Loneliness doesn’t just feel rotten — it can also physically harm us. In fact, it can have the same impact on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day! Several studies not only confirm this but also reveal the opposite: relationships that diminish feelings of loneliness and isolation foster greater well-being.
Perhaps one of the most famous studies pointing this out is the Harvard Study of Adult Development, for which participants were observed over many decades to determine what makes for a well-lived life. The adults who demonstrated the greatest levels of happiness and well-being? Those with the strongest relationships and feelings of connectedness throughout their lives.
Loneliness is quite dangerous in its own right, but it can become an explosive problem when it combines with alcohol. It’s kind of like having a hungry badger and an angry dog in your apartment: either one of them on their own is a real problem, but the two together can really do some damage. If you’re feeling lonely, turning to alcohol can be like fighting fire with gasoline.
It should come as no surprise that alcohol can have many negative effects on our well-being, including anxiety, stress, and greater unhappiness. An article by Healthline details that alcohol consumption in the short term causes “mood changes, gastrointestinal issues, hindered coordination and thinking, [and] fatigue.” The article continues, detailing that alcohol consumption over the long term can shrink our brain, damage our heart and liver, and cause infertility and birth defects. Of course, at the very extreme, alcohol consumption can even cause death.
Both of these harmful realities — loneliness and immoderate alcohol consumption — can feed off of each other. We may turn to drinking alcohol precisely because we’re lonely, but drinking can actually exacerbate the feelings of loneliness from which we had intended to escape. This can put us on an endless cycle: We feel lonely and so we drink to escape the negative feelings (which may work temporarily), but the result is that we feel even more lonely afterward — and then we turn back to alcohol.
It’s important to be aware of how these two potent factors play off of each other. Not only can initial feelings of loneliness and isolation cause drinking, but drinking can cause greater feelings of loneliness and depressive moods. When we consume alcohol, which is a depressant, it can cause us to experience negative mood changes and other undesirable feelings. And these feelings are only compounded when we are already feeling lonely.
The coronavirus pandemic created an unprecedented level of isolation and loneliness for many all over the world. As a result, we've been able to identify a clear correlation between feelings of isolation and drinking:
- In one survey, isolation caused a greater occurrence of excessive alcohol consumption: each additional week of lockdown resulted in a greater probability of binge drinking. Binge drinking was defined as having at least four drinks for women and five for men on a single occasion. Further, roughly a third of the participants included in the study reported drinking more alcohol overall as a result of feeling more isolated under lockdown.
- A study by RTI International measured drinking habits during the first two months of the 2020 lockdown. An article detailing the survey cited that “about 35% reported excessive drinking in April, compared to 29% in February, and 27% reported binge drinking.”
One of the best solutions for steering clear of the dangers of alcohol and loneliness is being connected to others. Digital connections or Zoom calls are fine, but they do not match up to face-to-face communication. Personal connections are proven to lead to human flourishing and can increase our quality of life.
There are a number of reasons behind the superiority of in-person relationships: online relationships require only passive engagement, they make it harder to read social cues, they tend to foster more superficial conversations, interactions online are often fragmented, etc. One of the best ways to contend against loneliness — and prevent it from spurring unhealthy drinking habits — is to engage in face-to-face interactions on a regular basis with loved ones.
There are other strategies to limit the tendency to turn to alcohol when we’re feeling lonely, such as engaging in hobbies, intentionally monitoring how much drinking we are doing each day or week (the drinking calculator can help with this), only consuming alcohol around other people and never alone, getting adequate sleep, exercising, praying regularly, learning to manage the negative feelings of loneliness with the guidance of a counselor, and so on.
There isn’t a quick fix for diminishing our feelings of loneliness, and if we find ourselves in a new place or physically isolated from others, it can be difficult to resist turning to an unhealthy, temporary escape from our negative feelings like alcohol. But we know that excessive alcohol consumption often only makes our feelings of loneliness worse, and we can combat loneliness in healthy ways — and thereby keep both a hungry badger and an angry dog out of our living space.