The sedentary lifestyle is a plague of Western living, with countless people who drive to work, drive home and then sit in front of the television all evening. This lack of stimulation and exercise is known to cause numerous physical ailments, many related to obesity, but there is a growing awareness that the psychological consequences of our increasingly siloed lives could be even worse.
The loss of social connection breeds isolation. “You might think that people getting home to the real point of life in a robust material culture would go home to a colossal banquet or an orgy of love-making or a riot of music and dancing,” said Zen proselytizer Alan Watts. “It turns out to be this purely passive contemplation of a twittering screen . . . Everybody isolated, watching this thing. And thus in no real communion with each other at all.”
Watts died in 1973, and our disconnectedness from each other has only gotten worse since. “Not only are we at the highest recorded rate of living alone across the entire century, but we’re at the highest recorded rates ever on the planet,” Brigham Young University psychology researcher Tim Smith said in a press release. “With loneliness on the rise, we are predicting a possible loneliness epidemic in the future.”
Hand-in-hand with that epidemic comes death. Smith’s research, published in the Perspectives on Psychological Science journal, compiled the results of 70 studies that comprised of three million people in total. All told, being lonely increased mortality rates by 26 percent. The study looked at related measures as well, and found that social isolation boosts the chance of death by 29 percent, and living alone increases your chance of dying by almost a third.
The health outcomes for lonely people are just as bad if not worse as for people who suffer from obesity. “The effect of this is comparable to obesity, something that public health takes very seriously,” Julianne Holt-Lunstad, lead study author, said in a statement. “We need to start taking our social relationships more seriously.”
The BYU team had previously found that isolation can have similar effects on mortality as alcoholism or smoking up to 15 cigarettes per day.
Another study found that the deleterious effects of loneliness can be even more pronounced in older people. During a six-year period, isolated people who are 50 and over had twice the mortality rate of their peers who enjoy more active social and family lives, according to a 2012 paper published in The Journal of Psychology: Interdisciplinary and Applied.
“It’s time we took loneliness seriously as a threat to a happy and healthy later life,” Caroline Abrahams of Age UK said to The Guardian. “We need to do more to support older people to stay socially connected.”
Although the internet and social media seems like it could keep people in touch, it’s not the same as in-person, in-depth friendships. While the average American has 303 friends on Facebook, according to an infographic by topcounselingschools.org, the number of true confidants dropped from 2.94 in 1985 to 2.08 in 2004 — and 25 percent of Americans that year claimed to have no close friends at all!
We pay a steep price for our isolation. “Substantial evidence now indicates that individuals lacking social connections are at risk for premature mortality,” the BYU study concludes. “Further research is needed to address the complexities of social interactions, interdependence, and isolation, but current evidence certainly justifies raising a warning.”