If you want to lead a healthy life and avoid disease and early death, there is an abundance of medical studies with often conflicting advice. Once coffee is bad for you, then coffee is good for you. Once wine is bad, in the next study it is good for your heart. One of the latest additions, a study published in the Public Library of Science, Medicine, makes the bold claim that loneliness increases your risk of death just as much as smoking and the consumption of alcohol do and that the influence of social relationships exceeds that of other risk factors such as physical inactivity and obesity.
While this might be welcome news for those who prefer a party in a smoke-filled room over a run in fresh air, I have my doubts.
First of all, from glancing over the study, it seems like it measured “loneliness” by the number and extent of social relationships of a person. This falls into the trap of confusing “being alone” with “being lonely”. I am very adamant about this distinction because I personally almost never feel lonely when I am alone, but I do sometimes feel lonely when I am in a group of people. Being alone, I always find something to do, explore, think, read or write about. But when I am in a group, it becomes more obvious that I am the odd one out, philosophically and intellectually, maybe also socially and emotionally.
If the study looks at who is married or living with someone or regularly meets other people or has more Facebook friends, it only establishes a group of people who meet more people on a regular basis than members of the other group. This alone doesn’t say much about the feeling of loneliness, which is a matter of quality rather than quantity. (After all, most of us are happier with one really good girlfriend than with 2 or 3 flings.)
On a medical level, I would like to point out that being alone should protect you from most contagious diseases. If only all these flu- and other virus-infected people were less gregarious…
The study admits to exclude deaths by suicide, accident and crime. I don’t know if more alone/lonely people commit suicide, but then I have a rather positive view of suicide anyway, so I don’t see it as something that should be prevented. But accidents are more often than not and crimes almost always caused by other people. Which would again argue for the proposition that being alone is better for your health. If there is no one else around, no one can hit, burn, shoot, maim, drown and kill you.
For me, the choice is clear: Even if being social might be life-prolonging, the time spent talking to uninteresting people or being bored at parties is not worth the investment if I can instead use the time for myself now. And this way, I will also avoid hanging out with people who might prove lethal one day.
(This article has also been published in Medium.)