Social isolation has reached epidemic proportions in the United States. And it’s killing us—quite literally:
Individuals with less social connection have disrupted sleep patterns, altered immune systems, more inflammation and higher levels of stress hormones. One recent study found that isolation increases the risk of heart disease by 29 percent and stroke by 32 percent.
Another analysis that pooled data from 70 studies and 3.4 million people found that socially isolated individuals had a 30 percent higher risk of dying in the next seven years, and that this effect was largest in middle age.
Loneliness can accelerate cognitive decline in older adults, and isolated individuals are twice as likely to die prematurely as those with more robust social interactions. These effects start early: Socially isolated children have significantly poorer health 20 years later, even after controlling for other factors. All told, loneliness is as important a risk factor for early death as obesity and smoking.
Pope Francis has called for a revolution in tenderness and continually called on us to go the peripheries and encounter those who are marginalized, alienated, and vulnerable. The lonely certainly qualify. And this means bursting our secure bubbles and engaging with those whose very existence is often ignored—whether they are homeless or disabled or elderly, those often separated by societal and even physical barriers. A new year offers a new opportunity to challenge ourselves to break from our past lethargy and revive our commitment to living the radical way of Christ.
But the epidemic of loneliness and isolation is also about the breakdown of relationships in what should be our most intimate spheres—romantic relationships and among close friends. The atomization of our lives seems to be accelerating. Many romantic relationships and close friendships are fraying in the face of this radical individualism, others are more distant and superficial. And even those of us who recognize the risks of both individualism and isolation are not immune from perpetuating and deepening them.
The new year offers the perfect time to reflect on the ways you share and receive love:
- How can you love the people you love even more?
- Do you have relationships of trust and affection that can grow stronger? How can such relationships be deepened?
- Do you allow others to love you or do you put up barriers that undermine love, friendship, and intimacy?
An excellent resolution for the new year is to challenge ourselves to love more genuinely and deeply. It might not be easy. It requires vulnerability. If you’ve been burned in past relationships, it might seem safer to keep a comfortable distance. And it’s also true that some have personality types that make the deepening of many relationships exceedingly difficult.
So it’s a challenge, perhaps a difficult challenge, just like many other New Year’s resolutions. But as Pope Francis explains, this is also a great opportunity: “When we experience disappointment or betrayal in important relationships, we come to realize how vulnerable and defenseless we are. The temptation to become self-absorbed grows stronger, and we risk losing life’s greatest opportunity: to love in spite of everything!”
If you wish to accept this challenge “to love in spite of everything,” here are five aspects of love that you might think about:
- Intimacy- Are you learning about each other at the deepest level? Are you willing to share your most important thoughts and emotions? Do you maintain this intimacy despite the pressures of daily life or if you are physically distant?
- Presence- Do you take the time to see the other person? To talk to them? Do you think about them and how they are doing? Are your lives intertwined in any way, or are you each trying to maximize your freedom of action and autonomy?
- Authenticity- Do you play games with the other person or consider power dynamics? Are you projecting an image or living as your authentic self in their presence? Do you accept them for who they are at their core, affirming their goodness, moving beyond their flaws, and finding joy in their existence?
- Empathy- Do you consider the thoughts and feelings of the other person? Are you able to put yourself in their place and understand their actions through this prism? Do you overreact to real mistakes or slights, or even invent slights by assuming the other person is selfish or indifferent to you?
- Kindness- Can you be more thoughtful, caring, encouraging, forgiving, gentle, helpful? Can you do more to seek the good of the other person that you love?