by Bert Gambini

A University at Buffalo psychologist is strongly recommending immediate action to combat the epidemic of loneliness and isolation detailed in a recent advisory issued by the U.S. Surgeon General.

Concerns about loneliness are not new. Humans have always needed social connection, and they suffer without it, almost as much as they would in the absence of food, shelter, and water, according to Shira Gabriel, PhD, a UB professor of psychology who has conducted extensive research on people’s social nature and the sense of self. But loneliness is becoming alarmingly common, and Gabriel says ignoring such a growing problem carries with it the risk of serious consequences.

“At the individual level, loneliness has profound effects on mental and physical health,” says Gabriel. “Loneliness also makes us suspicious of others, so at a societal level, increased loneliness has us looking at more rage, shootings, and violence. Think of a cornered animal who assumes that all other animals are out to get him. How does he act? He lashes out with indiscriminate violence, just like we’re seeing with greater frequency in America today.”

To combat loneliness, consider that even casual social connections are helpful, according to Gabriel. If you work alone or remotely, consider an alternate location that might offer company, such as a coffee shop. Reaching out to someone who you think might be lonely is equally as important as being mindful of your own state of mind. Invite them to a group activity they would enjoy. Share a meal. Wave to a lonely neighbor.

“You have the power, with a very small act, to make a real difference in someone’s life.”

Gabriel suggests that people miss out on new friendships because they assume other people don’t want to be friends with them. “If you see people you want to be friends with, reach out to them. Most people underestimate how much other people want to talk to them and be friends with them. Most of us are unnecessarily insecure.”

Gabriel also says that people don’t realize how important a broader sense of social connection is to well-being. People chase having a romantic partner or best friend without realizing that there are many ways to socially connect – and they are all important. “My research suggests that we can feel connected in many ways, from close friends and family, to casual work friends, quick conversations with acquaintances, being in crowds of people at street fairs or concerts, and connecting to people online, and even through books and TV shows.”

“It would also be great if people in the media and the government stopped dividing the world and seeing those who disagree with them on major issues as enemies,” says Gabriel. “If each of us made a commitment to being just a little friendlier and kinder – to ourselves and to others – we could go a long way in addressing this epidemic of loneliness,” she says.

Bert Gambini is a news content manager for University at Buffalo.