Over the centuries, the meaning of Valentine’s Day has evolved from a religious observance to mostly a cultural and commercial holiday. Here in the U.S., it centers around a red heart and celebration of romance and love. The traditions of Valentine’s Day, as joyful and enjoyable as they may be, can intensify the feeling of loneliness for some who wish they were part of the fun.
Loneliness is not confined to Valentine’s Day. It is much more serious than a bout of the blues. One stereotype of loneliness is an older person living alone, but they aren’t the only ones who suffer. Even before the pandemic, 18- to 22-year-olds were found to have the highest loneliness scores, according to the Cigna US Loneliness Index.
Loneliness and social isolation – even for people who like to be alone – can be as harmful to health as obesity, smoking 15 cigarettes a day or being an alcoholic. People suffering from loneliness are much higher risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia and depression. In 2017, the U.S. Surgeon General called loneliness a public health epidemic. A year later, the United Kingdom appointed a “minister for loneliness” to address the challenge.
Fortunately, there is a straightforward way to help address this health and wellness problem: volunteering. About two-thirds of 10,000 volunteers surveyed agreed that volunteering made them feel less alone. For years, studies have consistently shown that volunteers say their lives improved when they got involved and that volunteering helps keep them mentally and physically active. Many young people have struggled profoundly with the pandemic and rates of anxiety and depression have doubled in the last year, but volunteering can help children and youth feel empowered.
Regardless of age, we need to feel connected to thrive; when we feel we don’t belong, anxiety, stress and sadness go up. Feelings of belonging increase when we engage with people – even if we don’t know them well – toward a common goal. We fare better when we have a purpose-driven life, and volunteering can provide that purpose. Plus, our brain health improves when we broaden our horizons and experience people who live and think differently than we do.
Like nearly every other sector, volunteering has adapted since the pandemic began two years ago. Many organizations now offer virtual volunteering as well as in-person volunteering that makes personal safety paramount. Informal volunteering can be as simple as checking on an elderly neighbor regularly or performing a random act of kindness for a stranger.
So, no matter your age or ability, this Valentine’s Day I invite you to swap out one “L-word” for another. Replace loneliness with love, for yourself, and for others. Reach out, connect, do good and feel better. #Volunteer.