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For more and more of us, loneliness is a serious health risk

Portrait of young man suffering from depression

In the farming community, being independent is a point of pride. However, too much independence is actually bad for your health if it leads to social isolation.

The research is clear. Multiple studies over the past three decades have shown that loneliness kills. It’s as bad for your health as smoking, being obese, having high blood pressure, or not exercising, and it can cut 15 years off your life expectancy.

With a sharp rise since the 1980s in the number of people reporting that they often feel lonely, loneliness has been declared a major public health concern.

life_book-cover_optBut it’s even worse than that. Loneliness is not only bad for our health, it can also be as painful as extreme hunger or thirst, says Montreal clinical psychologist Susan Pinker, who delved into the issue of loneliness in her 2014 book, The Village Effect.

When I contacted Pinker, she told me there’s a reason why loneliness hurts so much. Historically, being on your own put an individual at great risk, so our species evolved a desire to seek out company and to be social. Our survival depended on it.

It’s important, however, to differentiate between loneliness and being alone, says clinical psychologist and York University professor Ami Rokach, who also authored a book on loneliness. We are all different in our need for social contact, he says. Some very extroverted people require a lot of social contact while introverted people may need less.

“But we all need it to some degree,” Pinker agrees.

Rokach adds that there are shades of loneliness, and not everyone has the same experience. Some people experiencing chronic loneliness will get very, very busy while others will become demanding, angry and critical.

Chronic loneliness can also lead to depression which makes it even harder to reach out to others, he says.

Why are more people than ever reporting feelings of loneliness? Pinker points to several societal changes that are having an impact. First, there are many more people living alone today. In 2010, 10 times more of us lived alone than in 1920.

Also, in order to pursue better jobs or education (or new farm opportunities), people are more often separated geographically from their families.

Even the day-to-day contact we used to have when shopping and banking has been replaced by doing these transactions online at home. Meals can be ordered online without even picking up the phone. Even when we are out in public, people are often scrolling through their social media feeds instead of interacting with those around them.

In addition, we are working longer hours, we’re less likely to know, or socialize with, our neighbours, and we’re spending more time on the Internet.

Electronic communications including Facebook, Twitter, texting and email can help maintain our social networks but they are not a replacement for face-to-face interaction, says Pinker, who says that when you can’t meet people face-to-face, talking on the phone or via Skype are the next best things to in-person contact.

Changes in farming and the rural landscape further add to the potential for loneliness. In many areas, rural communities are shrinking, neighbours are farther apart as farm sizes increase, automation means fewer people are needed on the farm, and we drive farther to shop and use other services.

Contrast that with the early days of farming in Canada when neighbours got together to build barns, stitch quilts, chop firewood and harvest crops. Sometimes many hands were needed for the work but people also got together for companionship, says Dr. Catharine Wilson, a professor in the history department at the University of Guelph.

So, we know loneliness is bad, and we know a lot of people are suffering. But what can we do about it?

At the individual level, Rokach says the first thing you must do in order to tackle your loneliness is to accept that it is affecting you. Although there is a lot of stigma around loneliness, Rokach emphasizes that it is normal to feel lonely sometimes.

“It’s a part of being human,” he says. Unfortunately, the stigma causes people to feel badly about themselves and prevents them from reaching out, he continues.

Next, Rokach recommends trying to understand the reasons for your loneliness. For example, those who are chronically ill often become socially isolated.

Rokach has specific advice for those who feel disconnected from their spouses. Being lonely inside your marriage is one of the most painful kinds of loneliness, he says. He advises couples to invest in their relationships so partners continue to grow together.

Our society values money and professional success, which takes its toll on relationships too, he says. “If you are feeling disconnected from your partner, run to a therapist,” he says, adding that if you wait too long it will be difficult to save the marriage.

People should avoid using alcohol or drugs to help them cope, says Rokach. “These things are ineffective,” he says. Instead, it is better to get involved at work, at school and in your community, he says.

If you want to increase your network of social ties, Pinker says the best thing you can do is to get involved in something that requires weekly attendance. Join a choir, a hiking group, a sports team, a bridge club or a religious group, or meet informally with a group of friends at the local coffee shop at the same time each week, she suggests.

This can be a little more challenging for introverts (who make up about 30 per cent of the population) but even activities that are normally solitary can be done in groups, such as a crafter’s night or a book club.

“We should be structuring social contact into our days much the same way we plan for physical exercise,” says Pinker.

We can also increase our face-to-face and phone contact with our work peers by “saving email and texts for figuring out logistics,” she says.

Communities can also play a role in reversing the loneliness trend. It should start when our children are young, says Rokach. “We should be teaching our children in kindergarten about compassion and inclusion,” he says.

Community programs that connect the young and the old will benefit all involved. Children gain a broader perspective while the seniors benefit from having someone listen to them.

Community builder Doug Griffiths, author of the best-selling book Thirteen Ways to Kill Your Community, has seen many examples of rural communities across Canada reducing social isolation. Libraries can serve as community hubs by offering craft and technology workshops and creative spaces. For example, the Owen Sound and North Grey Union library in southern Ontario is creating a Maker Space where people can come together to use new technologies such as 3D printers, record a video using a green screen, or learn to sew and how to fix things.

These programs bring like-minded people together from the community and surrounding areas.

Grey County has also established Launch Pad, the Youth Technology & Activity Centre, in Hanover, Ont., to provide a safe learning environment for youth living in rural communities to explore skill-building opportunities. The space includes a learning kitchen, a computer lab, a place to socialize and opportunities to learn trade skills.

In Nova Scotia, Pulse Pictou County is an initiative that aims to form a cohesive community among young working people living in the county. They offer activities geared towards professional development and networking, community development and betterment, athletics and wellness and, most importantly, social activities.

In Camrose, Alta., there is a lively seniors’ association that ensures lots of opportunities for seniors to connect and mingle. This, in turn, draws more seniors to want to live there, says Griffiths.

The advantage of this “Village Effect,” says Pinker is that it “not only helps you live longer, it makes you want to.”



  • The Village Effect (Random House Canada, 2014) by Susan Pinker
  • Loneliness, Love and All That’s Between (Nova Publishers, 2013) by Ami Rokach
  • Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection (2008) by John T. Cacioppo and William Patrick
  • 13 Ways to Kill your Community, 2nd Edition, by Doug Griffiths, offers practical, implementable steps that can be taken to bring a community back to life.

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Helen Lammers-Helps

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