Take A Number: The Loneliness Index

Americans are lonelier than ever, according to Cigna's 2018 Loneliness Index. Cigna teamed up with Ipsos in February 2018 and conducted an online survey of more than 20,000 adults over the age of 18 years using the UCLA Loneliness Scale to examine loneliness in the United States. The study revealed that adults under 40 were lonelier than their elders, social media use is not a predictor of loneliness, students are more isolated than retirees, and loneliness has no connection to gender or race. Out of the total surveyed, 46-47% of participants expressed feeling alone or left out, while 56% reported feeling like no one was around even when they weren't in physical solitude.

Those reporting fair/poor mental health were much less likely to experience in-person interactions versus those reporting good, very good, or excellent health (32% vs. 58%).

The report suggests the way we live impacts our ability to connect and our world has changed with the evolution of the internet and social media. Undoubtedly, many factors contribute to forming relationships, but it is ironic that at a time when the web is connecting people more than ever before feelings of isolation are also increasing. While the internet facilitates communication, it also makes it easier to avoid immediate contact. I prefer communicating by email or text, precisely because I find it less intrusive than speaking on the phone. It's a way to make contact without feeling vulnerable.

Research shows that face-to-face interaction stimulates the production of neuropeptide oxytocin,often referenced as the "cuddle hormone." While loneliness increases the awareness of stress, oxytocin does the opposite, exposing the link between social contact and physical health. Because technology does not provide physical interaction, it does not produce the same natural effect.

Based on the index, approximately 1 in 6 adults in the U.S. suffer from a mental health condition and loneliness is one of the common symptoms contributing to a breakdown in wellness. Although an AARP survey shows social media participation tripling among older adults over 50 since 2010, the internet has not curbed isolation. Loneliness mirrors the same impact on life span as smoking 15 cigarettes daily and as social media participation increases, so do feelings of loneliness.

Millions of people live with little human contact becoming ill, experiencing cognitive decline, and dying early according to existing studies. As a result, it's important to see social media as a tool of opportunity versus a tool of limitation when it comes to initiating and maintaining relationships. Healing effects of relationships are overlooked during individual counseling despite the amount of effort people expend achieving independence and intimacy. Keep in mind that 25% of people surveyed expressed feeling lonely because people rarely understand them. It's difficult to connect and relate.

Curious as to how the loneliness index applies to you? Membership is not required to check out Cigna's no-obligation questionnaire. Your results will include suggestions to establish and increase social connections, but speaking to your physician about feeling isolated and excluded is beneficial. PGPS has also compiled a short list of inclusive websites and mobile applications designed for meeting new people with relatable life experiences.