A study has found that social isolation is a greater threat to public health than obesity.
A meta-analysis of 148 studies found that loneliness, social isolation, and living alone showed a strong correlation with premature death, one equal to or exceeding the commonly-accepted risk factors such as obesity.
Conversely, according to a report on the research, improving “a greater social connection” cuts a person’s risk of early death by 50%.
Currently, over a quarter of the American population live alone. Half of the adult population is unmarried. Thirty-five percent of adults over 45–which comes to 42.6 million people–suffer from chronic loneliness.
Furthermore, the marriage rate is going down. So is the number of children couples are having.
Traditional communities and “mediating institutions“–such as civic organizations, voluntary associations, and other memberships–are also in decline.
Those include involvement in churches. Congregations are communities of faith where individuals have traditionally found love, support, and connections with others.
The government, the health sector, and the culture as a whole have been mobilizing to fight obesity. But the institutions of marriage, the family, and parenting continue to take hits.
Some thoughts and Biblical reflections after the jump.
Evidently, physical health depends not just on the body but on being a member of larger bodies.
“It is not good that the man should be alone,” said the Lord God (Genesis 2:18). Therefore, God instituted marriage. Thus began the family. Husbands and wives had a social bond with each other, then, as parents, with their children, who had a social bond with each other. The family led to the extended family.
God established the “estates” for human flourishing–the household (family, the economy), the church, and the state–and gave us vocations in which we are to love and serve our neighbors.
Today, pursuing individual autonomy at all costs is the ideal today. Our culture exalts self-fulfillment, self-interest, and self-divination. People walk away from their marriages and abandon their children in the name of self-fulfillment.
In contrast, the Christian ethic is one of self-denial and self-sacrifice out of love for others. As Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). But, paradoxically, this daily crucifixion of self leads to finding oneself.
This research suggests that the pursuit of individual autonomy, far from being a formula for happiness, as is often assumed, can be physically harmful.
But although many people today voluntarily live just for themselves, others yearn for human contact. They are isolated, but not by choice. They may want to get married, but it isn’t easy to find someone to marry. (And, according to Scripture, marriage is a vocation and not everyone is called to it.) They may want to belong with other people, but there is no one for them.
There are people who are constitutionally loners. But though they may be single, they still may have brothers, sisters, parents, and other relatives who keep them from being absolutely alone. Also fellow workers, friends, and internet comrades.
What can be done to bring back a sense of community? To help people build social connections? Does the government have a role? To what extent is our “communication” technology helping and to what extent is it hurting? What can the church do?
Photo by geralt, Pixabay, CC0, Public domain