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The Serious Health Risks of Loneliness & The Healing Power of Friendship

"No man is an island," wrote English poet John Donne all the way back in the 17th century -- yet now, in the 21st, people may be more socially isolated than ever before. This is not, as it was once, due to distant locations or plagues that wipe out entire communities. It is a new type of loneliness that has emerged even as we are surrounded by cities full of people.


Many of us feel lonely, but few will readily admit it.

It is in these cities and suburbs that we co-exist to reach the ultimate esteemed goal: self-reliance. "Our notion of success is being able to purchase what you need and not be obligated to anyone,'' said Richard Schwartz, a psychiatrist who co-authored the book, "Overcoming Loneliness in Everyday Life," with his wife, Jacqueline Olds, MD, assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

"Yet in other cultures," Olds continues, "people have always accepted leaning on each other as part of life."

Aside from the fact that the very way our society conducts daily life -- in offices, on the phone, by computer, in cars and inside our homes -- encourages isolation, is the fact that admitting to being lonely is looked down on, even to the point of being shameful.

I'm Not Lonely, I'm Self-Sufficient

When Olds studies loneliness, it is usually by way of anonymous survey. Even then, many lonely people describe themselves as "independent" or "self-sufficient," rather than the dreaded "lonely."

"In American society, saying you're lonely suggests that you're weak or unable to attract friends. Yet total self-reliance is a myth, and loneliness is not a sign of weakness. It's an alarm system, a signal that we need to bring people into our lives," says Olds, who believes the nation is facing a loneliness epidemic.

How many of us are lonely? No one knows for sure, but when someone typed a heartfelt message -- "I am lonely will anyone speak to me" -- in an unlikely place (, a highly technical computer Web site), the response spoke for itself.

Over the course of days, weeks and months, thousands of messages flooded in. Among them:

  • "I'm surrounded by so many people every day but I feel strangely disconnected from them."

  • "I used to have a big family and now am down to a few aunts and uncles."

  • "The friends I have had moved on and got married. I must have done something to deserve this."

  • "It's 3 a.m. here. Just woke up next to my boyfriend and felt so incredibly lonely and sad."

At one time, the site became so popular that it was the first listing on Google if you searched the phrase, "I am lonely."

And, says Olds, the incredible popularity of TV talk shows and reality TV, "our seeming obsession with the most intimate details of strangers' lives, is another manifestation of our isolation."

"When you lack a circle of people you know well, gossiping about strangers is a way to fill the gap," says Olds.

How Self-Reliant Are You?

self reliant

Do you depend on others or take pride in doing everything for yourself? Take this survey to find out where you fall in the continuum between Total Autonomy and Highly Dependent.

Find Out Your Level of Self-Reliance Now!

Loneliness is Bad for Your Health

Loneliness is not just an emotion -- it affects many facets of the physical body. One study of 37,000 people, conducted by James House, PhD, a University of Michigan sociologist, found that people who lived alone or had few friends were twice as likely to die over 10 years than people with more friends and family.

Further, 82 percent of people who survived a heart attack and were married or had friends survived for at least five years. Among those with neither a spouse nor friends, only 50 percent survived five years.

Other studies have found that:

  • Lonely people have blood pressure readings that are as much as 30 points higher than non-lonely people.

  • Women with advanced breast cancer live twice as long when they join a support group, according to Dr. David Spiegel, a Stanford University psychiatrist.

  • According to Ohio State University researchers, having close friends helps keep your immune system strong during times of stress.

University of Chicago researchers have also found that loneliness affects the way people react to stress. "Lonely people differ from non-lonely individuals in their tendency to perceive stressful circumstances as threatening rather than challenging, and to passively cope with stress by failing to solicit instrumental and emotional support and by withdrawing from stress rather than by actively coping and attempting to problem solve," said John Cacioppo, the Tiffany and Margaret Blake distinguished service professor in psychology.

How to Cultivate New Friendships and Live Longer


Friendships that are mutually beneficial are the ones that tend to deepen and last over the long-term.

Building new friendships is therefore a way to not only increase your enjoyment out of life, but also to improve your health and lifespan. This may sound challenging, but there are many opportunities to cultivate new relationships. Consider:

  • Joining a club, organization or other group that interests you (book clubs, quilting clubs, garden clubs, and adult sports teams, for instance)

  • Volunteering for a charity, and making friends with other volunteers

  • If you are retired, going back to work part-time, simply for the sake of meeting new people

  • Making an effort to re-establish or make stronger ties with family (even those that may live across the country)

Another interesting take on friendship is to seek out someone who can help you. For instance, if you're not fond of cooking, asking a co-worker to get together for pot-luck dinners once a week. Or, asking a neighbor to help you plant a flower garden in your yard, then returning the favor by helping with their yard work.

"The idea is that you need to be willing to enter into relationships of mutual obligation," says Olds, " … the fact is, people's lives are so hectic that those purely fun relationships often don't get sustained. It's the relationships where people are really useful to each other that do get sustained, that deepen and that therefore fulfill people's needs for long-term intimacy."

Recommended Reading

If You Seek Emotional Health, There is No Greater Nourishment Than Forgiveness

Who is Better at Revenge, Men or Women?


Guardian Unlimited: Anybody There?

Bottom Line Secrets: The Special, Very Special, Gift of Friendship -- Made Easy

Boston Globe Online: Loneliness Can be the Death of Us

Senior Journal March 28, 2006

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