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When loneliness is an epidemic, here’s how to find joy on Valentine’s Day

This is the first Valentine’s Day since the U.S. surgeon general issued a public health advisory declaring loneliness and isolation an “epidemic” with dire consequences. (Feb. 10) (APvideo by Melissa Perez Winder)

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NEW YORK (ֱ) — Elise Plessis hasn’t been in a long-term relationship for 26 years. It’s by choice, yet she still suffers FOMO when Valentine’s Day rolls around.

“I’m the singleton of the family and the friend group,” said the 53-year-old Plessis, who lives in Manitoba, Canada. “Valentine’s Day makes me feel hopeless, like a loser who can’t find anyone who wants me.”

But she won’t be sitting at home cursing her fate, self-imposed after she tired of “toxic” hookup culture. Instead, Plessis plans to do what loneliness researchers and psychologists advise: She’ll be helping others as a way to get out of her own head.

In her case, she’ll be helping others find love. She became a certified matchmaker last year and has organized a speed-dating event ahead of Valentine’s Day.

“I figure if I can’t find love, it’s the least I can do,” Plessis said.

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.

FILE - Then Vice President Joe Biden, right, watches as U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, center, receives an epaulet on his uniform by his sister Rashmi Murthy during a ceremonial swearing in ceremony in Conmy Hall at Fort Myer in Arlington, Va. on April 22, 2015. (APPhoto/Andrew Harnik, File)

FILE - Then Vice President Joe Biden, right, watches as U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, center, receives an epaulet on his uniform by his sister Rashmi Murthy during a ceremonial swearing in ceremony in Conmy Hall at Fort Myer in Arlington, Va. on April 22, 2015. (APPhoto/Andrew Harnik, File)

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 stewing 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 told APat the time. “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.

FILE - Women sell heart-shaped balloons at a flower market in Manila, Philippines on Monday, Feb. 13, 2023. Valentine's Day is one of those Hallmark holidays that haters call “forced," too commercialized and downright expensive to pull off if expectations are to be met. (APPhoto/Aaron Favila, File)

FILE - Women sell heart-shaped balloons at a flower market in Manila, Philippines on Monday, Feb. 13, 2023. Valentine’s Day is one of those Hallmark holidays that haters call “forced,” too commercialized and downright expensive to pull off if expectations are to be met. (APPhoto/Aaron Favila, File)

We have Valentine’s Day gift guides, and some for those who despise the holiday. We have recipes touted as perfect for the occasion, tips for choosing just the right flowers that won’t kill a recipient’s pet, and store shelves overflowing with Valentine’s cards. And thanks to a storyline on “Parks and Recreation,” the couples holiday has expanded to Galentine’s Day (Feb. 13) for singles and friends.

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 consider 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.

“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.

Those are the things 27-year-old Tori Mattei in New York has discovered on her own over the last four years of singlehood. She’s been dating since two back-to-back, long-term relationships ended.

“Because I’ve been single for a while, I feel like I kind of set a goal for myself to go on a certain amount of dates just so I still feel like I can do it and don’t feel awkward or nervous,” she said. “I’ve gone on a lot of first dates in the past couple of years. Not a lot of second dates.”

FILE - A pedestrian passes Valentine's day stuffed animals for sale ahead of the holiday in Philadelphia, Feb. 13, 2019. This is the first Valentine's Day since the U.S. surgeon general issued a public health advisory declaring loneliness and isolation an epidemic with dire consequences. (APPhoto/Matt Rourke, file)

FILE - A pedestrian passes Valentine’s day stuffed animals for sale ahead of the holiday in Philadelphia, Feb. 13, 2019. This is the first Valentine’s Day since the U.S. surgeon general issued a public health advisory declaring loneliness and isolation an epidemic with dire consequences. (APPhoto/Matt Rourke, file)

Valentine’s Day was a big deal in her relationships. Sometimes it was a cozy night in. There were usually gifts of flowers, perfume or jewelry.

“I definitely felt appreciated,” Mattei said.

She lives alone in Manhattan, as opposed to lots of friends who have roommates. Many of her friends are in relationships.

“At certain times, I enjoy being alone and having my peace and quiet. But on days like Valentine’s Day or even things like the Super Bowl, I have to make a little bit extra effort to not feel lonely,” Mattei said. “I have to make sure I make plans for myself. It just takes one sad day that you feel lonely to make it seem like you’re always lonely.”

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 somebody handed me a rose on the street, that would make my day. Like, that’s all it takes,” she said.

Her best advice 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 agrees with all of the above. Loneliness, he said, comes in many forms, from physical isolation to rejection based on difference.

“I think the science is quite clear that loneliness does increase risk of early mortality,” said Nobel, who teaches a course for medical students at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health to help them better recognize loneliness in patients.

LET YOUR CREATIVE JUICES FLOW

Through his Project UnLonely and Foundation for Art & Healing, Nobel has come up with to raise awareness of the health challenges caused by loneliness and social isolation, .

On Valentine’s Day, the project is offering a . 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 dine alone but sometimes just being around other human beings can help.”