Oprah Winfrey’s longtime best friend Gayle King is the editor-at-large of ‘O, The Oprah Magazine’. Last month on ABC 10 in an interview with The View, she was asked about O’s latest mental-health campaign Just Say Hello. It was launched by King and Dr. Sanjay Gupta after heeding studies on the physical effects of loneliness.
Gupta’s research on the impact of loneliness found that more people would rather admit to being depressed than lonely, and Social Media was the partially the cause of a “quiet epidemic sweeping across society”. The science behind social disconnect is powerful, and Gayle King and O’Magazine’s ‘Just Say Hello’ campaign was created to fight loneliness.
Since 2013, Gupta has investigated the physical effects of loneliness, isolation, separation, and social seclusion. He found that one in five people experience a chronic lack of intimacy that may increase a person’s mortality risk by 45%. Gupta says the elderly are 64% more likely to develop dementia if lonely.
Studies on loneliness have found that it even alters genetic activity in the body. In people who felt as though they had few social connections, researchers found overexpressed genes linked to inflammation and a suppression of antiviral genes. In an article published by O Magazine, Gupta said, “Being lonely, it turns out, can literally make you sick.”
His article references social psychology research conducted by UCLA associate professor Naomi Eisenberger, PhD. According to Eisenberger, being excluded from social interaction triggers activity in the part of the brain that registers physical pain. Evolved from prehistoric ancestors who relied on social groups for survival, tribal groups huddled together for shelter, food, and protection – and separation often meant death. Today, when feeling left out, an emotion similar to instinctual fear is triggered, spiking up the stress hormone cortisol, causing the chronically lonely to feel fatigued, edgy, and irritable.
The culprit – possibly social media, a mechanism designed for communication, many experts believe it may also leave us more alienated. Dr. Sanjay Gupta says it deteriorates the quality of our relationships. “Those who tend to hide behind screens instead of going out and socializing, online networks provide an illusion of interaction that is a poor substitute for real connection,” he said.
In one Pew poll, 13% of cell phone owners admitted to pretending to use their phones to avoid interacting with those around them. Gupta suggests automation like self-checkout kiosks, online banking, and Siri are making it easier for people to avoid communicating, and certain solitariness has gradually become the norm.
Loneliness is taboo. According to his research, society has destigmatized depression to a point where people are more comfortable saying ‘I’m depressed’ than ‘I’m lonely’ as if “lonely” were synonymous with “loser.”
Studies have shown that people who make eye contact with strangers reported feeling less disconnected than those who felt as if people looked right through them. Reaching out, even in the smallest ways can prevent the damage of social isolation. Social support can reduce physical pain, prevent illness, and even help your memory.
People who have strong ties to family, friends, or coworkers have a 50% greater chance of outliving those with fewer social connections. “If our relationships can have such an effect on our overall health, why don’t we prioritize spending time with the people around us as much as we do exercising and eating right? We may assume everyone else is either too uninterested or busy for conversation, but what if, as a society, we began to challenge that assumption?” Dr. Gupta says, “All it takes is a willingness to reach out, and it begins with a simple hello.”