Loneliness at Christmas

By KEITH BALL,

For many people the holiday season is a time for peace, joy, and happiness.

This time of year often brings cheery songs, gifts, lights, parties, family gatherings, and the celebration of a New Year, but for many people the holiday season means loneliness and the feeling of “being left out the celebration.”

Loneliness is a year round problem, but especially at Christmas.

The subject of loneliness has long been examined in Christmas culture. One of the most famous Christmas books, A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens examines the loneliness of a mean, old, greedy, Ebenezer Scrooge. 

Elvis Presley famously sang of “having a Blue Christmas without you” in his classic song Blue Christmas.

The movie Home Alone is a narrative about a boy that eventually misses his family after he is mistakenly left behind by his family who fly to Paris to spend Christmas. 

Loneliness is generally defined as the negative emotional response to social isolation. In more simple terms – loneliness is the lack of meaningful relationships with other people.

Many experts are calling loneliness the fastest growing public health issue that our nation faces. A growing body of research shows that loneliness reduces our lifespan in a way similar to obesity or smoking.

Loneliness is linked to depression, fatigue, and high blood pressure. It also contributes to memory loss and mental decline.

U.S. Senator Ben Sasse has written that “we’re literally dying of despair to fill the hole millions of Americans feel in their lives.” 

The loneliness problem is not even limited to America, it is an increasing problem in many of the advanced democracies of the world. Last year the then British Prime Minister Theresa May identified loneliness as a major problem in the United Kingdom.

Her government even created a new government cabinet office: Minister for Loneliness.

It is ironic that in this digital age, we have better quality communications than ever before – yet are unhappier, more isolated, and less fulfilled.

It may be easier than ever to reach out and communicate with others, but it seems that fewer of us actually do.

A recent survey found that the number of people who reported having “no close friends” has tripled since 1985.

Online connection is an amazing tool that helps family and friends stay in touch, but it is not a replacement for fact-to-fact connection.

While the internet allows for ease of communication, but it also has brought a number of problems that increase social isolation.

The internet has created a new world full of cyber bullies, internet trolls, and the spread of false and misinformation.

What are people increasingly lonely? There are many causes of the increase in loneliness. The quick answer is that our families, relationships, communities, and institutions have changed.

One major societal shift is that extended families live further apart now.

Living further away from extended family usually means fewer holidays spent together and fewer holiday memories made.

Living outside of a reasonable driving distance also brings the expense, hassle, and inconvenience of flying. It seems that every year at Christmastime the evening news is full of stories of airport delays and cancelled flights.     

For generations, the church played the important role of cultivating a place of fellowship among believers especially during the Advent and Christmas seasons.

Many people found comfort in the beautifully decorated churches, the greenery, the candles, the stained-glass, readings of the Nativity story, and singing of Christmas hymns, but studies have shown church attendance has been dropping since the 1950s. The 1950s were called the “Great Awaking” for churches in America, but today it appears we are living in the “Great Decline.”

Fewer people in America today say that church or religion plays a significant role in their lives than ever before.

Even casual social events are in decline. We are a nation of fewer bowling leagues, fewer garden clubs, fewer board game nights, and fewer knitting groups.

Fewer kids and teens participate in groups like the Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts. Civil groups have been has been in decline for many years. Groups like the Kiwanis Club and Lions Club have fewer members today. In many communities these civic clubs have closed altogether.

The game of golf was once considered a major social activity. Charity golf tournaments were once plentiful and an untold number of business deals were negotiated on courses, but today the popularity of golf is in near free fall.

People are no longer getting together foursomes to play a round of golf.  Golf courses across the nation are closing at record numbers.

Golf courses cover a large number of acres and real estate developers are finding more profitable uses for the land. Golf can be an expensive game that can take several hours to play. This makes it difficult for the golf industry to recruit new players.

Even the American institutions of high school football and college football, which have long bonded schools to generations of alumni, are seeing smaller crowds at games.

Undoubtedly, many schools have overbuilt their stadiums to sizes that they will never or rarely fill.

This results are alumni that are more disconnected to their high school or college alma mater. Disconnected alumni are less likely to be monetary supporters of their schools.   

The Salvation Army, the longstanding Christian charity that famously collects donations in iconic red kettles in front of stores at Christmas time, has seen reduced donations.

People enjoy the convenience of shopping online and use credit/debit cards more frequently – resulting in few people with spare change to drop in the red kettle. 

It is struggle to stay up with the times.

Solving the loneliness problem requires building our culture and social infrastructure in a way that works in our modern smart phone world.

We must realize that social and emotional health matter.

It is a daunting job to build a society that reduces loneliness and makes people feel included. 

It requires an investment in people and relationships, especially during the Christmas season.

Keith Ball is a graduate of Petal High School, the University of Southern Mississippi, and the Ole Miss School of Law. He is an attorney and lifelong resident of the Friendly City.