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1 in 5 people feels lonely, survey finds. But there is hope to combat it, a psychiatrist says.

New survey reveals global loneliness crisis
A look at the rise of widespread loneliness and its impact 03:44

Despite the world's overall emotional health taking a positive turn in 2023, a recent survey shows loneliness affects more than 1 in 5 people worldwide — which can lead to serious health concerns. 

According to the Gallup survey out Wednesday, about 23% of people said they felt loneliness "a lot of the previous day." Those who reported feeling lonely often felt things like physical pain, worry, sadness, stress and anger.

"Loneliness is this feeling that there is a mismatch between the quality of social life that we have and the one that we want," psychiatrist Dr. Sue Varma told "CBS Mornings" on Wednesday. "We can be in a room full of people and feel lonely, but it's this feeling that subjectively, people don't understand us, people are not with us."

Varma said loneliness is "a medical problem" that should be taken "very seriously."

"It's the equivalent of having somebody smoke 15 cigarettes per day, and we know that it affects our mind and our body. It predisposes us to anxiety and depression. It increases our risk by 30% for heart disease, for stroke, 50% for dementia, and 60% for premature mortality," she said.

Luckily, there is a way to combat loneliness. 

"Look at the quality of your relationships and say, 'Do I feel seen and validated and appreciated?'" she said, suggesting people have a range of "activity partners," or those you can do everyday activities with, as well as deeper connections.

"We want to have a mix of micro connections — talking to the barista, talking to your dog walker — but also deep and meaningful connections in your life, where you can feel vulnerable and open up to share," she said. 

The survey also showed loneliness was worse for young people in the U.S. — something Varma attributes to misguided priorities.

"It's really unfortunate that as much as we want our children to succeed, the emphasis I feel is being put on academic achievement. And for kids, they're looking at financial achievement and a lot of these goals, these milestones that were possible for us years ago aren't possible for them, mixing in climate change, war," she said, which is making young people feel "helpless."

"They're feeling alienated, they're feeling disconnected, and the places that they would turn to — friends, parents, coaches — are no longer sources of safe havens. They're sources of stress because of this competition to succeed," she said. "When I speak to high school students, they say, 'I can't remember the last time I did something fun, just for the sake of it, not for my resume.'"

What can young people and adults alike do to alleviate this? 

Schedule socialization "as if it was a medical appointment," Varma said.

"Your life depends on it, because the quality of our life depends on the quality of our relationships," she said.

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