Extreme Esteem: Loneliness and self-esteem

“The eternal quest of the individual human being is to shatter his loneliness.”

– Norman Cousins, American political journalist and author

“Why are we here?” I asked. “Are we going to visit Grandfather?”

My eight-year-old mind couldn’t understand why we were parked outside Grandfather’s small, two-bedroom house in town with our one-ton farm truck. We even had stock racks on it, yet we weren’t hauling any stock. Another truck pulled up at that point, and I recognized Father’s good friend Wessie as he climbed out of it. The two men shook hands and walked around back, father taking the lead.

“Grandfather is coming to live with us,” Mother announced. “Today is moving day!”

“Is Grandfather lonely?” I asked. “Is that why he’s coming to live with us?”

“No one should live alone,” Mother replied. “Not when there’s family nearby!”

Let me say upfront that there’s a vast difference between being alone and being lonely. One suggests solitude and quiet reflection while the other suggests longing and bitter separation.

In many ways, it’s easier now to go through an entire day without any human interaction. With text, email, social media and a plethora of “convenient” apps, we can avoid all direct human contact. The irony is, the more technologically connected we become, the more isolated we find ourselves.

How often do you feel lonely? A new study suggests a link between a lack of social connection and consequences to our health, longevity and self-esteem. Research published in Perspective on Psychological Science suggests social isolation has become a societal issue of epic proportions.

A team of researchers from Brigham Young University dissected over three decades of data from more than three million participants on how loneliness, social isolation and living alone affect our sense of self-worth, and the results were “deeply unsettling.” People who found themselves alone, not by choice, experienced a significant drop in self-esteem and a radical increase in anxiety and depression.

BYU researcher Julianne Holt-Lundstad, lead author of the study, likened the effect to that of obesity, a serious concern for public health. Says Holt-Lundstad, “We need to start taking our social relationships more seriously.” In addition to a decrease in self-esteem and an increase in anxiety and depression, the study concluded that the risk of death increased by 26 per cent.

As distressing as the research findings might be, they are nothing new. Earlier research maintained that loneliness had the same impact on longevity as the smoking of 15 cigarettes a day or excessive alcohol consumption. Now, these assertions might be difficult to quantify, but the effect on self-esteem is undeniable. When our sense of personal value begins to crumble, we’re less likely to exercise, eat properly, seek healthy companionship or resist the urge to focus on the negative aspects.

There is good news, however. The study also revealed that the trend could be countered by re-establishing family and social connections and by providing a healthy, engaging environment. Notes the author, the “more positive the psychology” the better able we are to function mentally, emotionally and physically. The effect of engagement was indeed beneficial for Grandfather who, upon his arrival at the farm, appeared lost and confused – unable to find his place in this new environment. After a few weeks, however, he began to rebound. Eventually, he rediscovered his passion for gardening, began taking long strolls, and at night regaled us with tales of this childhood in Europe and immigration to Canada.

“The most terrible poverty is loneliness,” wrote Mother Teresa, “and the feeling of being unloved.”

If you’re lonely or know someone who is, decide to do something about it. You might discover that you live better, you live longer, and you look forward with enthusiasm to each new day knowing that you are worthy and deserving of a long and enjoyable life.

Murray Fuhrer is a self-esteem expert.

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