Feeling lonely? You're not alone.
Last updated: November 18, 2023, at 8:35 a.m. PT
Originally published: November 17, 2023, at 8:33 a.m. PT
by Loria Yeadon
President & CEO, YMCA of Greater Seattle
Did you know that the impacts of loneliness are worse than smoking? U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek H. Murthy shared this startling fact in his 2023 report on the crisis of loneliness.
Not only is loneliness a public health crisis, but it's on the rise. Loneliness is a daunting problem and, for some, exacerbated during the holiday seasons. What if I told you we could cure loneliness?
"Lacking social connection can increase the risk for premature death as much as smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day."
Two weeks ago, I joined Dr. Murthy at a Starbucks-hosted panel event as he shared updates on his earlier 2023 advisory on the epidemic of loneliness and isolation. Dr. Murthy shared a few insights that gave me pause. First, and maybe most significant, loneliness is emotional pain that manifests physically. Second, sports are a powerful tool for connection. Third, the first step in creating a change can be as simple as asking the question, "Are you lonely?"
Emotional Pain Transforms into Physical Symptoms
Dr. Murthy's first loneliness advisory came at a time when we had invested several years and billions of dollars in learning to live apart. After all, the Covid-19 pandemic proved that leaving our homes is now optional. Work, school, entertainment, grocery shopping, or even buying new cars can be done without human connection or interaction. For a while, maintaining physical distance was necessary for our community's well-being. In some ways, virtual connections are still necessary to protect our most vulnerable populations and create equitable access to vital services like telehealth. Our love of innovation served us well and advanced our journey toward equity and justice for all.
While cutting-edge technology development and adoption are hallmarks of Seattle, so are the "Seattle Freeze" and "PNW Nice" felt by so many of us in the great Pacific Northwest. Or at least our willingness to divide ourselves appears engrained in our culture. Favorite coffee or lunch spots that used to be communal gathering spaces that held the Freeze at bay have become streamlined spaces. You can place an order on your device, walk in and out within minutes, and perhaps muster a short, polite greeting on your way out the door.
Prioritizing efficiency and privacy over community has exacerbated the growing sense of loneliness called out by Dr. Murthy. According to the U.S. Surgeon General's report, since 2003, the average time we spend alone has increased to 18 additional days of waking hours every year. To put this in perspective, time spent alone is considered one of our prison system's most brutal forms of punishment. Yet, not enough is being done to address this shift in social connections. This increase in isolation is coupled with time spent participating in social relationships declining from one hour a day to only 20 minutes a day in 2020. This decrease affects young people the most, with time spent in person with friends reduced by nearly 70% over almost two decades.
The impact of loneliness is palpable. According to the U.S. Surgeon General's advisory, the physical health consequences of poor or insufficient connection include a 29% increased risk of heart disease, a 32% increased risk of stroke, and a 50% increased risk of developing dementia for older adults. Additionally, a lack of social connection increases the risk of premature death by more than 60%.
Loneliness and isolation also contribute "substantially to mental health challenges," according to the advisory.
Too often, we seek to address this crushing feeling through pharmaceutical interventions alone.
What if a non-pharmaceutical "prescription" existed in the spaces meant for us to unplug and reconnect?
When we find our way to healthier, nurturing connections, we can create the sustainable and holistic community spaces we need. According to the report, meaningful connections have three important components: structure, function, and quality. In fact, in 2021, about half of Americans (49%) reported having three or fewer close friends. This increased isolation leads to a lack of diversity in the types of relationships we all need to thrive, from friends and family to mentors or support during crises. A circle of one to three people cannot truly replace a community of caring and belonging.
This is where the importance of community spaces comes into play. What would it look like to partner with doctors like Arpan Waghray, M.D., to not only prevent, prescribe, and treat with lifesaving medicine and health care but also to prescribe community programming that leads to connection?
Dr. Waghray, a psychiatrist and CEO of Providence's Well Being Trust, a foundation dedicated to advancing mental health and well-being for all, shared that in addition to having pharmaceutical solutions and interventions to address mental health conditions, he is also a firm believer in recommending "social prescriptions" to patients.
"Prescription medications are effective and play an important role in the quality treatment of mental health conditions," Dr. Waghray said. "It's also well-documented that when medications are coupled with a 'social prescription' that involves human or social connection – whether that be group exercise, dance classes, or enjoying nature with a friend, family member or pet – our mental and physical health improves."
Sports Foster Connection
For me, I found my community on the pickleball court at 7:00 am. When I focus on chasing that wiffle ball, and I see my fellow pickleballers on both sides of the net celebrating and taunting each other's successes and misses, I am engulfed by the spirit of friendly competition and connection with those around me. I am energized socially and rejuvenated physically. This engagement with my friends and teammates (Nancy, Jason, Ting, Roger, Lillian, Melinda, Mark, Eric, Graham, Mary, Tim, Joe, Barb, Marlena, Ray, Nick, and others) who greet me warmly carries me throughout my day.
The power of community and connection where everybody knows your name cannot be overstated. Dr. Murthy even calls out the special role sports play in fostering and building connections.
Recent data from a Gallup poll shows that individuals who reported having regular access to community organizations, like the YMCA, experienced lower levels of loneliness.
I know sports like pickleball aren't the answer for everyone. Plenty of other options to build connections exist if we look for and create them. The group exercise model, like pickleball, goes beyond a physical goal and becomes a connected journey into Whole Person Health. These programs and opportunities give us the space to take a moment and check in with each other. Dr. Murthy emphasized just how crucial these moments are – and you would be surprised to see how people change before you when you ask one simple question, "Are you feeling lonely?"
Creating Moments and Space for Connection
The beauty of spaces like the YMCA is that they are filled with acceptance and affirmation where community can connect and just be, no matter what. You can be vulnerable and share how you are feeling with each other. Whether you come into a YMCA lobby each morning just to share a cup of coffee and chat with your community members, or you take a moment to connect with another parent and bond over your kids who just became best friends after playing for 30 minutes in Kids Zone, invaluable moments happen that lead to meaningful connections.
These moments are priceless and feed our minds, bodies, and spirits, and enable us to see and feed others who may be suffering in silence and feeling invisible just by sharing a moment and space in time. We are the key ingredients of the warm, nurturing soup that we all crave and need to cure the crisis of loneliness. If you want to experience the real warmth of Greater Seattle and the nurturing and healing power of community, join me on the pickleball court or in the lobby for coffee, where we are building belonging and connection for each other.
We hope to see you soon.
Stay Engaged with Us!
On our journey of fostering community and connection, we will share more messages on the power of connection in the face of loneliness from our President & CEO, Loria Yeadon. Plus, we will share stories of meaningful connections from Y staff, donors, volunteers, and members.
Our six-part blog series will cover the following topics:
- How technology and social media shape our connection
- The racial and social barriers that prevent community building
- The components of quality and sustainable healthy connections
- Sports and connection
- The powers of third places and workplace connection
- Creating a pipeline from cradle to retirement that connects people to their communities
Do you want to share your story with us? Please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We would love to hear from you.