As World Mental Health day rolls around again, there’s a lot of reminders about the individual habits that contribute to mental health—exercising, putting your phone down, going to therapy, eating well—and the requisite prompts about reaching out to friends or family who are depressed, and seeking help if you are. These are of course important reminders and worthwhile habits, but the bigger question might be this: Why are so many people are suffering so much in the first place, if not from clinical depression, then from a low-grade sense of unhappiness and emptiness?
If you boil all the components, loneliness might emerge as one of the biggest threats to mental health there is. An increasing amount of research in the last few years has revealed exactly this. For instance, Americans who say they don’t have a single confidant has tripled in the last few decades. And a large-scale study from the Kaiser Family Foundation last month looked at loneliness patterns in the U.S., U.K., and Japan. Two-thirds of people say they have just a few or no friends or relatives nearby to lend support. And two in 10 people said they felt alone much of the time or always.
Another study earlier this year found that about half of Americans reported feeling alone sometimes or always. The numbers are even higher for older people, who may be more likely to live alone, or have spouses and friends who have passed away. The U.K has begun to take the issue somewhat more seriously than we do here in the U.S. The country has an appointed Minister for Loneliness to combat what Theresa May calls the “sad reality of modern life” for people of all ages.
And it’s true that modern life seems to be chipping away those social connections that are so critical for our mental health. We’re deeply social creatures, and evolved to be so. We lived in groups for many thousands of years—living isolated lives as we do nowadays goes counter to our innate psychological needs. Many people live hundreds or thousands of miles away from their families, and most simply don’t have the same kinds of village as humans evolved to live in, let alone raise kids in.
It’s not just adults and older people. Tweens and teens appear also to be feeling this, though perhaps for different reasons from adults. Screens may play a bigger role in their lives, and affect their social lives as least as much. Kids are not only digital natives these days, but social media natives as well. Indeed, a number of studies have found that more time on screens is linked to teen depression and even suicidality, while in-person social interaction is linked to better mental health. This is not particularly surprising, but it is ironic. (And it should be mentioned that in the last year, some of the developers of social media have expressed regret about their role in its creation, and some won’t even let their own kids on it.)
And a complementary body of research had illustrated again and again that having strong social connections is linked not only to happiness over the years, but also to long-term health as we age. Harvard’s well-known longevity study, spanning 80 years, found that social connection appears to be the key variable that’s linked to greater happiness and well-being, as well as a longer life.
So on this World Mental Health day, take some time to think about not just the individual habits you carry out, but also more generally about how your life is structured. Are there things you could do to increase your connection to others in a more global way, like living nearer to relatives or making commitments to your community members or local projects? Thinking not just about the little everyday things, but also the larger questions about how we structure our lives, may be a big part of investing in our own well-being, and that of those around us.