“It is not good for man to be alone.” – Genesis 2:18
After declaring creation “good,” God called one thing “not good” and that was for a human to be alone. In the first verses of Genesis, we are introduced to the communal, triune nature of God. In the second chapter, it is clear that the people made in His image were also designed to live in community. For much of history, life was, in fact, much more communally lived than it is today, and the greatest punishment was to be outcast from the community. 

Today, we have greater access to other people than perhaps any time in history. Transportation can take us anywhere in the world. Technology can allow people to communicate at any time and across almost any distance. Yet the access and constant connection has not diminished loneliness. In fact, today many people are deeply lonely. 

In surveys, between a quarter and half of Americans report symptoms of loneliness. The numbers are so high that in 2017 former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek H. Murthy called loneliness an epidemic in America. And it’s not just a problem among older adults who may experience more social isolation. Young people, especially those in Gen Z, report high levels of loneliness. In fact, no age group is excluded. What’s more, the problem isn’t limited to the United States. In the UK, a minister for loneliness was appointed by British Prime Minister Theresa May in 2018 to address a similar epidemic of loneliness there.

Between a quarter and half of Americans report symptoms of loneliness. The numbers are so high that in 2017 former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek H. Murthy called loneliness an epidemic in America.

During the holiday season, it is worth considering how we might understand and make a difference for people we know who are chronically lonely.

Understanding loneliness

Researchers often define loneliness as a mismatch between a person’s desired and actual social relationships. This means that someone can be lonely even if they are not socially isolated; they can be lonely while connected to others if their relationships do adequately meet their social needs. 

All people are lonely at times. In fact, loneliness can be a positive trigger to improving our social lives. Psychologists say, just as hunger is a signal to eat, loneliness is a sign that we need to prioritize connecting with others. However, chronic loneliness can have dire consequences on cardiovascular health, the immune system, sleep, cognitive function, and mental health. When it comes to health and mortality, research suggests that loneliness may be more harmful than obesity and just as dangerous smoking.

Just as hunger is a signal to eat, loneliness is a sign that we need to prioritize connecting with others.

Research also indicates that prolonged loneliness tends to lead to behavioral changes that perpetuate feeling alone. 

Ross Oakes Mueller, Ph.D., professor of psychology at PLNU, explains: “Once you are lonely, your brain areas associated with scanning for threat are activated. Once my brain becomes tuned to detect social threat, there are many ways of communicating that others may intend to be neutral, but that I overinterpret as threat. This type of misinterpretation can then lead me to respond defensively or even to attack-back.”

Social and psychological trends

Increased rates of loneliness may be at least partially explained by an aging population and social trends toward delayed marriage, more dual career families, more people living alone, and reduced fertility rates, according to a meta-analysis published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Review.

A recent article in The Atlantic suggests another social and cultural reason to add to the list. Entitled “Why Don’t I See You Anymore? Our unpredictable and overburdened schedules are taking a dire toll on American society,” the piece discusses both the increase in working hours among many Americans and the loss of communal time off. While weekends and especially Sundays were once times families and friends could count on being able to see one another, work culture in America has changed that. With stores and restaurants open seven days a week and many more people working at all different hours, work and time off are much less shared endeavors than in the past.

“The hours in which we work, rest, and socialize are becoming ever more desynchronized,” the author points out, noting that nearly 20 percent of American workers have non-standard or variable work hours in addition to the third of the population who tend to work more than 40 hours a week.

In addition, the level to which individualism and independence are prized in America precludes the kind of community and interdependence found in other cultures and time periods. 

In an article for The Gospel Coalition, Jeremy Linneman, a pastor, writes, “We Americans tend to read Scripture from an exclusively individualistic framework. We’re surprised to find that the Lord’s Prayer contains only plural pronouns (‘Our Father … Give us … Forgive us’) and that Paul writes ‘our Lord’ 53 times but ‘my Lord’ only once. Our salvation isn’t less than personal; it’s more than personal.” 

Brian Becker, PLNU campus pastor and director of international ministries, points out that when individualism is taken to its extreme, we end up isolated. Isolation causes us to feel that perhaps no one cares about us – and perhaps we don’t care about anyone either, he says. Such feelings can lead to loneliness and depression.

Listen Now: PLNU professors share insight on complex questions around loneliness, isolation, community, and connection on the Viewpoint podcast.

The role of technology

Though technology can help offset loneliness in some ways, such as by helping us keep in touch with family and friends who live afar or by connecting us to people with common interests, Becker believes it also contributes to our loss of community.

Despite its ability to connect people, technology and automation have also allowed us to become increasingly disconnected as physical communities. We can shop online or use self-checkout at the grocery store, but these conveniences come with the cost of interaction. 

Since we can meet up online, some people are less likely to meet up in person – statistics suggest that this is happening with teenagers and young adults. Members of Gen Z spend great amounts of time connected on social media, but many spend less face-to-face time with others than previous generations did.

This presents a challenge, Becker says, because online “every bit of our identity is given to us by others. Instagram, TikTok, our identities there are stilted and purely performative. Social media relationships are not typically a sharing of the heart.”

As he works with students, Becker has noticed that some young people today “lack lived experience of trusting and leaning in.” This has happened as talking and even fighting in some families has been replaced by independent technology use and a push toward academics and individual achievement over time spent with family. Becker believes our culture tends to see “people as a commodity not as beating hearts.”

Members of Gen Z spend great amounts of time connected on social media, but many spend less face-to-face time with others than previous generations did.

“When people have no experience with conflict, it makes social discourse difficult,” he said. “Disagreement suddenly makes people want to cancel relationships. Fighting and repairing would actually be helpful. Rupture-and-repair says, ‘I trust you enough to have an argument with you, and we can come to the other side. Our friendship can become stronger through the struggle.’”

Related Story: Considering the spiritual benefits and dangers related to recent technology and online platforms like Instagram and Facebook for both younger and older generations.

Loneliness triggers and risks

The larger social and cultural trends at play seem likely to have influenced rates of loneliness. In individuals, specific life events and challenges also increase the risk of feeling lonely.

For example, older adults are at risk of loneliness when they face challenges such as losing a loved one; moving away from family or friends or into a care facility; adjusting to retirement, including the loss of the social connections and fulfillment they may have previously had at work; and a lessened ability to go out or perform activities they previously enjoyed due to health issues, trouble driving, or other issues.

Losing a loved one or moving can trigger loneliness in younger people as well. Starting college or new educational programs, changing jobs, or experiencing a divorce or break-up can also cause loneliness in people of all ages. Holidays and anniversaries can be hard for people when seasonal events remind them of people or things lost or lacking in their lives. 

In addition, people in specific groups are reportedly more likely to feel lonely. These include people estranged from family or friends, caregivers, people with disabilities, single adults and single parents, and people who experience discrimination or abuse. Oakes Mueller says having a close friend or family member who is lonely also increases a person’s risk of becoming lonely themselves, since loneliness can be contagious. Some research has also suggested that people with lower socioeconomic status and people who are unemployed are also at a higher risk of loneliness. Sleep deprivation has also been linked to higher risk of loneliness, he said.

Helping those who are lonely

If we care about the wellbeing of those who are lonely, we can strive to make a difference. Individuals, families, and churches can help people they know who are lonely due to social isolation or lack of regular community. While some lonely people may need professional interventions to help address maladaptive behaviors, there are many who simply need time and attention from people who care about them.

An article by Sharp Healthcare names loneliness and social isolation risk factors for suicide among older adults and suggests ways individuals can help. Most of the ideas are not difficult – they include regularly visiting loved ones, taking the time to talk and listen, and helping with problem-solving and conflict resolution. Friends or volunteers could offer this kind of simple but potentially life-saving care and companionship to those without family nearby. Making these kinds of connections could be a role churches play in making a difference, perhaps linking younger members with homebound or otherwise isolated members. The time together could help people in both age groups.

“One intervention that has been shown to help is to spend time socializing in meaningful groups,” Oakes Mueller added. “But it has to be of a particular sort.”

Left to their own devices, a lonely individual may simply continue to misinterpret the responses of group members as rejecting or critical. A trained leader can help reinterpret a lonely person’s tendency to socially withdraw or even to act aggressively as a symptom of hurt. The leader can also help the lonely person better understand the benign nature of neutral social interactions.  

“This often happens in group therapy, but small groups in churches with leaders who are aware of symptoms of loneliness could help with this role,” Oakes Mueller said.

The desire to be needed, to help and to care and not just receive attention is one reason why lonely people can benefit from pet ownership or spending time with animals.

For people of all ages, spending time together in ways that feel natural – rather than like charity – can be very helpful. Asking for people’s opinions and advice can also help them feel valued. When someone is retired, out of work, or feeling purposeless, it can make a real difference to feel that they have helped someone else. 

In an interview with The Atlantic, John Cacioppo, a psychologist at the University of Chicago who wrote a book on loneliness, notes that volunteering helps us feel better and see the good in others. It also helps create relationships that are about both giving and receiving.

Related Article: No longer isolated – art therapy’s effect on older generations.

The desire to be needed, to help and to care and not just receive attention is one reason why lonely people can benefit from pet ownership or spending time with animals.

“Providing the elderly with a dog has been shown to reduce loneliness, and may extend life and give the immune system a boost,” Oakes Mueller said.

For people who can’t own a pet, volunteering with animals can be a good way to reap the benefits of time with animals as well as the benefits of helping others and contributing. 

Next steps

As individuals, we can share God’s love with lonely people this holiday season by spending time with them and by connecting them to others and to opportunities to engage and serve. We can strive to understand that withdrawal or aggression may be signs of pain and need for help rather than simply antisocial behavior.

As churches, we can consider equipping small group leaders to identify lonely members and to serve them better. Churches might also consider ways to help lonely people volunteer – whether they are busy college students far from home, working adults who feel isolated from others, or retirees seeking connection and purpose.

And as Christians, we can pray that God will draw near to the lonely and give them in incomparable gift of His presence not just at the holidays but throughout their lives.

“The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” – Psalm 34:18