Happy new year! I hope you all got some much deserved time off to spend with family and friends. Personally, I feel like my batteries got recharged – and maybe even received an upgrade. I am quite excited about all that 2023 holds.

During the time off, I had the opportunity to reflect on several issues I feel continue to plague our nation’s mental health. One issue, which continually came up, especially in conversations with others was that of loneliness. It’s easy to see why this came up during the holidays. For some, it’s a reminder of how alone they might be in their life. In fact, one survey found that 36% of people felt lonely “frequently” or “almost all the time or all the time” in the four weeks prior to the survey. Most surprising was who was feeling the loneliest: Sixty one percent of young folks between 18-25 and 51 percent of mom’s with young kids. Wow. Now granted, this survey was done last year when COVID had us all stuck in place, but still, this is a troubling statistic and a true public health problem.

Loneliness is a highly personal and subjective feeling. Most experts agree that loneliness is the difference between the connection you believe you have and that connection you want. It’s different from social isolation as many people choose to be isolated and report not being lonely. It’s also possible to be totally connected and feel lonely. Regardless of one’s circumstance, feelings of loneliness can have a significant negative impact on our health.

One study compared loneliness to other risk factors for mortality like smoking. The research team found that not having strong social networks – being connected and feeling connected – was a major risk factor for mortality. Perhaps most interesting, and where the article got a lot of attention, the author’s compared loneliness to smoking suggesting that being lonely was like smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Another study looked at the neurobiology of loneliness and found that it can even change your brain, altering structures and functions in certain brain regions.

Loneliness is also associated with depression and anxiety. One study looking at children found that mental health conditions and loneliness may have a bidirectional relationship; meaning, that one may contribute to the start of the other.

This got me thinking a lot about what to do with a problem that impacts so many people, including many of those we probably interact with on a daily basis. The science highlights a lot of solutions that work. For example, one meta-analysis found four main intervention strategies that worked: 1) improving social skills, 2) enhancing social support, 3) increasing opportunities for social contact, and 4) addressing maladaptive social cognition. And sure, these sound great, but a lot of this felt individual – what a person could do to help themself. Arguably this is important, and often the type of work that occurs in therapy, but there had to be more done at a societal level to help. I dipped into the science – found out a ton of good articles – and then starting talking to friends about the topic and why more wasn’t being done about it and what we could do.

Let’s create more “kletskassas”

Kletskassa is a Dutch word that literally translates into “chat box.” Jumbo, a Dutch supermarket, decided to actually do something about all the people who were coming into their stores looking for connection. They created kletskassa, which were a different type of check out line where people who were looking to chat could do so without being rushed by the person behind them. Simple, elegant, and likely highly impactful on those who needed to engage.

I have written about the power of relationships here before. They matter, and are some of the major reasons why things like therapy work to help people improve their mental health. We have relationships with people all over our community – what happens when you become intentional about creating opportunities for more meaningful engagement? For someone feeling lonely, it could be a tremendous benefit to have that person at the check out line take an extra few minutes and talk to them. And greeting that person by name? One study, using a coffee shop, found how remembering a person’s name (or at least writing it down correctly on a cup) can help increase feelings of respect.

Small things like kletskassas can begin to create the conditions for people to have connection. Sure, it’s going to be hard to convince a fortune 500 company that it’s OK for us to slow down a transaction, but if that change leads to a more loyal customer base who is happier and healthier? Playing the long game, it’s safe to say that those changes might pay off in the long run vs. just that fiscal quarter.

Imagine what would happen if businesses everywhere decided they wanted to create spaces for more meaningful connection? While singlehandedly it’s not going to solve our loneliness problem, it definitely could go a long way in helping.

Slow down and actually listen and engage

There’s a lot that you can do to help, too. How many times have you encountered someone in an Uber, elevator, plane, or waiting room where it was obvious they wanted to talk. If you are anything like me, you have likely been polite and returned quickly to your playlist, laptop, or book. It takes energy to engage, and for some of us, that is enough reason to avoid anything beyond a superficial interaction. But what happens if we did take a moment to actually engage? To slow down and listen to what the person was saying. These micro moments of humanity help bring us closer together. I don’t expect that we are going to create an entire culture of listeners who are willing and able to be there the next time a stranger opens up, but if each of us decide to have a more meaningful interaction with that person the next time they spoke to us, it could be like chipping away at a mountain on our way to move it.

Reach out

A colleague of mine, when discussing loneliness, often describes her strategy of pulling out her holiday card list and sending people notes throughout the year. Some of us aren’t as savvy as to write letters or keep an organized holiday card list, but we do have the internet, which can magically find addresses for us. Send a note to someone you have thought about. Send a text. Make a phone call. Bake some cookies and mail them. These small, simple acts can go a long way in helping someone feel less lonely. Do it daily. It will benefit them and benefit you – that’s the science of helping out.

We’re not going to solve loneliness unless we all begin to commit to doing something about it. There will be books and articles written about loneliness forever. Feeling lonely has a deeply rooted evolutionary basis and is one of the most significant indicators of our health and well-being. The problem has been with us forever, and will stay with us unless we begin to think differently about our role in creating meaningful connections. In our workplace, our community hang outs, and even in our home, there are small things we can do to help today.

After all, it is a new year why not try a conversation with someone today? You never know how far that one simple act might go in helping a person feel less lonely.