The Epidemic of Loneliness

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Even before the Covid pandemic, an “epidemic of loneliness” was compromising our physical and mental health and even our life expectancy.  Despite people being more connected than ever now—through smartphones, Facetime, WhatsApp, social media and Zoom—loneliness continues to rise. Among the most digitally connected, teenagers and young adults, loneliness nearly doubled in prevalence between 2012 and 2018, coinciding with the explosion in social media use.


According to the Census Bureau’s American Time Use Survey, a decade ago, the average American spent 15 hours per week with neighbors, friends and even clients, which shortened to 12 hours per week in 2019, and only 10 hours a week in 2021. On average, Americans did not transfer that lost time to spouses or children. Instead, they chose to be alone. 


In a powerful and oft-referenced study, Julianne Holt-Lunstad of Brigham Young University found that the risk effects of loneliness and weak social networks parallel smoking fifteen cigarettes a day.  Social interaction is not a luxury, it is a basic need. Holt-Lunstad compares the need for connection to our bodies need for food. A study published in Nature Neuroscience found similarities in brain scans between participants who had been socially isolated and those deprived of food for ten hours.


As connected as we are online, people are increasingly disconnected offline, creating feelings of loneliness and having a terrible impact on our health and wellbeing. While there is no vaccine for this epidemic, there is a solution that is much less expensive, less painful, and immediately accessible to all.


Eliminating someone’s feeling of loneliness can be as simple as saying hello.  New research in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that people underestimate how much others like hearing from them and how big a difference it can make to someone to simply receive a text or call from someone saying hi.  Put differently, taking a moment to check in on someone can mean the same thing to them as giving food to someone who is starving. 


Last summer, a young person posted on a WhatsApp group that he no longer wanted to live. As you can imagine, everyone on the group jumped into action.  I was notified and reached out to him, his parents, and his therapist.  An amazing father and son from our community went over to this person’s apartment to spend time, show love and, working with professionals, make sure he was safe.  When I checked in on the young person a few days later, he apologized for all the commotion he had caused and explained, “I was feeling really lonely, really isolated and like I was totally invisible.  I just needed connection and I knew that text would get it.”  


Baruch Hashem, he was not serious about doing harm to himself, but others feeling that way are and a simple text, phone call, or check-in from us can mean the world.


The Mishna in Avos teaches: רַבִּי מַתְיָא בֶן חָרָשׁ אוֹמֵר, הֱוֵי מַקְדִּים בִּשְׁלוֹם כָּל אָדָם.  Upon meeting people, be the first to extend greetings.  The Tiferes Yisroel comments: הרי זה ההצלחה היותר גדולה שתשיג בעולם הזה, this is the greatest success you can achieve in this world.  The biggest title in a community, the most “successful” person, is not the one who has the longest Shemoneh Esrei, learns most diligently, or even gives the most tzedakah.  It is the community’s biggest connector, the one who is friendly and warm, who smiles at people and creates connection with others. 


If you don’t know what to text or say, it’s very simple.  “Just saying hi.” “Checking in.” “Been too long, let’s catch up.”  That connection, that social nourishment and nutrition, can make the difference between someone’s happiness or depression, success or struggle, and even literally between life and death. 


In this week’s parsha, Mikeitz, Yosef is released from prison.  What changed, what was the catalyst for his freedom?  In last week’s parsha, Yosef has been not only abandoned by his family, he has been sold into slavery, falsely accused and sentenced to prison.  But instead of retreating to the corner of his cell and wallowing in his own sorrow, focused on his own suffering, he notices that his two cellmates look sad and he asks them, maduah pneichem ra’im hayom, why do you look sad today?  Grateful for his asking, they confide about their dreams, Yosef successfully interprets them, and later one of them recommends Yosef to Pharaoh. 

Not only did Yosef’s destiny change but the course of the Jewish people, the Egyptian empire, and arguably all of humanity changed because of four words, “why are you sad.” 


If we want to get out of the prison of our lives, to break free of that which is holding us back and closing us in, like Yosef, we have to stop looking inward and being concerned only with ourselves.   We must notice, care about, and inquire about the people around us. 


As a young man, Yosef was concerned with himself.  With vanity, he beautified himself in the mirror.  He talked about his dreams instead of asking others about theirs.  But then he grows up. This na’ar who struggled with narcissism, learns to turn outward, concern himself with others. Instead of obsessively looking in the mirror, he looks through the window and sees others.  He matures to the point of asking fellow cellmates, why do you look so sad, what can I do for you, how can I make you feel better, tell me what is happening in your life, I am listening. 


Like Yosef, too many of us flaunt our dreams and are obsessed with looking in the mirror.  But like Yosef, we too can mature. We must learn to take an interest in others.  When we see friends, family members or co-workers, instead of sharing our status or metaphorical selfie with them, let’s ask, maduah pneichem ra’im hayom?


Chanukah has begun and while so many of us are excited to light candles with family, to go to concerts with friends, to enjoy parties and exchange gifts, others are dreading observing yet another holiday all alone.  Don’t just light your candles this Chanukah. Take the time and make the effort to make sure everyone is on fire and together we can end the pandemic of loneliness.