The Challenge of Loneliness and How Social Capital Can Help Combat It

Valentine’s Day is only a couple of weeks away and it has me replaying the lyrics to an old Beatles song over and over again in my head - “All the lonely people, where do they all come from? All the lonely people, where do they all belong?”

If I didn’t already work for a nonprofit which stresses the importance of using social capital, social networks and community engagement to produce positive health outcomes, would an article talking about how the twenty-first century has become known as “The Age of Loneliness” ever have caught my attention? Maybe not, but we all feel lonely from time to time.

According to writer George Monbiot, “We have created human societies where it is easier for people to become cut off from all human connections than ever before.” Facebook and other social media outlets have helped accelerate this process. How often have you posted a status or thought and returned to it multiple times to see how many “likes” or comments it’s received? We seem to place a higher stake on how many “friends” we have on Facebook, rather than how many individual friends’ lives we have touched by physically being there for them or being able to open our networks to connect them with others.

Since my father’s recent passing, I’ve been thinking about how immensely lonely my mother must be feeling. After all, she had been with my father for over 50 years, starting at age 19. I can’t even begin to imagine how you go from sharing your everyday thoughts with someone for so long to having complete silence in your house. The silence must be deafening at times. According to a recent report by AARP, isolation (or loneliness) among adults over 50 is a growing epidemic due to the following statistics:


  • 45 percent of adults over 65 are divorced, separated or widowed.

  • 42 percent of Americans over 65 are disabled in some way.

  • 28 percent of those over 65 — and 46 percent of women — live alone.

  • Americans who reach 65 today can expect to live, on average, an additional 20 years.

When we think of a lonely person, we often think of a “loner.” In reality, loneliness stretches far beyond single people or older adults. There are children and adolescents who feel alone or that no one has ever gone through what they are going through. There are married people who rely too heavily on a spouse to satisfy all of their social needs. And there are “helicopter parents” who hover so closely to their children and their activities that they sacrifice their own friends and adult social circles or exclude their own children from making the important bonds of friendship at an early age.

The research on the effects of loneliness on health, emotional problems, and substance abuse due to social exclusion are mentioned in Jacqueline Olds’ book, The Lonely American and by Professor Peter Cohen in his Huffington Post article, The Real Cause of Addiction.  Cohen argues that human beings have a deep need to bond and form connections and without these connections we have a much higher propensity towards addictive behaviors. Cohen states: “It's how we get our satisfaction. If we can't connect with each other, we will connect with anything we can find -- the whirr of a roulette wheel or the prick of a syringe. We should stop talking about 'addiction' altogether, and instead call it 'bonding.'”

Human connection, or applying ‘social capital’ could go a long way in the recent heroin crisis felt here in Massachusetts and elsewhere around the country. Canadian psychologist Bruce Alexander, at the Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada, used rats to prove his hypothesis that sensory deprivation and social depravity (or loneliness) spurs drug addiction. To test his hypothesis, he built an enclosure around 200 times the size of a standard rodent cage. He decorated the interior walls and supplied running wheels and nesting areas. Rats in this cage had access to a plentiful supply of food, and, most importantly, the rats lived in it together. he referred to this as “Rat Park”.

Rats are smart, social creatures. Living in a small cage on their own is a form of sensory deprivation. Rat Park was what neuroscientists call an enriched environment, or non-deprived. In Alexander's tests, rats reared in traditional cages drank nearly 20 times more morphine than those brought up in Rat Park.

Alexander states that “for far too long, we have talked exclusively about individual recovery from addiction. We need now to talk about social recovery - how we all recover, together, from the sickness of isolation that is sinking on us like a thick fog.”

In the face of such daunting statistics and research, how do we even begin to combat this problem? The good thing about social capital is that it starts small. Every interaction with your neighbor, or time you do each other a favor, builds the foundation of community. Something as simple as helping them shovel their front stairs, offering to hold the ladder for them while they clean out their gutters or sharing some homemade soup or baked goods are all simple things we can do to use our social capital to help combat the challenge of loneliness in 2015 and beyond.

For more ways to build social capital, please click here.