Valentine’s Day is one of those holidays that haters call “forced,” commercialized and downright expensive to pull off if expectations are to be met. This year, the day of romance that has grown into a celebration of all-around love and friendship is the first since the U.S. surgeon general issued a public health advisory last spring declaring loneliness and isolation an “epidemic” with dire consequences.
Dr. Vivek Murthy, the country’s top public health watchdog, warned that widespread loneliness poses health risks as deadly as smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day. It costs the health industry billions of dollars a year, he said.
About half of U.S. adults say they’ve experienced loneliness, he said. The problem has been brewing since well before the pandemic, worsening in recent years.
“It’s like hunger or thirst. It’s a feeling the body sends us when something we need for survival is missing,” Murthy said. “Millions of people in America are struggling in the shadows, and that’s not right.”
Like Valentine’s Day, loneliness has become big business, complete with an outpouring of books offering up self help and data. The season is a windfall for dating apps and websites cashing in on users looking to make it over the hump emotionally intact.
TRY A SHIFT IN PERSPECTIVE
David Sbarra, a psychology professor at the University of Arizona in Tucson, studies loneliness and social isolation. He’s among data crunchers who considered the idea of loneliness as a deadly epidemic a tad overblown. But he’s confident about where Valentine’s Day can take the chronically lonely.
Who can I go out with? What can I do? How can I serve others? Who can I text, call? That’s very important,” Sbarra said.
“You can make a very clear argument that it exacerbates the experience of psychological distress among people who are already lonely,” he said.
“So a simple way of saying it would be that people are looking at and monitoring themselves being socially isolated instead of shifting their perception toward opportunities to reengage, and then pursuing that. Who can I go out with? What can I do? How can I serve others? Who can I text, call? That’s very important,” Sbarra said.
SEEK REAL-LIFE CONNECTION
Mattei doesn’t consider herself a Valentine’s Day hater.
“I just dislike the pressure of making it romantic when really, if someone handed me a rose on the street, that would make my day. Like, that’s all it takes,” she said.
Her best advice from her for making it through Valentine’s Day is as sweet as those candy conversation hearts that circulate this time of year.
“Show love to somebody. I love giving other people a gift, putting a smile on their face. And if you can’t think of someone that you want to show love to, then show love to yourself. Buy yourself candy. I buy myself flowers very frequently. I love the way they look. “I don’t care that I bought them for myself,” Mattei said.
Dr. Jeremy Nobel, who wrote “Project UnLonely: Healing Our Crisis of Disconnection,” agrees with all of the above. Loneliness, he said, comes in many forms, from physical isolation to rejection based on difference.
LET YOUR CREATIVE JUICES FLOW
Through his Project UnLonely and Foundation for Art & Healing, Nobel has come up with programs that use the creative arts to raise awareness of the health challenges caused by loneliness and social isolation, including among young people.
On Valentine’s Day, the project is offering a free Zoom coloring session for anyone who cares to sign up. Crayons, markers, colored pencils, oil pastels. The choice is yours.
“Loneliness is subjective,” Nobel said — it’s the gap between the social connections you want to have and the ones you do have. “Valentine’s Day, it’s the time to celebrate love and connection, which is fantastic unless you don’t have that connection.”
Psychotherapist Kelli Miller in Los Angeles works with couples and individuals and wrote “Love Hacks: Simple Solutions to the Most Common Relationship Issues.” Valentine’s Day is a common trigger among her clients. If you don’t have the love you want, turn inward in search of joy, she urges.
“Take yourself to the theater. Take yourself to dinner. “I know a lot of people don’t want to eat alone but sometimes just being around other human beings can help.”