Book Review

The Lonely American by Jacqueline Olds, MD and Richard S. Schwartz, MD

As this selection isn’t your typical career development book, I’d like to explain why I am reviewing it on our blog.  I received an invitation to hear Dr. Jacqueline Olds speak at the University of Minnesota about the problem of increasing loneliness in our society, an issue she details in this book.  Many of us know someone – aging parents,  friends, acquaintances, other family members or relatives – who may be experiencing increased social isolation.  We may be facing it ourselves as well.  There are many causes, including: relocation, loss of significant relationships, empty nest syndrome, age, illness, and unemployment.  Therefore, I think we may all benefit from being able to recognize the effects of social isolation on those we know and on ourselves, as it has serious ramifications for our mental and physical health.

Several statistics from this book boldly stand out.  The 2000 Census found that 1 out of 4 households consists of only one person.  This figure has been steadily increasing since 1940 when it was only about 7%.  The General Social Survey (GSS) led by Duke University researcher Miller McPherson found that between 1985 and 2004, the number of people with whom the average American discussed “important matters” dropped from 3 to 2.  In 2004, nearly 25% reported they talked to no one about important matters.   (The Lonely American, p. 2)

Dr. Olds writes: “There is now a clear consensus among medical researchers that social connections have a powerful impact on health.  Socially connected people live longer, respond better to stress, have more robust immune systems, and do better at fighting a variety of specific illnesses.  These medical benefits derive directly from the social connection itself, not just from lifestyle improvements such as better diet, more exercise, and better medical care…”

If someone you know seems to be suffering from social isolation, advise them to talk to a mental health professional.  Below is a list of the effects of social exclusion.  You may find this list useful in identifying when mental health counseling would be beneficial: (The Lonely American, pp. 72-73)

1)    Social exclusion makes people more aggressive.

2)    It causes self-defeating behavior such as unhealthy choices with regards to eating, exercise and other habits.

3)    Social exclusion reduces intelligent thought and performance on complex cognitive tasks.

4)    It leads to a state of mind that “avoids meaningful thought, emotion and self-awareness, and is characterized by lethargy and altered time flow.”

5)    It leads people to quit sooner on frustrating tasks.

The bottom line is we’re social animals and we perform better in the company of other people who witness our lives and know our histories.  Positive psychology books all agree that our social connections are the pillars of happiness, above money, success, and any other single factor.  After our basic needs are met, love and belonging rank highest on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

If someone we know faces social isolation, perhaps the most valuable things we can offer them are a suggestion to talk to a mental health professional as well as a kind and empathetic ear, a reminder of how valuable they are to us, and encouragement to stay socially engaged with others even when it may seem more difficult to do so.  Their social ties may be much more important than they realize to their long-term mental and physical health.  

Please remember that if you are concerned about your job security or are currently unemployed, the Career Services Center offers career advising and coaching support through the process.  We hope you’ll schedule an appointment with us on our WIRE system. 

 Written by Career Services Director Lisa Cook

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