I was watching Piers Morgan the other night and his guests were Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Gayle King, and Oprah, who have recently teamed up to address a growing epidemic: loneliness. "Loneliness by itself more than obesity, more than chronic alcohol use, more than air pollution leads to early death," Gupta said. "Pollution increases your risk of early death by six percent, obesity 23 percent, excessive alcohol 37 percent. Researches found that loneliness can increase your risk by a whopping 45 percent, more than those other three."
This hit me like a ton of bricks. More disturbing? Research shows that people rarely talk about their loneliness, choosing instead to either ignore it or mislabel it as depression, a seemingly more viable and serious condition. Why? In our society, admitting you're lonely implies you have no friends, you're socially inept. Sometimes it feels like our worth is measured by how social we are and how much fun we appear to be having, which we broadcast through pictures and status updates on social media so everyone will know about all the great places we go with all of the good friends we have.
But people who feel lonely are everywhere, in every city and small town, with every kind of social life, family background, occupation, and marital status. This is the truth driving Sanjay Gupta, Gayle King, and Oprah's new campaign. It's called #JustSayHello and it suggests that if we all make an effort to say "hello" to one another, to be nicer, more friendly, and more open to our surroundings, it might make us all feel less lonely.
I love this idea and I think books and reading can play a strong role in creating and supporting connections between people, whether they be strangers or friends. Sometimes when I'm deeply involved in a book, I actually feel a part of the characters' world and relationships and subsequently, less lonely. But aside from the comfort books themselves can give a person while reading alone, there is huge potential for synergy around books experienced together. The health benefits tied to reading and learning are no secret—experts and educators have been promoting them for years.
Think about it: we can lend someone a book we love, we can debate and discuss books in a book club, we can laugh about them with friends in casual conversation. We can take a child to a library to wander and browse, or just sit and enjoy the silence and grandeur of stacks upon stacks of books. We can attend a reading and meet other literary-minded people, we can donate old books to a consignment shop, we can volunteer to read to someone who could use the comfort. We can sit on a park bench next to a stranger and simply ask him what he's reading and whether or not he's enjoying it. I could go on. Relationships are built around reading. Trust is built around reading. Maybe it can't single-handedly combat loneliness, but it's a wonderful thing.