in the Netherlands. Researchers call this theory the “loneliness loop.”
After studying 2,500 consumers over six years, Pieters found that people who valued possessions as a sign of material success felt more lonely, while those who sought possessions for sheer joy actually felt less lonely. What’s more, people who are lonely are less likely to conform and favor movies on Netflix NFLX, +0.02% with fewer stars than those who say they’re not lonely.
There are many actions people can take to combat loneliness, including getting adequate sleep and physical activity, Cigna CI, +0.75% found. Respondents who said they worked just the right amount are least likely to be lonely: Those who work more than desired had a 3-point rise in their loneliness score, while those who work less than desired showed a 6-point increase.