Nov 27, 2023

Solving the Loneliness Epidemic with Dr. Emiliana Simon-Thomas (podcast)

Loneliness is more than a bad feeling — it's a public health threat. Listen in for the latest research on loneliness and learn how we can build social connection to promote human flourishing from UC Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center Director.

By Templeton Staff

Loneliness is "far more than just a bad feeling — it harms both individual and societal health," says the US Surgeon General in an advisory calling loneliness and isolation an epidemic. More than 20 million Americans say that they have no close friends, reports the Pew Research Center, and the Kaiser Family Foundation finds that 22% of American adults report feeling lonely some or all of the time.

In this podcast episode, Dr. Emiliana Simon-Thomas, Science Director at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, discusses the latest research on loneliness, and shares ways we can work on building social connection to promote human flourishing.

Listen to the episode with the above player to learn more.

Key Takeaways:

What is Loneliness and Why is it Bad for Our Health
Simon-Thomas defines loneliness colloquially as a lack of social connection. In the US, loneliness or social disconnection has been dramatically increasing for the last 15-20 years. Findings from studies that look at longevity and at mortality show an "equivalency between loneliness, the health implications of loneliness, and behavioral decisions like being a chronic smoker, or physical conditions like being morbidly obese."

"We have entered a period in civilization where we choose and/or expect a very tightly packed, highly active schedule where most moments are dedicated to some kind of activity focused on our success as a human," says Simon-Thomas. The hurried pace of this lifestyle makes meaningful, spontaneous interactions increasingly difficult. "There's less of that undirected, or leisurely, or just incidental time to connect with each other in casual ways." To illustrate how perceived time scarcity reduces our willingness to engage and assist others, she mentions a classic study showing that when in a rush, "even seminary students — people training to be nurturing humans for their communities" — had a lack of willingness to help others.

Human beings are an "ultrasocial species" and isolation induces stress akin to punishment, says Simon-Thomas. "We have evolved with the expectation of being together. Being isolated, being ostracized, being involuntarily forced into solitude has always been a form of punishment. And so when it occurs spontaneously in day-to-day life, it retains that quality as a form of punishment in our lives." Lack of social support triggers chronic stress, impacting physiological systems and increasing disease risks linked to loneliness. "Our blood pressure is higher, our cardiovascular system is working harder, we have a state of vigilance that is difficult for our physiological systems to maintain in an enduring way. And this is the reason why there's increased risk of disease."

Loneliness Beyond Close Ties
Loneliness extends beyond familial and close relationships. It's about feeling part of a collective, a sense of belonging within society at large. For older adults in the US and other Western cultures, loneliness is often associated with a lack of connection with the workforce. "I think that older adults, rather than choosing to remain in a kind of independent, isolated living situation, might consider the possibility of staying close to their community, whether that's family or not," says Simon-Thomas. "The idea of living alone, being kind of independent, is oversold in many regards, and having housemates, sharing space, being in a collective can be a really powerful way to avoid landing in a more lonely place in life."

The Impact of Digital Technology
While there is much opportunity to forge connection and participate in collectives in today's digitally networked world, there is also debate about whether mobile devices, video games and social media platforms help or hinder prosocial behavior in real life settings. "Context is the determining factor," says Simon-Thomas. For children and young people as they develop, it can be "quite problematic if the relationship to digital media and social media platforms ends up accentuating or highlighting small parts of social interactions that are of particular interest to adolescents, as opposed to presenting the full range of interpersonal opportunities." She notes, there are "certainly some kids for whom the risk is greater, and some kids for whom digital technology can actually provide community that maybe is otherwise unavailable to them." Therefore she says, "it is really important that researchers continue to try to understand where the points of risk are and for whom digital technology might present a more prominent risk when it comes to displacing those important in-person, face-to-face connections with some kind of less fulfilling, digitally mediated type of activity." There's also risk across ages in online affinity groups and identity-based communities. Social media or other digital communities "can be a great source of connection and support," says Simon-Thomas, but if they become "adversarial towards other groups, this causes more difficulty when it comes to the capacity for bigger collectives to understand one another and function in cooperative ways."

Inequality and Loneliness
Societal inequality contributes to both polarization and loneliness. Benevolent, small-scale interactions may hold a key to countering loneliness. For instance, shares Simon-Thomas, "when we interact with the person we order coffee from, or the person who we cross as we're walking from our home to our vehicle or to our place of worship — when we just talk to each other in these friendly and benevolent and trusting ways, we're building social capital that is the antithesis of loneliness." However, she points out, "inequality makes us less likely to do that. There's this immediate urge to judge whether that person is kind of in 'my level' of hierarchy. Can I interact with them? Are they too fancy for me?" She encourages people to "figure out how to connect with one another, how to strike up friendly banter in, again, very informal and incidental moments when you're out in the world." She mentions we too often "assume that just chatting with other people is not going to be fulfilling; we think that we would be more satisfied if we just took this time to ourselves." Yet, evidence suggests being together, sharing interests, and helping one another even in these seemingly small ways is crucial to wellbeing. "It turns out that people do like being talked to. We feel more fulfilled when we decide to engage with another person in a friendly way, instead of just keeping our head down," she says.

Interconnected Happiness Leads to Flourishing
Research also emphasizes that individual happiness intertwines with the happiness of others, says Simon-Thomas. Flourishing isn't often solitary. "With all the digital technology connection that we have nowadays, with the fact that we are confronted with the joy and pain of everyone around the globe, everyone's happiness matters to my happiness. That's a really important point for flourishing. I can't just flourish. Even if I worked my whole life as hard as anybody could ever imagine, even if I reached the highest status that I ever imagined, I won't be flourishing unless everyone is flourishing."

Shared Experiences Foster Flourishing
Groups that create space for genuine human relationships are essential to combat loneliness. "I don't think they have to be about religion, they don't have to be about spirituality, but the idea that it matters for people to come together in groups and share space in ways that is kind of benevolent and sometimes creative and has a ritual dimension to it — and ritual just means that sometimes we're doing exactly the same thing in concert with one another, we're doing things in unison with each other is important," says Simon-Thomas. She suggests, "maybe it's playing music, maybe it's sharing meals, maybe it's engaging in aesthetic art." She encourages "communities to do a better job of making space and creating opportunities for people to come together in informal ways that enable this shared experience and perhaps prompt conversations about morality and meaning in life."

Listen in to the podcast to hear more insights about Solving the Loneliness Epidemic with Dr. Emiliana Simon-Thomas, including:

  • If a remedy to loneliness can be found in nature
  • What we can each do to be an antidote to loneliness
  • Why Simon-Thomas is an optimist about solutions to loneliness.

We're pleased to note that Dr. Emiliana Simon-Thomas is part of the 2023 Program Advisory Council for The Global Flourishing Conference, organized by Templeton World Charity Foundation.

Built upon the award-winning video series of the same name, Templeton World Charity Foundation’s “Stories of Impact” podcast features stories of new scientific research on human flourishing that translate discoveries into practical tools. Bringing a mix of curiosity, compassion, and creativity, journalist Richard Sergay and producer Tavia Gilbert shine a spotlight on the human impact at the heart of cutting-edge social and scientific research projects supported by TWCF.