Can being lonely be harmful to our health?

A Cigna study now shows that many of us might not be as healthy as we think, because loneliness in America is at an epidemic level.

We all feel lonely sometimes. But this is about more than missing friends or family who are far away, or not having something to do on a given Saturday night. There are a number of symptoms that indicate true loneliness, such as:

  • You have an inability to connect with others on a deeper, more intimate level
  • You have many acquaintances but no “best” or “close” friend you can talk to
  • You feel that no one “gets” you
  • You feel that people are around you but not with you

It’s a general sense of disconnection from other people that leaves you feeling empty. There’s actually a way to measure loneliness, and that’s the recent Cigna study measured.

The study used the UCLA Loneliness Scale, which is a widely acknowledged academic measure of loneliness. It’s based on an individual’s responses to 20 questions, which are analyzed to calculate a score ranging from 20 to 80. If an individual scores 43 or higher, they are considered to be lonely. For this study, more than 10,000 adults all across the country were surveyed.

To find out where you score on the loneliness scale, go to https://www.cigna.com/about-us/newsroom/studies-and-reports/loneliness-questionnaire

Is Loneliness bad for your health?

The short answer is yes. Research shows that being lonely can affect your health as much as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. When the first study was conducted in 2018, slightly more than half (54%) of Americans were considered lonely, based on the UCLA Loneliness Scale, which we think is evidence of a loneliness epidemic. Last year, the results showed that the loneliness epidemic is even worse. Three in five Americans (61%) now report feeling lonely. And not only is loneliness more widespread, but the average loneliness score is also even higher than it was in 2018. (It went up 1.7 points to 45.7.)

Who is most lonely?

There is a big difference based on age, with less loneliness among older generations than younger ones.

  • Boomers (age 52-71) are the least likely to be lonely: 50% report feeling lonely
  • Gen X (age 38-51): 65% report feeling lonely
  • Millennials (age 23-37): 71% report feeling lonely
  • Gen Z (age 18-22): 79% report feeling lonely

And there are some differences based on gender. While the average loneliness scores for men and women are about the same, loneliness is more common among men: 63% of men are lonely, compared to 58% of women. And the trend we’re seeing is alarming. The percent of men who are lonely went up 10 percentage points between the 2018 and 2019 studies.

Also, people who are very heavy social media users are much more likely to be lonely.

  • 73% of very heavy social media users are lonely compared to 52% of light users.
  • In 2018, it was 53% of very heavy users compared to 47% of light users.
  • That’s a 21 point gap now compared to just a 6 point gap in 2018.

Unless you work at home or in a small office or shop, you likely are around people all the time in the workplace. But that doesn’t mean you’re not lonely. It’s about the quality of the relationships you have with co-workers and how meaningful your connections are.

For example, you may feel disconnected from people at work, or feel an emptiness at work, or feel that your work isn’t meaningful or fulfilling. All of these factors contribute to your sense of loneliness at work. And your sense of work/life balance also matters.  People who say they don’t have a good work/life balance are nearly 7 points lonelier than people who say they do have a good work/life balance.

All of this really matters because people who are lonely say they are absent more often, are less productive when they’re on the job, and produce lower quality work. And they think about quitting their job more often than people who aren’t lonely. Absenteeism, productivity, work quality, staff turnover – these are all huge issues for employers, and they are all correlated to loneliness.

What can we do to combat loneliness?

It all comes down to creating more personal connections with others. How about turning off social media for a little while and having actual conversations with other people? Participate in an activity that’s meaningful to you, where you’re likely to engage with other people who share your goals and values. Maybe that’s some type of volunteer activity or involvement with a faith community or a team activity. Also, find ways to make connections at work. Maybe your employer sponsors community service projects or intramural sports. Making meaningful connections at work is really important because on average we spend about 90,000 hours at work over our lifetimes. So make those 90,000 hours work for you! See cigna.com/combattingloneliness to see the complete study and for other resources.