When it comes to health risks, it doesn't get much worse than loneliness and social isolation. Research shows that loneliness is strongly correlated with risk of heart disease, arthritis, type 2 diabetes, and lower longevity overall.
Unfortunately, this isn't a health risk that's going anywhere anytime soon. The rise of technology and social media has given people a false feeling of connectedness through likes and comments and has led to unexpected phenomena like teens having sex later because they're not actually spending time with peers (even when it feels like they are) and overall decreased social interaction.
"As a research psychologist, I have studied the impact of technology for 30 years among 50,000 children, teens, and adults in the U.S. and 24 other countries," writes Larry Rosen, a professor of psychology at California State University, Dominguez Hills in an article in the Wall Street Journal. "In that time, three major game-changers have entered our world: portable computers, social communication, and smartphones. The total effect has been to allow us to connect more with the people in our virtual world—but communicate less with those who are in our real world."
Happiness is other people.
Countless studies have been done on happiness over the years, and they point to helpful findings on how to get happier: Get more exercise, give back, eat in a way that nourishes your gut, start journaling. But the conclusion of 50 years of happiness research, according to Christine Carter, Ph.D., is that there's no greater happiness than strong connections with people.
"Friendships, relationships with family members, closeness to neighbors, etc.—is so closely related to well-being and personal happiness the two can practically be equated," she says. "People with many friendships are less likely to experience sadness, loneliness, low self-esteem, and problems with eating and sleeping."
Saying goodbye to the loneliness that is social media.
There's no question that social media can act as a catalyst for connection. When we connect with an old friend online, that's great for our happiness—but only if the interaction eventually happens offline in the form of a coffee date or even a phone call. If not, it will only make you feel lonelier in the end.
"While people often turn to social media for instant gratification or validation, connections formed online are typically superficial, and social media can have negative effects on mental health," says psychologist Nathalie C. Theodore. "Scrolling through social media might make us feel isolated or lonely because we need the kind of support and intimacy that comes from connecting with people in real life. Spending quality time with friends and loved ones satisfies our human need for connection, boosts endorphins, and contributes to an overall sense of happiness and well-being."
What to do if you're feeling lonely.
If the news that happiness is other people comes as no surprise to you but you still experience feelings of loneliness, know that you're not the only one. Quite the opposite: 43 percent of people report feeling lonely—and there's a lot you can do about it.
"If you are feeling lonely, then take a step to boost your relationships. That could mean reaching out to old friends or acquaintances with whom you have lost touch, such as a text saying 'How are you? Let’s catch up. Can we meet Tuesday for coffee?'" suggests Elizabeth Lombardo, Ph.D., Author of Better Than Perfect: 7 Strategies to Crush Your Inner Critic and Create a Life You Love. "Or it might mean reaching out to a colleague or neighbor. You might choose to invite them to an event (such as a local art exhibition or speaker). And if you want to meet new people, try finding a group of like-minded people. For example, if you love to cook, take a group cooking class. Or if you are passionate about the symphony, look for volunteer opportunities with your local orchestra."
Want more advice on how to dig your way out of a technology rut? Here's a yoga sequence to undo digital damage.