By Bob Smietana
When a church gathers for worship on Sundays, the pews may be full.
But some of the people may feel empty inside.
More than half of Americans (56 percent) say they feel lonely, even when surrounded by other people. Forty-six percent say they feel no one knows them very well. Thirty-six percent believe there is no one they can turn to—at least some of the time.
Nearly 1 in 5 say they don’t have people they can turn to (19 percent) or talk to (18 percent), according to a new survey of more than 20,000 Americans from Cigna, a global health service company.
Loneliness, according to Cigna, is an epidemic.
And it can be deadly.
“Loneliness has the same impact on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, making it even more dangerous than obesity,” says Cigna’s report on the study.
Researchers used the UCLA Loneliness Scale—made up of 20 questions—to develop their survey. The scale gives people a score from 20 to 80—with 80 being the most lonely. The average person scored a 44.
Older Americans—those known as “the greatest generation”—are the least lonely. They scored an average of 38.6. By contrast, members of Generation Z scored 48.3—making them the loneliest generation.
Seventy percent of Gen Z survey respondents said no one knows them very well and that people are around them “but not with them.”
Health has a significant impact on loneliness, according to the study. Those who say their health is fair or poor scored 13.5 points higher on the loneliness scale than those whose health is excellent or very good.
Americans who get enough sleep often feel less lonely, according to the study. So do those who exercise regularly.
Some tips on how to address loneliness.
Invite friends over for dinner.
About a decade ago, Wes Yoder was having lunch with a friend when he had a revelation. His friend was telling him about some of the struggles in his life – struggles that Yoder shared. He wondered, “how did we not know this about each other?”
So Yoder threw some steaks on the grill and invited some friends over for dinner. They talked for hours—the only off-limits topics were sports, the weather, and work. Things went so well that they have kept meeting for dinner on a regular basis ever since.
Those relationships have been life-sustaining, says Yoder, an author and literary agent.
“The kitchen table—the supper table—is the least used asset in the kingdom of God,” he says. “We do not invite strangers to our home. We barely invite our friends over for dinner … Hopefully, that will change.”
Try a sideways approach.
One of the best ways to avoid loneliness is to do something with friends—often on a regular basis. Invite some folks to get together to play a board game, go for a walk, or do a project together, says Billy Baker, a reporter for the Boston Globe.
Last year, Baker’s editor called him to the office and told him to go out and write a story on loneliness—especially among men. Baker scoffed at the idea – and especially his editor’s hint that Baker might be at risk for loneliness.
People from all around wrote him, saying things like “This hits way to close to home.”
In response, Baker started setting up regular times to meet with friends and old acquaintances. He even organized an impromptu class reunion for high school friends—one day he posted a note in a Facebook group for his high school class and invited them all to take a Friday off and hang out.
Despite the last minute plan, about 30 people showed up and had a blast.
“This isn’t eating your vegetables or exercising. This is just hanging out with your best friends,” Baker, who is writing a book on friendship, told Christianity Today earlier this year. “And the health benefits are incredible and immediate.”
Go for a run.
For years, Dave Redding and Tim Whitmire attended the same church in North Carolina. But they never met—even though their kids had been in the same Sunday school class.
“You would go to church, you’d slap guys on the back and sit beside them in the pew, but you didn’t really have any close male friends,” he recalls.
By coincidence, the two ended up joining a morning workout at a local park. It helped both of them get in shape and to become fast friends. When the group got too big, the two split off and started a new group.
They hoped a couple friends would join them. Instead, three-dozen friends showed up. That initial workout spawned what’s known as the F3 movement—a network of thousands of workouts around the country focused on faith, fellowship, and fitness.
Even joining one friend for exercise can be a huge help.
When he was a pastor in small-town North Carolina, Jason Byassee, knew he needed to get in shape. And he was also trying to make friends. A member of his church named Wade invited him to go for a run.
“Wade just said, ‘I’m coming to your house tomorrow at 6. We’re going running,’” recalls Byassee, who now teaches at the Vancouver School of Theology.
As they ran, the two talked about life and faith. They became fast friends—and eventually invited other church members to join a running club.
“Running became part of the church, Byassee says, “and a way of building friendships.”
- Gen Z is the Loneliest Generation
- What Is the Loneliest City in America?
- The Least Used Asset in the Kingdom of God
- Many Pastors Face a Health Crisis
BOB SMIETANA (@BobSmietana) is senior writer at Facts & Trends.