Treating and Preventing Loneliness

Robert A. Hatcher MD, MPH

March 28, 2014

     My column last week discussed some of the serious consequences of loneliness and its first cousin, depression. Problems ranging from suicide, heart disease, and decreased memory, to poor decision-making, alcoholism , drug abuse and less exercise. An important distinction was made between loneliness and being alone.

     In this week’s column there are some suggestions as to how to deal with loneliness when it seems to be a problem for someone AND some suggestions as to what each of us might be doing to help diminish the loneliness being experienced by others in our life.

     A recent television piece on loneliness pointed out how helpful warm greetings and smiles can be in minimizing a friend, fellow worker or family member’s loneliness.  The facial expressions and several good morning phrases were shown but the one that put the most joy into my heart were the words and expressions of Ellen DeGeneres.  There were only six to ten words. They all came with her marvelous smile and did they ever put a smile onto my face. My smile was completely involuntary. Its effect on me happens again and again when I even think of what I saw that morning. It was gift that keeps on giving. How many seconds did it take her? No more than 5 to 7. So little effort but potentially so helpful.

     My friend, Brooke Goodman has such a smile. One day she and her mother were shopping and Brooke smiled at a preverbal baby who just loved her smile and kept moving from side to side in the grocery cart to be able to see Brooke better.  Another time on an airplane a 3 year old boy sitting in the seat behind Brooke was also taken by her smile and kept popping back up to see her. When his mother told him two or three times to sit down he replied “But I just love her!”

          In the accompanying photograph Brooke Kowal Goodman is standing near our home in Tiger, Georgia.  That magnificent peach was grown by Bob and Sterling Massee and Brooke will be taking it to her parents in Atlanta in a few hours. A thoughtful little gift of love from Rabun County and from a daughter they treasure.

     Your smile costs so little.  Your “Hello, how are you today.  Isn’t it a glorious day?” uses up so little of your precious time.  Your hug (when appropriate, of course) costs nothing.

     Ultimately, of course, much of the responsibility for avoiding or minimizing loneliness falls on each of our shoulders. Each of us is the captain of his or her own health team. John Cacioppo who has written extensively on the subject offers several suggestions on how a person can minimize or overcome loneliness. His suggestions are as follows:

  1. 1.                   Recognize that loneliness is a sign that something needs to change.
  2. 2.                   Understand the effects that loneliness has on your life, both physically and mentally.
  3. 3.                   Consider doing community service or another activity that you enjoy. These situations present great opportunities to meet people and cultivate new friendships and social interactions.
  4. 4.                   Focus on developing quality relationships with people who share similar attitudes, interests and values with you.
  5. 5.                   Expect the best. Lonely people often expect rejection, so instead focus on positive thoughts and attitudes in your social relationships.

If you are interested in interviews and written works of John Cacioppo, simply Google his name.

Robert A. Hatcher M.D., M.P.H.

Emeritus Professor of Gynecology and Obstetrics

Emory University School of Medicine

Atlanta, Georgia