In 1926, Roy Turk and Lou Handman wrote “Are you lonesome tonight?” In 1960, Elvis Presley recorded the song. RCA Victor delayed its release because they felt it didn’t sync with Elvis’s style. However, when it was later released late in 1960, it was an immediate success in the US. It reached number three on the R&B chart. Later it topped the UK Singles Chart. The song’s achievements continued, eventually being ranked number 81 in Billboard’s list of its “Hot 100 All-Time Top Songs” list in 2008. (Source: Wikipedia.org, October 9, 2023)
Almost a hundred years after it was penned, both my husband and I remember the lyrics. The song resonated then, was seared into our memories, and speaks personally, communally, and professionally to us now.
Perhaps the song, written almost a century ago, was a prescient indicator of how loneliness would grow to become not only an American epidemic but a global pandemic. Other countries, Britain, for example has an appointed Minister whose mission is to provide leadership for eradicating loneliness. Just this year, 2023, our US Surgeon General named loneliness as an epidemic. HHS.gov has issued his 82-page advisory for addressing social isolation and its impact. And, beyond governmental engagement, multiple professional and communal organizations have developed formal guidelines for individuals, organizations, and community groups to apply as they join in nationally endorsed and supported approaches that reach deeply into local communities and into homes of individuals radically impacted by various types of loneliness.
Multiple TEDx talks whose speakers are talking about their own struggles with loneliness as well as advancing multiple strategies for dealing with the epidemic are available. A google search reveals numerous sources and resources for addressing loneliness. So, our issue with loneliness now cannot be defined as a matter of complete darkness. There is a visible gap between both our awareness and our access to knowledge and resources for dealing with the crises caused by loneliness and the escalating numbers of tragedies we see every day in most, if not all, of our families, work environments, community organizations, and health care organizations.
For loneliness and its victims to be significantly reduced (I’m not certain that it can be eradicated.) requires an epic level paradigm shift. And paradigm shifts do not happen quickly as fads. They happen as trends when courageous, insightful, caring individuals dare to share their awakenings. But they don’t stop there, they live their passion and persevere through thick and thin until they see results. This form of authentic leadership compels others to risk leaving their comfort zones to become part of a living vision for change. As momentum picks up, others join. A narrative is formed. Consciousness is being raised systemically. Most often symbols and slogans are developed to pierce conscious resistance while offering something better than what has been.
Ironically, the overwhelmingly amazing achievements of the American socio-economic-cultural system have brought many advancements. To name a few, we now have technologies that connect us internationally. We have cures for diseases where there were none. We’ve grown our understanding of underlying complexities for many vexing problems. But, paradoxically, to accomplish these feats, we have forfeited our nuclear families and local communities. We now can work 24/7 instead of having reasonable expectations for the length of our workdays. We rarely have time for really getting to know and appreciate our colleagues. Instead, we are juggling many responsibilities, multi-tasking, and rushing from one commitment to another.
All of this is not because we are bad people. We are tired, exhausted people. Our pain has reached such proportions that we are crying uncle. What has seemed like awful news, is the canary in the coal mine, singing that our living conditions have gotten, not just toxic, but terminal. This failure of our intergenerational, compulsive allegiance to individualism has brought us to a collective crisis point. Literally, we must shift our paradigm, or our hopes evaporate. This crisis is what transformative educational and psychosocial specialists call the first stage of transformation.
The first stage of transformation is often the via negative. The pains we feel reach a crescendo, compelling us to make changes. We must face what is not working before we can let go in search of something new and impactful. The negative no longer serves us when we draw upon our inner most authenticity to be creative instead of constraining.
So, the next stage is the via positive. During this phase, we see through new, more optimistic eyes. We invite our curiosity and imagination to the drawing board. We acknowledge truths instead of well-honed deceptions. We listen to and affirm one another and honor the liminal, betwixt and between space, that must be experienced in search of a new paradigm/way.
The third way of transformation is the via creative. During this phase, we entertain and try out new possibilities. This is risky, non-conformist, tradition-busting work. It is not for the faint of heart. This phase requires letting go of the former way of seeing things, suspending oneself between the sure and the not-so-sure. It is a period of suspension of one’s authority to acknowledge something transcendent but receptive to us. This creativity showers us with intuitions and new visions vs. judging us as failures for our experimentation with other options. We learn that we are not our performances, achievements, or external power, profit, or prestige. We are real, creative, caring, and designed for relationships of purpose, compassion, and service. This transitions us to the fourth stage of transformation.
The fourth stage represents a maturing of our innate humanity. It is the us that we become by facing our limitations, our masks, or our compulsive efforts to excel according to someone else’s standards. We, awkwardly at first but increasingly experience an inner acceptance, even a love for who we are, our isness, that reveals itself in the form of longings and our discontents. Transformed, we see through new eyes. Our aloneness is no more loneliness but generative aloneness, acknowledging and respecting our unique “isness” for the purpose of singing our unique songs, that were written within us and that showed up from the moments we were born.
Transformation is radical work. It requires everything of us as well as requiring that we do our “growing up” within meaningful connections. Our maturity happens when we come face to face with our power, our internal compass (wisdom), and act with the universal code, named Love. Love requires that we operate according to principles of 1. Tenacity toward the truth, 2. Respect-kindness, 3. responsibility-competently, and 4. compassionately-actions aimed toward the highest good for all/inclusively. This means that we express outwardly our intentions. These include the following.
We choose to face what we have become, including feeling the pain of self & others.
We jettison being right or competitive, seeing ourselves through a lens of comparison with others.
We choose to know ourselves from the perspective of being a person of worth, imbued with a unique purpose to express during this lifetime.
We choose to see others through a lens of respect, dignity, and care.
We learn to live from the inside out, trusting that we are here by a design that includes a steady supply of what we need to live well.
We choose to live empowered, wise, and caring rather than choosing fear, comfort, and constraints.
We show grit, joining others because together we can do much more than solo.
We choose to be lifelong learners, meaning that whether experiencing success or failure, we mine the experiences for the learning.
These are the ways we continue to spiral forward, realizing our dreams instead of spiraling backward, allowing fear to rob us of our futures.
Before I go, allow me to share a few statistics, resources, and endeavors that, together, clarify the importance of NOW as we involve ourselves in the worthy work of replacing loneliness with purposeful, joyful, interconnected, and even blissful lives.
Loneliness is a subjective, whole-person response to a perceived gap or inequity between one’s expectations and/or longings for intimate community and one’s perception of actual existence of ample meaningful relationships/social connections. As we know, from experience our subjective realities do not always mirror our objective realities. It is important to realize that isolation for a discreet period does not automatically define one’s subjective experience of loneliness.
Three types of loneliness are often identified in the literature or in social intervention programs. These are as follows.
Emotional loneliness when meaning is missing from the relationships,
Social loneliness when a gap exists in the nature or quality of relational processes,
Existential loneliness when one experiences an overall separateness from others and the world at large.
Loneliness may be episodic or continuous.
Loneliness may be associated with certain holidays, or memories, or with the day of the week, signaling a significant shift in circumstances or stressors.
The impacts of loneliness on people’s well-being are many. Among them, research has shown that feeling lonely increases heart disease by 29%, strokes by 32%, doubles the likelihood of dementia, and increases the risk of early mortality by over 25%. However, much is still unknown about the dynamics of loneliness. Most researchers and practitioners view the causes as multiple, interactive, and non-linear. Further, the research suggests that a systemic approach is more efficacious than a sole focus on personal traits or patterns.
Given the impacts of loneliness upon overall health of countries, governments are joining with health care practitioners, social welfare professionals, insurance companies and other funding sources to address the multiple costs of loneliness for citizens, work-related organizations, funding sources, families, and communities, research and innovation initiatives. Results from ongoing shared concerns and interactive projects have led to collaborative styles of leadership, socio-vocational cultural transformations, employee wellness programs, and bottom-up citizens’ initiatives.
For example, the 2023 US Surgeon General’s 82-page Advisory Report lists six foundational pillars. These are listed below.
Strengthen Social Infrastructure.
Enact pro-Connection Public Policies.
Mobilize the Health Sector.
Reform digital Environments.
Deepen our knowledge.
Cultivate a Culture of Connection.
In addition, the Advisory Report provides recommendations for various groups who can take leadership in a coordinated, collaborative, holistic approach to create a new, creative, inspirational, and efficacious Culture of Connection!
For the group: “Individuals”, 11 recommendations are listed. These follow below.
Understand the power of social connection and the consequences of social disconnection on your relationships, heath, and well-being.
Invest time in nurturing your relationships through consistent, frequent, and high-quality engagement with others.
Minimize distraction during conversations to increase the quality of time you spend with others.
Seek out opportunities to serve and support others. Try helping your family, friends, and community members or participating in community service.
Be responsive and supportive and practice gratitude. Reflect the core values of connection in how you approach others through the actions you take and conversations you have.
Actively engage with people of different backgrounds and experiences to expand your understanding of and relationships with others.
Participate in social and community groups such as fitness, religious, hobby, professional and community service organizations to foster a sense of belonging, meaning, and purpose.
Reduce practices that lead to feelings of disconnection from others.
Seek help during times of struggle with loneliness or isolation by reaching out to a family member, friend, counselor, health care provider, or the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.
Be open with your health care provider about significant social changes in your life.
Make time for civic engagement. This could include being a positive and constructive participant in political discourse or gatherings (e.g., town halls, school board meetings, local government hearings).
For the group: “Health Workers, Systems, & Insurers”, 8 recommendations are made.
Explicitly acknowledge social connection as a priority for health.
Provide health professionals with formal training and continuing education on the medical relevance of social connection and risks associated with social disconnection.
Insurance companies should provide adequate reimbursement for time spent assessing and addressing concerns about social disconnection and incorporate these measurements into value-based payment models.
Facilitate inclusion of assessment results in electronic health records.
Providers and insurers can educate and incentivize patients to understand the risks of and take action to address inadequate social connection.
Integrate social connection into patient care in primary-, secondary-, and tertiary-level care settings.
Create partnerships that provide support for people who are at risk for, or are struggling with, loneliness, isolation, low social support, or poor-quality relationships.
Create opportunities for clinicians to partner with researchers to evaluate the application of evidence-based assessment tools and interventions within clinical settings.
NOTE: In addition to numerous references to “loneliness”, its etiologies, impacts, meanings, and educational, treatment, or other kinds of interventions, as well as my own personal and professional experiences, this blog was greatly enhanced by articles found on Wikipedia and Google searches. Official sites related to the UK’s Campaign to end loneliness, e.g., https://www.campaigntoendloneliness.org/facts-and-statistics/ were filled with helpful explanations, descriptions, and recommendations for combating loneliness.
To learn more about the US approach to its epidemic of loneliness, the website: www.hhs.gov was quite helpful. The full pdf of the Surgeon General’s General Advisory is available through HHS.gov. Additional articles are also available through HHS.gov.
Hopefully, this blog enhances what you already know, and practice related to loneliness. I welcome any comments, recommendations, and/or opportunities to collaborate as part of our initiatives to replace loneliness with healthy connections that result in distinct and enduring impacts throughout our individual and collective lives. May our US culture become one known for its connectivity, creativity, and compassion!
When we achieve our purpose and goals, we will have answered the call of the French philosopher De Tocqueville, who, when visiting the young United States in the 1800’s, commented that ours was a great social experiment whose future and legacy would depend upon whether we transcended our bent toward individualism to have a more collective, relational, systemic paradigm! This response requires that we answer with a resounding “Yes” rather than a very costly “No”.
With deep regard,