Why Loneliness Is Dangerous For Your Health – And How Friendships Help

Anyone with a close friend can attest to how important and enriching a good friend can be. But how does friendship, and the lack thereof, affect us? What benefits can a close confidant provide for us, physiologically and psychologically? 

Here’s what the science says:

How Loneliness Affects Us

Two critical caveats: several factors can cause feelings of abandonment or isolation, and every person has a different measurement of aloneness. It is important to keep this in mind because your friends (or you) might be feeling lonely for any number of reasons and might need an individual level of attention to feel less isolated. 

Social isolation and loneliness have negative health impacts on par with obesity, physical inactivity, and smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and are associated with about a 50% increased risk of dementia.

Simply taking a moment [to] connect with someone — even through a brief phone call — can reduce feelings of aloneness, anxiety, and depression and deliver brain-protecting benefits.

Dr Scott Kaiser

Humans are evolutionarily social creatures, and being alone can physically harm us. This is becoming even more evident in a socially-distanced world. The lasting effects of covid lockdowns and physical distancing guidelines, partnered with the rise of technology that is anything but social, continue to contribute to feelings of being alone. A growing body of evidence points to the fact that extended social isolation “is associated with an increased risk of mood disorders like depression and anxiety, as well as stress and problems with sleep…. It’s been found to increase the risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke. Older adults who feel socially isolated are at an increased risk of dementia” (Welch, 2022).

A recent study by the Harvard Graduate School of Education found that lonely people are more likely to experience substance and physical abuse. In this same study, “an alarming 61% of young people aged 18-25 reported miserable degrees of loneliness.” In other words, social seclusion is more than a feeling: it’s a public health crisis. 

Country level prevalence of loneliness separately for four age groups (adolescents (12-17 years), young adults (18-29 years), middle-aged adults (30-59 years), and older adults (≥60 years)
Country level prevalence of lonely feelings, separately for four age groups (adolescents (12-17 years), young adults (18-29 years), middle-aged adults (30-59 years), and older adults (≥60 years)

So, close friends can help you feel less stress, sleep better, be healthier overall, and live longer, more fulfilling lives. But why? How? 

The key might be oxytocin.

Oxy-what-in? Oxytocin is a hormone that our brain produces. It is associated with trust, generosity, empathy, and other critical building blocks of friendship. Furthermore, oxytocin combats cortisol — the stress hormone. Positive social interactions relax us and cause our brains to release oxytocin. This release lowers cortisol levels, blood pressure, and stress. 

How many friends do you need?

Like many things in life, when it comes to friendships, quality is more important than quantity. One long-term and deep connection can be more beneficial than any amount of superficial relationships. In the same vein, the friendships you keep need to impact your life and decisions positively. A bad friend can do more harm than being lonely can. Of course, this isn’t to say that you shouldn’t try cultivating a broad network of connections; just that nurturing a few tight-knit links is all it takes to reap the benefits of friendship.

How do I meet new friends?

We address this question in our 7 Best Ways To Meet Friends In A New City post. To quickly recap what is written in that blog, meeting new people requires you to be proactive: volunteer your time, join a club, take a class, and reach out to people that you’d like to get to know better. Friendship also requires vulnerability. Good friends will share their struggles and listen to each other without judgment.