Solitude is Bad for Your Health

By Colin McGregor

I now live in a halfway house. But I will have to, one day or another, find myself an apartment. Which means I’ll be there alone. And living alone can be very bad for your health…

I won’t be the only one living alone. About 4 million Canadians are in the same situation, according to data from the last census (2016). Quebec is the province with the highest proportion of people living alone.

Several studies have shown that loneliness is as harmful as obesity, smoking, or watching TV all day. According to the British Royal College of Nurses, lack of social connections increases the risk of premature death by 26%, which is comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and more damaging than obesity or a sedentary lifestyle

Data from different studies show that deficiencies in social relationships in general are associated with a 29% increase in the risk of coronary heart disease and a 32% increase in the risk of heart attacks.

But, according to the U.S. National Institute on Aging, studies show that social isolation and loneliness go hand in hand with higher risks of developing physical or mental health problems: high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, weakening of the immune system, anxiety, depression, cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease, and even death.

I don’t mind being alone right now. In prison, I spent many years alone. It is true that one is never completely alone there: one lives in proximity with the other prisoners; the guards watch you from hour to hour; the prison yard, often overcrowded, prohibits any solitary walks likely to take your mind off things.

The Privacy of the Cell

However, I usually had my own cell that I could close the door for some privacy, in the absence of any family or support network I could rely on. To me, it means being alone. In a way, you can find true serenity in being the only person who cares about yourself. Your time, your life belong to you and you alone.

Oscar Wilde said: “I think it’s very healthy to be alone. You have to know how to be alone, without being defined by others.” When you are alone, you define yourself.

But there is no one to come to your rescue if the need arises. I remember having suffered terribly from loneliness during my first months of incarceration. I missed my friends, I missed the freedom of going to the movies or walking around the mall, I missed having to go to work. But I ended up getting used to it.

Now that I’ve been released, people are very nice to me, but through the web of my thoughts, developed over years and years of social isolation, I often feel the need to be alone. I can’t wait for the gatherings to end, the meetings to end, or even the day to end.

Life in prison, adds Oscar Wilde, shows people and things as they really are. This is why it hardens hearts. It is the people left on the outside who are fooled by the illusions of a life in perpetual motion. They swirl with life and forge with it its unreal character. We who are still see clearly and have true knowledge.

A 2017 study by Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a psychology professor at Brigham Young University in Utah, looked at 148 research projects involving 300,000 people and found that the people who benefited from social contacts were 50% less likely to suffer a premature death than those without.

Why? Because that’s how we are made.

According to the Arizona-based Journal of Aging Life Care, we are a gregarious species. Our social networks (families, tribes, communities, etc.) have allowed us to survive and thrive. Our survival has been ensured by the evolutionary development of behaviors and psychological mechanisms (neural, hormonal, cellular and genetic) that support social interactions (Cacioppo et al., 2011) […] The fact is that most of us are psychologically and biologically “programmed” to need social networks.

The perpetual motion that Oscar Wilde jeers at turns out to be beneficial for our health.

The Ministry of Loneliness

The English and the Japanese have each created a “Ministry of Loneliness” to combat social isolation. The Japanese recognize that this is not an evil exclusive to the elderly, and have noted an increase in suicides among young women since the start of the Covid pandemic.

When I move to my lonely apartment, I will try to stay in contact with as many groups and individuals as possible, in order to stay alive. Even if my soul yearns for loneliness…

Fortunately, ex-cons like me have outreach groups that pride themselves on helping people reintegrate into society.

There is the Twelve Step Program that I adhere to and which provides me with human contact, even if it is by videoconference most of the time.

In addition, I attend mass via Zoom. Attendance at religious celebrations is associated with greater longevity. Occasionally, I attend masses in person, which lowers my loneliness quotient.

And they say having a pet helps you stay healthy.

Maybe I’ll get a cat.

Or maybe not.

I got used to my own loneliness. Without a cat or a dog. I have come to value my own company.

Twelve-Step Programs

Twelve Step Programs are self-help and fellowship programs that provide a plan of action for recovery from addiction. They were created in 1930 by Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith, the pioneers of Alcoholics Anonymous, to help break free from heavy addiction. Many treatment programs for alcoholism and other addictions are based on the 12 step model (Paracelsus Recovery).

Also available on the Reflet de Société website September 26th, 2022

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