The U.S. Surgeon General warned that chronic loneliness is as dangerous as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and is costing the nation billions.
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When you think of the surgeon general, your mind likely goes to health warnings on cigarette packs or beer cans telling women how alcohol can affect pregnancies. Yet in May, the nation’s lead doctor revealed a new public health epidemic: loneliness.
About half of U.S. adults say they have experienced loneliness, Dr. Vivek Murthy wrote in an 81-page report from his office.
“We now know that loneliness is a common feeling that many people experience. It’s like hunger or thirst. It’s a feeling the body sends us when something we need for survival is missing,” Dr. Murthy told The Associated Press in an interview. “Millions of people in America are struggling in the shadows, and that’s not right. That’s why I issued this advisory to pull back the curtain on a struggle that too many people are experiencing.”
Research shows that many Amer-icans, who have become less engaged with church congregations, community organizations and even their own family members in recent decades, have steadily reported increased feelings of loneliness. The number of single households has also doubled over the last 60 years.
The crisis deeply worsened when COVID-19 spread, prompting schools and workplaces to shut their doors and sending millions of Americans to isolate at home away from family and friends.
The surgeon general’s report found that people culled their friend groups during the pandemic and reduced time spent with friends. Americans spent about 20 minutes a day in person with friends in 2020, down from 60 minutes daily nearly two decades earlier.
The loneliness epidemic is hitting young people ages 15 to 24 especially hard. This age group reported a 70 percent drop in time spent with friends during the same period.
The God of the Bible designed human beings to be social. He knew loneliness could be a huge problem for us, which is why He said this about the first person, Adam: “It is not good that the man should be alone…” (Gen. 2:18). God then created Eve as a companion.
It is truly “not good” for anyone to feel chronically alone. The health risks make this clear.
Loneliness increases the risk of premature death by nearly 30 percent, with the report revealing that those with poor social relationships also had a greater risk of stroke and heart disease. Isolation also elevates a person’s likelihood of experiencing depression, anxiety and dementia, according to the research.
As the nation grapples with its loneliness epidemic, individuals must cope with this very real health threat in their own lives. Thankfully, God did not just state that it is not good for us to be alone—He also provides ways to combat it in His Word.
Not Alone in Being Alone
Recognizing the scope of the problem can provide a degree of relief. Far from being alone in the battle, billions are grappling with the same feelings.
Many of the greatest servants in the Bible struggled with loneliness.
Elijah the prophet, crying out to God when being pursued by enemies, felt utterly alone: “And he said, I have been very jealous for the Lord God of hosts: because the children of Israel have forsaken Your covenant, thrown down Your altars, and slain Your prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away” (I Kgs. 19:14).
Here was a man “jealous” for God, which means zealous in modern English. He was committed to living God’s Way and consequently felt alone while being persecuted.
Yet God explained Elijah was not alone—others of like mind also sought to worship the true God: “I have left Me seven thousand in Israel, all the knees which have not bowed unto Baal…” (vs. 18).
Similarly, King David pleaded with God about feelings of isolation: “Turn You unto me, and have mercy upon me; for I am desolate and afflicted. The troubles of my heart are enlarged: O bring You me out of my distresses. Look upon my affliction and my pain; and forgive all my sins” (Psa. 25:16-18).
A plaintive cry to be spared from “desolation”—the Hebrew means loneliness—is far from the image that likely comes to mind when meditating on one of God’s most famous servants. Yet David was not immune from such affliction.
In Psalm 102, the writer asked God to consider his pitiful state: “Hear my prayer, O Lord, and let my cry come unto You. Hide not Your face from me in the day when I am in trouble; incline Your ear unto me: in the day when I call answer me speedily. For my days are consumed like smoke, and my bones are burned as a hearth. My heart is smitten, and withered like grass; so that I forget to eat my bread. By reason of the voice of my groaning my bones cleave to my skin” (vs. 1-5).
The following two verses poetically describe the pangs of isolation: “I am like a pelican of the wilderness: I am like an owl of the desert. I watch, and am as a sparrow alone upon the house top” (vs. 6-7).
Realize that God recorded these prayers so they would comfort us when we feel alone—and they also reveal that crying out in prayer is a crucial way to cope with isolation.
Jesus Christ Himself endured the greatest loneliness. He was God in the flesh—battling sin, yet never failing—setting a perfect example. He had friends, but no one who could fully appreciate what He was doing for mankind: “He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from Him; He was despised, and we esteemed Him not” (Isa 53:3).
Never forget that you are in good company with these Bible figures when feeling lonely. These and other passages offer glimpses of individuals struggling with isolation—and many of the Psalms reveal how they processed those feelings. The book of Psalms is excellent Bible study material when you feel lonely.
Focus on Others
We can find another way to combat loneliness by studying a central theme of the Bible. Jesus Christ taught the give way of life, as explained by the apostle Paul. He told the leaders in Ephesus, “I have shown you all things, how that so laboring you ought to support the weak, and to remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how He said, It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).
After recognizing that others are lonely too, it becomes easier to focus on their needs. Helping alleviate their suffering can bring mutual benefit—easing the loneliness of both parties.
The apostle James also encourages us to focus on those in need: “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world” (Jms. 1:27).
The latter half of the verse speaks to another, less-understood facet of tackling loneliness—keeping God’s Law. This is at the very heart of focusing on others.
The give way is based on love toward God and others. Jesus summarized the Law this way: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:37-39).
In other words, we should focus on others—chiefly God but also fellow man. Jesus went on to explain that “on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (vs. 40). God’s Law—His Way—shows us how to interact with others and thus how to combat loneliness.
Put simply, less focus on self and more emphasis on others can break the vicious cycle. While challenging, looking outwardly instead of inwardly inherently destroys loneliness.
The Right Company
Some approaches to escaping loneliness are wrong. Paul warned in I Corinthians 15: “Do not be deceived: ‘Evil company corrupts good habits’” (vs. 33, New King James Version). While slipping into a friend group may be easy, it may be the wrong choice!
How we choose to spend our time—and with whom we spend it—will influence who we become.
The early Church, after its inception on Pentecost, “continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship…continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house…eat[ing] their meat with gladness and singleness of heart” (Acts 2:42, 46). God’s Church today is still a tight-knit group of like-minded individuals seeking to please God but also fellowshipping with one another.
Fellowship—positive interaction with others—is the ultimate antidote to loneliness. If we are seeking to live correctly, “we walk in the light, as He [God] is in the light [and] we have fellowship one with another” (I John 1:7). Such fellowship can be found in His Church today. Read Where Is God’s Church? to learn more.
Earlier in the chapter, John added, “That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that you also may have fellowship with us [other true Christians]: and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ” (vs. 3).
Even if they do not yet realize it, the ultimate goal of every human being is to have fellowship with God. He desires this for every person on Earth now—and anyone who has ever existed!
Beyond seeking friendship and Christian fellowship, other concrete steps can be taken to pull yourself out of loneliness.
Volunteering, playing sports, visiting a housebound relative or neighbor—anything that forces interaction with others—can be an effective antidote. So long as this is not done with the “wrong company” to loosely cite Paul, it can provide relief. Search online for community service groups in your area. These activities will invariably bring joy to others but also to you as the giver.
The internet is a helpful way to connect with others, but be careful not to rely on it too much to solve loneliness. One study cited in the surgeon general’s report found that people who used social media for two hours or more daily were more than twice as likely to report feeling socially isolated than those using such apps for less than 30 minutes a day.
Dr. Murthy said social media in particular is driving the increase in loneliness. His report recommends that technology companies roll out protections for children.
“There’s really no substitute for in-person interaction,” Dr. Murthy said. “As we shifted to use technology more and more for our communication, we lost out on a lot of that in-person interaction. How do we design technology that strengthens our relationships as opposed to weaken them?”
Permanently Defeating Loneliness
Will the world ever find a lasting solution to loneliness?
In the U.S. surgeon general’s plan of action, he calls on workplaces, schools, technology companies, community organizations, parents and others to make changes to boost the country’s connectedness. He advises people to join community groups and put down their phones when catching up with friends, employers to think carefully about their remote work policies, and health systems to train doctors to recognize the health risks of loneliness.
These are all noble efforts, but they will not eradicate loneliness once and for all.
God promises to help those who are lonely now, and He also has a plan to eradicate solitude forever.
Notice these comforting words in Revelation 21: “…the tabernacle of God [will be] with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself shall be with them, and be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away” (Rev. 21:3-4).
In the book of Romans, Paul referred to Christ as “the firstborn among many brethren” (8:29). As the Father, God’s ultimate goal is for everyone to enter His Family. Loneliness will be nonexistent.
Far from being a pie-in-the-sky notion, this was at the heart of what Jesus came to preach. He was “sent” with the commission to “preach the Kingdom of God” (Luke 4:43). John 3:3 further explains that to enter the Kingdom of God, one must be “born again” to enter God’s Family—a place where there is no loneliness.
To better understand God’s purpose for every human being and how loneliness will ultimately be vanquished, read David C. Pack’s free book The Awesome Potential of Man.
This article contains information from The Associated Press.