Ah, Look at All the Lonely People

 

I am lonely.  What a difficult admission! Being lonely has a stigma, but I’m not that caricature of a depressed outcast, elbow propped on a window sill, gazing longingly at rain-soaked, empty streets. That is not the real face of loneliness. Although I do enjoy a good rainy day, I’m a working mom parenting in a blended family while living through a pandemic with four high-energy children. I’m always on the go, generally happy, but I’ve stopped prioritizing human connection for the sake of getting things done.

Admitting that you are lonely can produce strong feelings of shame and guilt. Um, have you heard of Brené Brown? That’s her whole thing. The amusing part is, being lonely is not in the minority.  A Cigna study in 2019 showed that 61% of US adults feel lonely (see the FactSheet here). That was pre-pandemic, folks!

For such a normal feeling, loneliness is not normalized in our culture or our media. Before I started reading about this topic, I didn’t fully realize the difference between being alone and feeling alone. How can I be lonely when I live in a house with five other human beings and have a highly social job? I am literally talking to someone most of my waking hours. 

I love solitude: reading, crafting while listening to podcasts, eating lunch in a restaurant by myself while reading a book titled Loneliness. Sometimes after I get all the kids to bed, I like to just sit in the blissful silence of no one needing something from me. So why do I love being alone, but not feeling alone?

In Together, I think former surgeon general, Vivek H. Murthy, M.D., hits the nail on the head when he writes, “What’s missing when you’re lonely is the feeling of closeness, trust, and the affection of genuine friends, loved ones, and community.” When I was a young, childless creature, I had someone to call when I broke up with my boyfriend or when my duck died suddenly. Close friends would come over, plop down on my couch and watch a movie with me unannounced. That’s the comfortable closeness that seems hard to find when you can’t find the time to watch an entire movie in one sitting.

Humans are a social species. We do lots of things that go against our nature because they sound good at the time – take the invention of three-piece suits for example. Loneliness is so against our nature, feeling lonely comes with an increased risk of all sorts of fun health issues: heart disease, high blood pressure, dementia, insomnia, anxiety, and obesity. Feeling alone can also increase your susceptibility to misinformation, and xenophobic ideas. In Lonely Century, a German study paired people with divergent political views and found that just a 2-hour conversation was enough to “dismantle prejudice”.

As Billy Baker puts it in We Need to Hang Out, “How did a species whose success was based on social skills come apart at exactly the moment we were finally connected?” For the average busy American, social media seems like an efficient way to catch up on the lives of your friends.  In reality it’s actually a pretty trash way to truly connect.  In her book, Belong, Radha Agrawal succinctly states, “Followers are for marketing ourselves.” You are not a Snickers ad campaign. Social media is everything opposite of what fosters real connection.  We’re making judgements on the lives of our friends on average every 1.7 seconds.  Judgy and inauthentic are not top character traits of good friends.

So what can help?  After reading LOTS OF BOOKS, here’s the most common advice:

  1. Admit you’re lonely.  You can’t fix a leaky faucet if you ignore it. Learn about the causes of loneliness and think about what level of connection you need. Don’t know if you’re lonely? There’s a handy test you can take to determine your loneliness score. Just google “UCLA Loneliness Test” and you’ll find a myriad of ways to take THE gold standard in determining loneliness, thanks Dr. Daniel Russell et al!
  2. Jump out of the feedback loop.  Put simply, feeling lonely makes you feel bad about yourself, and that makes you less likely to try to connect to other people. No one wants to be rejected when they’re feeling down, but chances are one, or more, of your acquaintances is feeling lonely too.
  3. Prioritize connection. This is a hard one.  We’re operating in a pandemic fog with compassion fatigue while the whole world feels like it’s falling apart around us.  Sure you can sit in your jammies and scroll through TikTok for an hour OR armed with the knowledge you gained in Step #1, call up a potential friend and go on a walk (it’s OK to go in your jammies).  Seek out opportunities to sit next to someone while doing a thing: join a club, pick up a hobby, volunteer, take a class.  Close friendships take time and repeated exposure. Even if you don’t meet your next BFF, simply feeling like you are part of a community will help take the edge off of loneliness.
  4. Turn down Social Media. If you’re going to hop on, set a timer and be intentional. Turn off your notifications. Remember you’re looking at someone's carefully self-curated highlight reel and making judgments every 1.7 seconds. If you're thinking of a particular friend, DM them and suggest a meetup.  IRL.
  5. Normalize loneliness. It’s a problem that is just getting bigger and bigger with each generation. Talk openly about loneliness. Support organizations that bring people together, especially if older adults, young adults and teens are their target population. These groups are the most susceptible to feeling lonely. Realizing the public health crisis loneliness has become, the UK started a Campaign to End Loneliness and even appointed a Loneliness Minister. Good job, Brits!

Here’s my recommended reading list if you'd like to learn more:

The Lonely Century: How to restore connection in a world that's pulling apart by Noreena Hertz

Atlas of the Heart by Brené Brown (also available as an audiobook)

Bowling Alone: the collapse and revival of American community

Together: The healing power of human connection in a sometimes lonely world by Vivek H. Murthy, M.D. (also available as an audiobook)

Loneliness: human nature and the need for social connection by John T. Cacioppo and William Patrick (also available as an audiobook)

Missing Each Other: how to cultivate meaningful connections by Edward Brodkin

WARNING: The following two books are super gendered and are written by people with the privilege of wealth. I eye-rolled a lot while reading them, but they do have some jewels hidden in there, so I still recommend reading them.

We Need to Hang Out: a memoir of making friends by Billy Baker

Belong: find your people, create community, and live a more connected life by Radha Agrawal (second warning, Agrawal wakes up before 6 AM to workout with people.  If that's what it takes, I prefer forever alone.)

If you really want to geek out on some loneliness stats, check out this global study of more than 40,000 people across 237 countries, Loneliness around the World: Age, Gender and Cultural Differences in loneliness.

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