Do you feel lonely — even in a crowd?
How is that possible? If it happens to you, can you do something about it?
I will admit it. I am lonely. It has been difficult, since moving to my new city, to make friends. By friend I mean a person in whom I can confide and one who can confide in me. It has been frustrating because I haven’t experienced this type of loneliness before.
Studies show that we Americans feel increasingly alone. Recently, one in four people reported to researchers that they have no one with whom they can discuss, “important issues.” That is three times as many people as in 1985. These results, along with other findings, have caused researchers to conclude that we are currently more disconnected and lonelier than ever.
Many social scientists say technology and housing trends are contributing to the increase in loneliness. More Americans than ever are living alone — especially the elderly. Add to this, these proposed contributors to the increase in loneliness:
Longer workdays and longer commutes
The increase in two career and single-parent families
The increase in entertainment options in our homes
The rise in social media
Our over emphasis on individualism
The social status given to those who are super “busy”
Loneliness is not the same as being alone. People can live solitary lives and not be lonely. It is also true that you can be surrounded by people and still feel lonely. The broadest definition of loneliness is the distress people feel when reality fails to meet their ideal social relationships.
For me (and many experts) escaping loneliness is about builiding meaningful connections. It is not about the quantity of connections, but rather the quality. The concept of meaningful will vary for everyone. In my experience, the most meaningful connections are built through shared activities. These days we spend most of our time engaged in work and that seems to be the place where people typically form their strongest connections.
We are social creatures by nature. We evolved and survived as a species because we banded together to form supportive and caring communities. That is what makes loneliness so painful. Loneliness and rejection actually activate the same part of the brain as physical pain.
In the past, connections were formed organically. My mother’s family didn’t have a car or a TV. Their neighbors would invite my grandfather to their house to watch sporting events. The few that had cars would offer rides to my mother and her family. Often neighbors would travel together, either walking or on the streetcar to church, shopping or elsewhere. Today, being neighborly means leaving your neighbors alone.
When I was a child, my family would sit on the patio during the beautiful summer months and our neighbors would drop by. They would bring us vegetables from their gardens or simply come by for some company and conversation. Our neighborhood parents volunteered together to help with activities at the schools and churches. We belonged and felt a part of a caring neighborhood and community. I still feel a huge connection with those neighbors from my past.
My parents lived in the same neighborhood and city for their entire adult lives, which facilitated the formation of strong connections. Back then we regularly interacted with the same people, without the need to schedule every encounter. Connections happened naturally and almost effortlessly. That way of life is gone although the importance placed on communities and connections is an important message for today. These days we need to consciously focus on our interactions with others and treat those interactions as opportunities to build connections.
When we act compassionately we turn those interactions into meaningful connections. Being compassionate means caring about others and showing we care by helping them. It is offered without judgment or criticism. It requires us to be vulnerable because we can’t be compassionate from a place of superiority. That, by definition, is pity. For the most part, people are resentful and withdraw when pity is offered.
When I meet people in my new city, the conversation typically turns to how they or I like living here. I communicate things that I like about where I live and sometimes I tell them I am lonely here because I am having difficulty making “friends.” The conversation then abruptly ends as the other person makes some excuse to walk away.
So what can we do?
Any small act of kindness will create a foundation for connections. Be a person in whom others can confide. Confide in others. Say hello to a neighbor. Say thank you to the cashier at the store, or better yet ask how they are and really listen to the answer. Help someone. Express gratitude to others. Invite a neighbor over. Be vulnerable. Share with others who you really are — your foibles and mistakes. In the end, building meaningful connections is about sharing ourselves and our talents with others and allowing them to share themselves with us.
The little acts of compassion create, in the giver and the receiver, a feeling of belonging and being cared about. When we feel we are cared about and belong, we feel less lonely. And some of those connections will grow into people in whom we can confide and share our life. In the end, relationships stave off loneliness, and they are also the most important and enriching part of our lives.
BE DARING! Open up your true self and offer it honestly and selflessly to others. The result can be a life of enrichment, connection and community.
Olds, M.D. Jacqueline and Schwartz, M.D., Richard: The Lonely American: Drifting apart in the 21st century; (2009) Boston, Beacon Press.
Worland, Justin: Why Loneliness May Be the Next Big Public-Health Issue published in TIME: Health, March 18, 2015.
Crouse, Janice Shaw :The Loneliness of American Society published on spectator.org, May 18,2014
Nutt, Amy Ellis: Loneliness grows from individual ache to public health hazard published in The Washington Post: Health and Science, January 31, 2016