By Emma Seppala on Mon, Apr 27, 2020
We live in a time of overpopulation on the one hand and extreme loneliness on the other. We crowd into urban areas but still feel alone. Or we buy large homes and then wish they were filled with more life and laughter. Our national loneliness rate is staggering. A 2018 CIGNA study showed that loneliness is currently a public health crisis: Nearly half of Americans feel lonely. Loneliness has become so prevalent that pharmaceutical companies are even looking into creating a drug for loneliness. Research shows that loneliness can be worse for our health than smoking, obesity, and high blood pressure. It can lead to depression, anxiety, and premature death. In this time of hyper-connection, how can this be? And what can we do?
There are reasons for our loneliness epidemic that we can do little about: Jobs and opportunities are spreading families farther and farther apart, even as family structures and communities grow more complex and tenuous. And as brain imaging research shows us, it really does hurt. We have a deep-seated need for social connection and often suffer when we are lonely, as loneliness expert John Cacioppo describes in his book, Loneliness. The good news, however, is that there are some powerful things we can do to feel more connected no matter where we are.
Loneliness Is a State of Mind
The first is to acknowledge something obvious, yet paradoxically difficult to comprehend: Loneliness, like other emotions, is a state of mind — and can be independent from actual circumstance. Class research demonstrates that it's not how many friends you have that determines your level of loneliness. It’s how connected you feel on the inside. That’s why you can feel lonely and disconnected in a room full of friends or family, yet experience total belongingness in a room full of strangers (say, an audience at an inspirational workshop or talk). This is good news. No matter where you are or how many friends you do or don’t have, you can always address the state of your mind.
We may feel lonely, because we don’t take care of ourselves — whether for lack of time, energy, interest, or simply because we don’t deem ourselves important enough. Sometimes we feel lonely, because it is our own friendship we are longing for. It sounds cheesy, but give it a try. You'll see how the process of powerfully engaging in a few acts of self-care can help you feel more loved and connected. Again, self-care is personalized and depends on what it is you find profoundly nourishing. It is an act of love for yourself that does you good physically, emotionally, or spiritually: a bath, a walk, meditation, tidying up your house, reading, and so on. You know better than anyone else what it takes to make you feel better.
It is also easy to feel lonely when you find yourself among people who do not share the same values or lifestyle as you. You’ll notice that sometimes you experience loneliness along with a feeling of being profoundly out of place or even ashamed of who you are. Whether you were born into a family that is very different from you, married into one, or moved to a community or place that is alien to who you are, it is normal in those times to feel like an odd duck and very alone. Low self-worth can settle in.
Until the day, that is, that you meet someone like yourself. Someone who has similar views and preferences. All of a sudden, you realize there is actually nothing wrong with you. You simply had not found your people yet. You hadn’t met your tribe. Most people’s tribe are the friends they make over a lifetime; for others, it’s a spiritual community or the family they build. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking, because it’s out there. Despite our busy and socially disconnected lifestyles, the Internet has made it easier than ever to connect with others who hold similar views.
At some point you may realize that all humans, whether or not they belong to your tribe or share your opinions, have the same deep need for social connection and love. A profound way of increasing social connection is through compassion and altruism for those who may not think like you. In researching my book, The Happiness Track, it became clear to me that compassion for others (when balanced with self-care) is one of the greatest sources of happiness there are. It not only leads to physical and emotional well-being, it even improves our chances of living longer and more fulfilled lives. Research by psychologists Ed Diener and Martin Seligman suggests that altruism leads to better mental and physical health and speeds up recovery from disease. Furthermore, research by Stephanie Brown, at Stony Brook University, and Sara Konrath, at the University of Michigan, has shown that it may even lengthen our lives (provided that the reasons for volunteering were altruistic rather than self-serving). Finally, my favorite study is one conducted by University of Buffalo’s Michael Poulin on more than 800 people who had lived high-stress lives (think war trauma, etc.). While high stress usually predicts a shorter life, this was not the case for those who volunteered.
Brain-imaging research by UCLA’s Naomi Eisenberger may have discovered the mechanism behind this phenomenon: Her research team found that giving support to others predicts a decreased stress response in the brain. Most importantly, though, compassion helps you connect with others and discover a greater sense of purpose.