Lonely? You’re Not the Only One

UW-Green Bay panel discusses loneliness and how to deal with it

America has a loneliness problem. And although the COVID-19 pandemic may have exacerbated the issue, loneliness was on the rise long before lockdowns started, according to David Helpap, associate professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay (UW-GB).

“America’s stock of social capital [relationships between people in a given community] has been shrinking for decades,” Helpap said. Now, about 36% of Americans report serious loneliness, feeling lonely “frequently” or “almost all the time or all the time,” according to a 2020 Harvard study. 

That’s why loneliness, connection and community are UW-GB’s Common CAHSS this year. Pronounced “cause,” the acronym stands for College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, and the college presents an annual series that brings multiple disciplines together to start conversations about a specific issue. 

One of CAHSS’s outreach efforts was a Feb. 25 Door County Auditorium presentation during which UW-GB experts in four disciplines – political science, psychology, writing and performing arts – tackled the topic of loneliness.

The Side Effects of Being Lonely

Loneliness isn’t just a feeling, according to Ryan Martin, a UW-GB psychology professor and associate dean – it’s an evolutionary call to action.

For our very early ancestors, having social connections was essential for survival because those connections meant greater access to food and resources, Martin said. Though we can now live more easily on our own, our need for connection and community hasn’t diminished.

“The same way fear alerts us to danger and anger alerts us to injustice, loneliness alerts us to isolation and encourages us to find social connections to fix it,” Martin said. “That’s why it’s a benefit. It’s good that we feel this.” 

But also like fear and anger, loneliness is meant to be a quick call to action, not a long-lasting emotional state, Martin said. Lingering loneliness can increase the risk of sleep disorders, high blood pressure, heart disease and even dementia, according to Martin, and it can lead to substance abuse

Making social connections is often easier said than done, however, because of the cyclical relationship between loneliness and some of its side effects.

“Things like depression and anxiety are caused by loneliness, and loneliness also causes these things,” often creating a vicious cycle, Martin said.

In addition to causing problems on a personal level, loneliness erodes the larger society and its political participation, leading fewer and fewer people to be engaged in local politics, according to Helpap.

“Just getting people to run in local government is a challenge,” he said.

Lack of engagement in local politics, in turn, leads to political polarization. The fewer social connections we have, the harder it is to empathize with others, according to Helpap. 

“When we feel more isolated,” he said, “there’s more of a sense of ‘us versus them.’ We lose compassion for others when we don’t regularly talk to them.”

Preventive Measures

The research presented during the panel presentation confirms what most people already know: It’s not good to be lonely for too long. So how do we stop? Each panelist proposed a different solution. 

• Helpap proposed engagement in the community and local politics as a cure for loneliness.That means joining community organizations; deemphasizing engagement with social media in favor of engagement with real-life communities; participating in local, grassroots-level projects, and especially nonpartisan efforts such as improving a public park; and increasing information literacy.

• Martin’s suggestions focused on helping others out of loneliness, rather than relying on isolated people to help themselves. That could involve encouraging social-skills training for people who are uncomfortable in social settings, providing social support to people who are socially disconnected, and developing opportunities for interactions by planning social events and encouraging people to attend events that already exist. 

• For Jennie Young, a UW-GB associate professor of English, the answer is writing – and specifically, expressive personal writing such as journaling or storytelling.
“Anything that makes a connection defeats isolation,” she said, and writing connects individuals to the past, present and future simultaneously.

• Kelli Strickland, executive and artistic director of Green Bay’s Weidner Center for the Performing Arts, thinks art is a powerful tool for connection, and research confirms that.“A live theater performance can synchronize your heartbeat with other people in the audience, regardless of if you know them or not,” Strickland said, citing a University College London study.

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