Why Loneliness Is More Common Than Ever Before
Loneliness. It’s that unpleasant feeling we get when the amount and quality of our social relationships doesn’t quite meet our social needs. To be distinguished from the state of being alone, loneliness refers to our perspective, feelings, and state of mind, and its prevalence is growing every day. In recent studies, roughly 2/3 of Canadian postsecondary students reported feeling “very lonely” in the past year1, 2/5 of US adults reported the absence of a meaningful relationship and feeling isolated from others2, and 1/3 of British citizens reported often feeling lonely3.
The body and mind can feel loneliness.
You can find the right job, the right place to live, and the right partner, but if you don’t have close social connections, you lose out on a lot! In fact, research suggests that if you don’t have a good amount of close social connections, it’s likely that you are also less happy, more susceptible to the ill effects of stress (like cardiovascular disease and changes in brain function) and ultimately more vulnerable to premature death. Develop close social connections and you’ve got yourself not only a longer life but one that’s filled with a greater sense of day-to-day happiness and more conducive responses to the inevitable stresses of life. Take in more we over I, and just like that, you’ve got wellness instead of illness.
What are we to do with this information? Should we go tell the person sitting by themselves in the coffee shop day after day that loneliness is unhealthy?
It’s important to recognize that it’s not just that person “over there” sitting alone in the coffee shop each day, or the one who moved to a new city just a few years ago, or the one whose good friend just died, or the one who recently got divorced that feels lonely. We are all susceptible to loneliness. While feelings of loneliness can certainly follow a big life event, more often than not loneliness finds us on a day that otherwise feels quite typical, as we’re doing an activity that we’d in all likelihood categorize as typical too. When it does find us, we may be tempted to think that we’re weak, needy, or socially incapable in some way, but loneliness doesn’t mean anything of those things; it does, however, mean that something needs to change.
We live on a planet with 7.5 billion people, so how is it possible that we can feel so alone?
When you look at society, as it stands today, it isn’t difficult to see why, despite the billions of people living on the planet, loneliness continues to be a pervasive experience.
People, by and large, are joining fewer religious, volunteer groups, and fewer social groups in general. Many, unless they’ve questioned the status quo, are busy enduring long hours of work away from home, pursuing raises and promotions, and engaging in numerous other actions guaranteed to help them climb the ladder of success, opportunity, and external recognition. We are also increasingly living alone, spending an inordinate amount of time online (connecting, albeit not necessarily meaningfully), and in many instances able to meet all of our needs on our own, without needing anyone else (or at least not anyone whose name isn’t Siri).
Unfortunately, the way we’re living doesn’t support our ability to 1) form close social connections, and 2) ensure a good quality of those relationships. With fewer opportunities for communal living, a definition of success grounded in “I” rather than “we”, and (sometimes spoken, sometimes unspoken) adjoining cultural beliefs that encourage self-focus, absolute self-sufficiency, and, at times, competition, we are surrounded day-in and day-out by experiences that contribute to loneliness by keeping us focused on ourselves, our security, survival, and “success” and disconnected from others.
When opportunity for increasing the number of our social relationships does arise, the qualities that we bring to them (thanks to a greater focus on “success” as defined by salary and status rather than by self-awareness, social-emotional skills, and self-responsibility) – i.e. distraction, self-centeredness, perfectionism, a lack of self-awareness, and an inability to healthily handle conflict – increasingly make true social connection difficult to achieve.
You can be lonely even when you are constantly around other people.
It’s for the above reasons that even when you are surrounded by other people, you can nevertheless still feel lonely. Here are a few types of situations in which it’s likely that you find yourself feeling alone.
- Spending time with people who don’t understand you
- Spending time in fake, rather than genuine, company
- Spending time with people who otherwise don’t make time for you
- Being around people who invalidate your feelings
- Being around people who judge, rather than accept, you
- Spending time with those who treat you like you are invisible
- Spending time with people who are device-dependent (ie always on their phone)
- Being with people around whom, for whatever reason, you don’t feel comfortable
The antidote to loneliness isn’t more people.
Growing your social connections is vital to your health, well-being, and ability to live a rich, fulfilling life. But, remember the idea we mentioned just a moment ago… that you can be surrounded by people and still feel lonely? The antidote to loneliness, then, isn’t more people. The antidote to loneliness is more of “your kind of people”, you know, the ones around whom you feel:
- Cared for
There are lots of ways to connect with (your kind of) people.
Your greatest benefit comes from, again and again, connecting and developing quality relationships with “your kind of people”. Here’s how you do it, from connecting with someone you just met to building a stronger connection with someone you’ve known for some time.
- Say “hello”. “Hello” is the most powerful word to combat loneliness, and in an instant it plants the seeds that can transform someone from a stranger to a new friend.
- Make the time. Remember how we said that modern society isn’t really designed to support the development of meaningful connection? That means you’ve got to be very intentional about it. So before you let yourself get busy with everything else you’ve got going on, consciously set aside at least a few hours each week that you will devote to growing and maintaining your social relationships, no ifs, ands, or buts.
- Be proactive. If you felt a click during a conversation, don’t hesitate to ask the person if they’d like to schedule an activity for next time. Make the first move. Ask someone you met to grab coffee, to have lunch, or to join you for that upcoming weekend event you’ve got going on. When you ask for what you want, you give yourself the chance to get it.
- Focus on them, rather than on you. Rather than being self-conscious and hyper focused on how you are coming across (which can happen as social relationships are just starting out), focus on the other person and the conversation taking place between you. If you find that you are trying (whether to be smart, funny, or anything else), it’s likely that the possibility of authentic connection has yet to become a reality.
- Be curious. You know everything there is to know about you and much less about them, right? Be curious, ask the other person questions about themselves, and really commit to learning something true and meaningful about them.
- Be open about yourself. To the extent that it feels comfortable and appropriate, share your thoughts and personal details of your life (experiences, values, likes/dislikes). According to decades of research, self-disclosure (the act of sharing information about yourself with another) impacts how quickly social relationships develop and how close they get. The less you hold back (keeping in mind appropriate contexts and dynamics), the more likely the other person is to like you and the more likely it is that they will reciprocate self-disclosure, leading to further liking, closeness, and trust.
- Leave your mobile device out of the picture. Be present. Have conversations without your cell phone in plain sight. It will encourage both you and the other person to feel heard, engaged, and therefore more connected.
Psst… want more great tips on perspectives and actions to implement to build social connections with intention and ease? Check out our guide to finding your community (aka your High-Vibe Tribe), including thoughtful tips courtesy of Rhadha Agrawal, here.
Go within and without
The journey of growth and self-discovery that we are all on is certainly an inner one (many of our Self & Soul posts, like this one, exist for the “soul” purpose of supporting you in going inside). Yet its greatest potential for transforming us doesn’t emerge when we are in isolation. It emerges when we are together, when we share a hidden part of ourselves that we are ashamed of with someone and are met with unconditional acceptance, when (despite years of never asking for support because we were taught early on that we “had to do it all alone”), we finally work up the courage to ask for help and are met with open arms, an “of course!” and a “how else can I be there for you?”, and when you’re not acting like yourself because you’re going through a tough time and someone knows you well enough that they notice and instantaneously offer support.
Don’t know where to start? If you live in the Calgary area, you can join OUR tribe. We get together the first Tuesday of every month from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the beautiful YW Hub. We talk about big ideas and important issues surrounding self-love, soul-care, purpose, wellness, and more. If you enjoy great food, laughs, and making connections with like-minded people, follow this link to reserve your spot at our next Tribe Tuesday event.
So I leave you with this:
Go inside. Because no matter where you go and who you’re with, if you can learn to understand, respect, validate, and love yourself, you will automatically feel less lonely. And before, after, and in between the moments that you go inside, go outside. Come together in community, gather with people with similar interests, values, and desires, gather with others who have the energy and perspectives that your soul wants to be close to, support them in having the heart-opening, life-giving experiences noted in #s 1–9 above, and watch as they do the same for you. That’s what it’s all about. These kinds of social connections aren’t an important thing. They are everything.
1 American College Health Association. American College Health Association-National College Health Assessment II: Canadian Reference Group Executive Summary Spring 2016. Hanover, MD: American College Health Association; 2016.
2 Polack, E. (2018, May 1). New Cigna study reveals loneliness at epidemic levels in America. https://www.cigna.com/newsroom/news-releases/2018/new-cigna-study-reveals-loneliness-at-epidemic-levels-in-america
3 Hammond, C. (2018, Sep 30). BBC. (2018). The surprising truth about loneliness. BBC. http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20180928-the-surprising-truth-about-loneliness