Vaiyomer Hashem Elokim, lo tov heyos ha'adom levado.
And Hashem Elokim said, It is not good for man to be alone. (Braishis 2:18)
Oh chavrusa oh masusa. Either a friend or death (Taanis 23a), because it is not good for man to be alone. (Nachalas Avos on Avos 1:6)
How not good is it? According to an article in Perspectives on Psychological Science, very not good.
Loneliness is as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
Loneliness is worse for you than obesity.
Loneliness is associated with an increased risk of developing coronary heart disease and stroke.
Loneliness increases the risk of high blood pressure.
Loneliness is a risk factor for depression.
Loneliness puts individuals at greater risk of cognitive decline and dementia.
(Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T. B., Baker, M., Harris, T., & Stephenson, D. (2015). Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for mortality: A meta-analytic review. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10, 227-237)
And those are just the physical damages caused by loneliness. The emotional pain can be devastating.
But in our community, how many parents and children live in isolation with no one around them? What member of our families could ever be lonely?
Loneliness is a feeling of isolation which can take place in any milieu. You can be physically isolated and feel loved, cared for, and connected, and you can be surrounded by family, friends, or community, and feel lonely. It is the quality and depth of relationship that relieves loneliness. Unfortunately, deeply shared relationships are rare. Loneliness has become pervasive and pernicious.
Who are all these lonely people?
Is this a phenomenon afflicting mainly seniors? Mainly women?
According to recent studies, not at all.
Young adults 18 to 22 years old have the highest average loneliness score, baby boomers the lowest.
Loneliness is reported by 63 percent of men and 58 percent of women.
The loneliest group? Single parents or guardians.
One in four Americans rarely or never feel as though there are people who really understand them.
One in five people report they rarely or never feel close to people or feel like there are people they can talk to.
Only one in two Americans reports having meaningful in-person social interactions, such as having an extended conversation with a friend or spending quality time with family, on a daily basis.
Loneliness is pervasive and pernicious. It is a public health crisis.
It is being addressed as such in England.
In October of 2018, the British government became the first in the world to develop a loneliness reduction strategy and to appoint a Minister of Loneliness.
The British government’s strategy includes the following mandates:
Social Prescribing: This means that both physical and mental health professionals refer individuals experiencing loneliness to supportive programs like involvement in the arts or community groups.
Communities: Working with communities to promote social connection through reimagined community spaces, transportation, housing and technologies.
Public Health Campaigns: To raise awareness and reduce the stigma surrounding loneliness.
Each of us can accomplish this by following a lesson from Chazal.
Shimon haTzadik used to say that the world stands on three pillars: Torah, Avodah, and Gemilas Chasadim, acts of kindness. (Avos 1:2)
Each of us can address another’s loneliness through an act of kindness, by taking the time to talk and listen to a child, a spouse, a friend.
Very nice thought, Rabbi Ackerman. But what should I say? How will I know what to listen for, what to elicit? What do I say to cure their loneliness?
Gently guide the conversation to listen for these symptoms of loneliness:
I often think I lack companionship.
I often feel left out.
I often feel isolated from others.
Loneliness is not curable. It is treatable.
You can provide that treatment in the same ways that have been identified by the Minister of Loneliness.
You can minister to your child by engaging him or her in supportive programs like Bnos, Pirchei, Avos u’Banim, and others.
What others? How can I find out what else is available in my community?
Ask your child’s menahel or menaheles. Ask your child what programs their friends participate in. Ask your siblings and neighbors for suggestions.
You can minister to your child by finding community spaces, transportation, and technologies that will bring him or her in contact with children who have similar interests outside of organized programs.
You can minister to your child by raising awareness and reducing the stigma surrounding loneliness.
I once asked a 17 year old girl, during a family therapy session with her parents and siblings, how often she felt lonely. She responded with silent tears.
You may not want to be that direct. If you are concerned that your child may be suffering from loneliness, you might approach him this way:
I see that you spend a lot of time by yourself. What do you think about that? Allow your child to answer. Listen, nod.
Then ask, What’s that like for you?
When your child says, I don’t know, say, ok.
A day or two later, ask him again, say to him, I wonder what it’s like for you to be by yourself a lot. Mom/dad and I think it would be better for you to spend more time with other [kids, boys, girls]. What do you think about that?
When he again says, I don’t know, you need to know something.
You need to know that you have accomplished a lot, you have ministered to your child, you have treated his loneliness.
You have provided companionship by spending time listening to his inner world.
You have brought him into your world of concern and interest in a way that lets him know he’s not left out.
You have shown him that he is not isolated from you.
B’ezras Hashem, he will use his growing relationship with you as a source of confidence in seeking relationships with others.
It will be good for him when he is no longer alone. You will have the nachas of knowing you helped him form friendships to be azer, support, and knegdo, challenge, friendships that will help him grow.
Rabbi Yitzchak Shmuel Ackerman is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor with specialties in marriage, dating, and parenting.
He is the author of Confident Parents, Competent Children, in Four Seconds at a Time Available at bookstores and on Amazon.
He can be reached at 718-344-6575.