Lethal Loneliness!

from Rev. Bruce Wood - June 2016

Published in News First — our monthly church newsletter  

A recent study by US researchers on the effect of loneliness on people found that people who lack friends and relationships of substance are just as likely to risk an early death, as heavy drinkers and smokers.

The authors of this research came up with the surprising findings after reviewing medical articles involving more than 300,000 people.  The lead researcher, Professor Timothy Smith, from Brigham Young University, said scientists have known that social support does predict mortality for several decades.  But what is new about this research, is that 140 medical research studies were summarised into one - which provided conclusive evidence for their findings. 

In the study, the effect of loneliness was found to be ‘about twice the risk of being obese - about twice the risk of not exercising physically - and about equivalent to being alcoholic’ - and that ‘clearly relationships have much to do with our wellbeing and happiness, but that this research predicts our physical health to that extent, is remarkable.’

The study also found that people with a good social network have a 50% chance of living longer than those with poor or insufficient social relationships - and recommend that social wellbeing be evaluated as seriously as diet, smoking and exercise, by medical practitioners and that hospitals make support networks an integral part of a patient's treatment plan.

In Australia, Lifeline, Beyond Blue, and Kids Helpline have for some years considered loneliness a serious issue in our community - and suggest that everyone feels lonely from time to time, but long periods of loneliness or social isolation can have a negative impact on your physical, mental and social health.

Feeling lonely doesn’t mean that we have to be physically alone - some people feel lonely in a crowded room.  However, the depth of loneliness is not about the amount of time we spend with other people, or alone - but instead is related to the quality of our relationships.  Are those relationships supportive and life-giving - do they offer companionship and engagement - do they provide encouragement and reassurance - are they a source of joy and delight?

To feel lonely is a normal emotion - it’s an overwhelming feeling of being separated from those around us, and often associated with the growing up process, or moving out of home, or going to a new school, or other major changes in our lives.

As human beings we crave connection and yet it’s also easy to stay lost in loneliness.  However, when we wallow in our loneliness for extended periods of time - or lament the gap between the relationships we wish we had, and the reality of our present relationships, and do nothing about our situation - then we risk serious detrimental effects on our mental and physical health.  Conversely, when we put time and energy into creating relationships of substance - when we actively foster relationships that matter - then we bring a positive, and constructive, and life-giving dimension to our lives, that will actively benefit our physical and mental health.

As a Christian community, we follow the example of Jesus and the way he treated people.  The Jesus model embraced people without condition - treated all people with respect and with dignity, encouraged and supported them, as well as challenging their thinking and their actions.  He brought a sense of worth and dignity and hope, to those who were without hope.  He brought a sense of belonging, to those who felt no place was home.  And he brought a feeling of companionship and fellowship, to those who knew well the deep ache of loneliness.

Hopefully, as a church community, we offer connections and relationships that are more than superficial - connections and relationships that bring a sense of belonging, a sense of encouragement, and a sense of inspiration as we provide opportunities for all to participate in our faith community.

          Peace, Rev. Bruce Wood