I am taking the bold step and admitting to feeling quite lonely at this time in my life. As a result, I’ve been pondering loneliness, how to deal with it and why I am feeling it more.
What’s new? Well, I moved to a totally different city with my husband. I’ve quit my job to do this move. I spend most of my days alone, writing (a solitary activity). My husband, a definite workaholic, is spending very long hours at work and this shows no sign of improvement, which isn’t helping my feelings of loneliness.
Other people I know have admitted to feeling more of great pain of loneliness lately and it seems to becoming more and more common in our society. It certainly is getting more attention.
What is loneliness? Loneliness is a feeling that you have no one to connect with, on a personal level, who understands you and really SEES you. You feel isolated and disconnected.
Why are we so lonely?
Being lonely is a normal human experience as humans are for the most part social animals. In our not so distant history we lived in family groups, both for protection and survival.
Mothers and grandmothers helped each other, caring for the babies in groups, preparing meals and homemaking. Men hunted in groups, protected the group together, and bonded together with ceremonies. We lived together for our whole lives. We were rarely alone.
Animals too are mostly social creatures. There are exceptions, but you will find many species of animal life living in family groups. Group living helps protect the individuals within the group, both physically and emotionally. Animals can have strong emotional bonds with their families, you can see this clearly within family groups of Orcas and Elephants
Today it is common to move away from our family of origin, often before the age of twenty and, many times, quite far away. (Okay, granted there are some of you still living at home! 🙂 ) This change, moving from a more social society to a more solitary existence, has brought its challenges and increased our feelings of loneliness.
Our culture today puts seniors in old folks homes, sees children moving to opposite sides of the country or world for their careers, sees husbands and wives separated due to work travel, and more and more physical and emotional distance.
Technology can also take part of the blame for the increased feelings of loneliness. The increase in media as a method of communication, social media, email, text, takes away from our face to face encounters with others. Digital interaction is not the same as face to face. Eye contact and the feeling of connection is much harder through digital means.
Depression or anxiety can also make loneliness worse. These can make you feel like withdrawing from society. This withdrawal creates a negative feedback loop, worsening the depression and increasing your social anxiety and loneliness.
Some dramatic life events can cause a huge feeling of loneliness. Breakups, divorce, and losing a loved one can create a huge feeling of loss and isolation. This is common and not unanticipated. In fact, many people will stay in an unfulfilling or even damaging relationship just to avoid these feelings and being alone.
We are also too busy. Too scheduled. Too wrapped up in work and our day-to-day survival that we don’t take the time to nurture our social connections.
How common is loneliness?
Loneliness comes and goes. It is often said that loneliness is part of the human condition. That it is so common, we have all felt lonely from time to time.
Some people never seem lonely. These are the out-going, the easy extroverts, the busy types who always have something on the go (however, perception doesn’t mean reality!). Others wear their loneliness like a badge of honour. Clinging to it – almost afraid to let it go. It follows them around like a puppy.
A recent study (by the Vancouver Foundation), showed that about one-third (33%) of young adults ages 18 – 24 felt lonely. The general population has an estimated loneliness rate of about 20 %, a hard number to really pin down as it is a subjective feeling and isn’t constant.
Some people are more susceptible to feeling isolated and lonely.
- People who live alone
- Marginalized groups such as LGBTQ or Indigenous groups
- Living in poverty
- University and college-age students
Because loneliness is getting more and more attention lately, governments and health groups are more aware of the health and societal dangers of loneliness.
Last week in the UK the government appointed a Minister of Loneliness. They are concerned about the increase of loneliness and adverse effects loneliness has on health. They are trying to find solutions.
Is loneliness harmful?
Yes! Unequivocally. Studies have shown that chronic loneliness is as harmful to our health and longevity as smoking 15 cigarettes a day! (Holt-Lunstad, 2015)
Loneliness increases the risk of heart disease, stroke, early death and disability, cognitive or mental decline. In fact, one study shows that loneliness can increase the risk of Alzheimer’s by 64 %! (Holwerda et al, 2012)
The incidence of depression, and thus suicide, becomes higher. There is an earlier admission to extended care facilities. Medication use is increased. Lonely people use the health care system more and there are many other negative effects. (https://www.campaigntoendloneliness.org/threat-to-health/)
The consequences are staggering, individually and as a society; we need to help people combat feeling lonely.
What can we do?
Negative emotions like loneliness, envy, and guilt have an important role to play in a happy life; they’re big, flashing signs that something needs to change. Gretchen Rubin
A recent TED talk, given by psychologist Susan Pinker, talks about her research which has shown that social integration and close relationships are two of the most important factors in living a long and healthy life. Watch her talk here.
In her talk, she says the top two ways to improve your longevity is to have a high degree of social integration and have close relationships.
Social integration is how often you interact with people on a casual, everyday basis. This does not have to be a close relationship! These interactions can be short and sweet, or longer and deeper. How much of this you can start bringing into your daily life will help alleviate those feelings of loneliness.
Chat with your coffee barista. Have a short conversation with your pharmacist or the nurse in your doctor’s office. Wave to your neighbour. Get out more. Smile and nod. Connect, even if only for the briefest of moments, with a stranger.
Make eye contact and smile with people. Eye contact is important and helps to fuel that connection with others.
These face to face interactions with other people in your community are vital as they help release feel-good hormones, such as oxytocin and dopamine and make us feel part of our neighbourhood and connected.
People need to feel as if they belong.
The second part of this TED talk is close relationships. Stable relationships. How many close relationships are enough? Pinker says at least three. Three people in your life who have your back if you are sick or hurt, if you need a shoulder to cry on or you are having a crisis of some kind. Three close relationships are not many, but it is more than some people have.
(Personal side note: It is easy to say, ‘Get some close friends’. Harder to do. As someone who struggles with the close friend making department, I wish I had some easy answers for you. )
Often our family members are those people, our sisters, brothers, mother, father or an adult child. A childhood friend from school. Someone you met recently at your gym and talked to more and more. Your partner.
Maybe you work together, maybe you worship together, maybe you run in a running club together or see each other at the yoga studio regularly.
Building friends does take time and effort. Start small with chit-chat and build to a casual coffee and more. But now you know that this effort is worth it. It can help you live a longer and happier life!
Close friendships take time to build. It’s about trust and common interests. How much alike are you? Do you trust this person? Many people don’t make the cut and that’s okay, they can be friendly acquaintances. Close friends will come with time if you don’t give up.
I do think its harder to make close friends in today’s fast-paced world. Most people are too busy. What a sad commentary on our modern, “advanced” culture. We are simply too busy to be a good friend!
Loneliness is proof that your innate search for connection is intact. Martha Beck
To help with your feelings of loneliness, reach out. Increasing your feelings of connections with individuals and society as a whole can help.
Often getting a pet can really help, as you feel connection and love. Pets are wonderful at unconditional love.Taking your dog for a walk, for example, can get you out into the world and can be a starting point for conversation and connection with others.
Many recommend getting a hobby. However, I feel that this just keeps you busy, not connected. Loneliness is a lack of connection. It is different from being bored.
Loneliness is also different from solitude. Solitude is being alone, but you aren’t feeling lonely. You feel peace, you are enjoying your company. It is a sense of privacy and seclusion. Many of us, myself included, need some solitude on a daily basis for our mental well-being.
Being alone isn’t a bad thing. Feeling disconnected is.
Also, you can be lonely in a relationship or when surrounded by others. If there is no connection or a feeling of belonging with the person or the group, loneliness can result.
Take home message
Start connecting! Start small, initiating conversation with people you interact with. And that means you will need to get out more often!
I have started to make sure I have a small conversation with waiters, cashiers and other people when I am out doing errands. I make some eye contact and ask a few questions. That’s all. It helps them and certainly helps me.
We can all be aware of the loneliness that is around us and help others feel connected by reaching out.
Remember you are NOT alone in your loneliness, you are part of a huge group of people who feel the same way.
“We humans are social beings. We come into the world as the result of others’ actions. We survive here in dependence on others. Whether we like it or not, there is hardly a moment of our lives when we do not benefit from others’ activities. For this reason, it is hardly surprising that most of our happiness arises in the context of our relationships with others.” – Tenzin Gyatso, 14th Dalai Lama
After researching loneliness for this blog post, I am stepping out more. I now know that it is just as important as my daily diet and exercise program, I need to make sure I connect with others and foster connections with my community.
I am now more aware of others loneliness. Even though most people will not admit to feeling this way, I know am not alone in feeling lonely!
We are connected. We just need to create these reminders and strengthen these connections. Our health depends on it.