Happiness, Loneliness and Social Isolation
Solitude is not the same as loneliness. Solitude is a solitary boat floating in a sea of possible companions. ~ Robert Fulghum
Over the last couple of years there has been a lot of research on the impacts of loneliness on people’s health. The effects have been seen across of range of factors, blood pressure, immunity and even heart disease. Studies have shown the impacts of increasing loneliness in older citizens, and even with Millennials. In fact, this has become such an issue that England has appointed a Minister of Loneliness. This is a significant reflection of how serious this problem can be for people.
Aging and loneliness
For older folks a major factor in loneliness is physical isolation. People after retirement are often cut off from the social circles they formerly participated in for relaxation. The death of a partner, living alone, family moving away can all contribute to people becoming socially isolated and lonely. Add to that issues of decreasing mobility due to physical issues or lack of transportation and you can see how older folks can become socially isolated.
Millennials and loneliness
A more surprising area where there has been a rise in loneliness is with Millennials. In an increasingly crowded world, when you’re still surrounded by others in school a rising number of younger people are starting to feel lonely. This occurs even though people this age spend a ton of time interacting on “social media.” The term social media would lead you to think that in fact, this generation would be less lonely, but it turns out these interactions are not of the type of quality that combat loneliness. This issue also shows that very often people are very lonely, even when constantly surrounded by others. It’s not about the amount of interaction, but the depth and quality of the interactions.
What is loneliness?
This really drives home what the core of loneliness is for people. Loneliness is the feeling that there isn’t anyone you can turn to talk to, no one who will understand you. As well as feeling like no one else cares. These feelings can lead to a person further socially isolating themselves which reinforces the feelings they are having. It’s a vicious cycle that can lead to extreme loneliness and the health impacts that can accompany that reality. What is so incredibly dangerous about this, is that often these socially isolated folks are less likely to get medical treatment exacerbating the damage.
I think all of us, no matter what age, are somewhat susceptible to becoming lonely. In our world where we spend time in far too many surface level interactions we can come to crave and truly miss deeper connections. Think about it, you used to connect with your friends via phone calls. A form of communication, that although not in person, is still rich and deep that allows for a level of communication where it is easier to feel like the person you’re connecting with cares about you. Contrast that with the most common of form of communication today, the text message. The messages are short, at times hard to interpret, almost always at a shallower level than an email or a phone call. In an ever busier world this has become our primary form of communication. The corresponding loss of depth makes it easier for people to feel less cared about and more lonely.
Solitude versus loneliness
There is a difference between solitude and loneliness, solitude can actually improve your health. Solitude is a comfortable feeling, it’s when you’re at home with being alone. Solitude is taking time alone to do things for yourself. It can be giving yourself time to write, to think, to exercise or for an introvert a time to recharge your internal battery. Solitude even at the level of meditation or silent retreats can be time for you to make discoveries about yourself.
I’m someone who spends a lot of time alone. Honestly, if you were to do a calculation I would guess I spend 90% of my time outside of work alone. However, I’m not a particularly lonely person. Sure, I have my moments but in general I’m not lonely. First, I’m an extreme introvert, I am social but those interactions are generally very draining for me. During my time alone I’m generally writing, watching TV, hiking, doing photography or traveling to new places. Although engaged in solitary activities, the key is that I’m engaged, I’m not alone because I was looking for companionship and couldn’t find it, I’m alone because I’ve chosen to be and am fully engaged in what I’m doing. This is easily contrasted to wanting companionship, not finding it and then choosing not to engage in activities you like because of it.
How do you fight loneliness?
There are a lot of articles on how to fight loneliness on the web. I’ll be honest most of them are pretty weak. Not that the advice is particularly bad, but the articles read a lot like pieces I’ve read on depression. Things like, acknowledge but don’t focus on your negative thoughts, take a class, join a group. The problem with a lot of this advice is that it doesn’t address the space lonely people are in, they are not likely to just make those types of leaps.
My advice on loneliness really comes at it from a different direction or more accurately two directions. Being lonely can lead to really negative effects, solitude doesn’t. So why not attack your loneliness on two fronts. First, adopt some strategies related to solitude. Focus some of your alone time on a project, exercising, getting out in nature. Do something that focuses you when you’re spending time alone. Take up something like meditation or yoga if you feel comfortable doing something like that.
Then on the other side also try to address your social isolation. Do less texting and more calling. Take the time to do things in person you ordinarily would do in other ways. For instance, instead of ordering something through Amazon, go out and buy it at a store. Become a regular someplace. Whether it’s a coffee shop, a bar, a gym or anything else you do regularly, become very regular. Show up every Saturday morning at that coffee shop to get a cup of coffee and stay there to do some reading. Over time, you’ll come to know the staff, you’ll also likely become familiar with other regulars. This won’t solve the issue, but it will begin to reduce the feelings of isolation you are having. That, combined with more time alone that is focused should begin to improve things and over time, and hopefully make you feel less lonely.
Finally, take some risks. we’ve talked about risk taking and getting out of your comfort zone before on this blog. Once you’ve taken some of the small steps and you begin to feel a little better it’s important to push and take a bigger risk. At that point, taking that class or joining a group, no matter how uncomfortable that may be is the right thing to do. Even if it doesn’t work, the act of pushing beyond your comfort zone will help you feel less lonely and happier. It’s all a progression, then, when you are ready, make a really big jump. For me, that was hiking the Appalachian Trail, what will it be for you? No matter what it is, it will help you have happier days my friend. ~ Rev Kane