“Globally, two in five people (41%) report becoming lonelier over the last 6 months, while one in five (19%) have become less lonely.” — Survey.
If the Covid numbers represent a pandemic, then Loneliness should be considered a much larger ongoing mental health pandemic. A 2020 study revealed that more than one third of US adults over age 45 report feeling lonely, and nearly one quarter of all adults 65+ are considered socially isolated. Obviously Covid hasn’t helped. These linked articles reveal significant health and mental health consequences of long-term loneliness.
The data may actually be worse for younger people. A (pre-Covid) 2018 survey of 20,000 people found Gen Z scored highest for loneliness. Despite having more ways to connect than ever before, people actually feel more alone, isolated, and disenchanted. But I don’t have to tell you that, do I?
Knowing human nature tends to take abundance and easy access for granted, perhaps the internet has led to taking people for granted. They’re all over the place, after all. I can fill my screen with people. Hundreds, thousands, millions of people are right there at my fingertips. What’s a person worth when we can simply click over them to someone else?
Yes, what could I really be worth when – with just a few clicks – you can find someone smarter, funnier, prettier? There are more entertaining bloggers. More educated, more insightful, more…whatever. And they all have opinions. Heck, you can opinion-shop like never before. What kind of opinion are you looking for? Maybe I can post an opinion that gets a few clicks…but it won’t be as many as that other guy.
What are you, your opinions, your interests, your creations worth? Let’s check the forums. Whatever you value – or happen to take a fleeting interest in – there’s a site out there showing a hundred people #CrushingIt. For the anxious, depressed, and lonely, it can be easy to feel anyone’s interest in us is delusional.
Aching to Belong
The drive to belong is shockingly powerful. I’ve worked with adults of all ages who came to a surprising realization: “Everything I do is about avoiding rejection and loneliness.” Status, money, achievement, possessions — it was all about being eligible for connection. To be seen, known, and loved. To be cared about on their best day and their worst. How much work should it really take to find human connection? Why – with every advancement we make – can being human feel this hard?
The mental health professional’s common recommendation is familiar — learn to love yourself. Be your own best company. Avoid the idea other people will make you happy. If you think about it, it’s weird that we tell lonely people to get comfortable being alone. A bit like blaming the victim. We don’t tell people suffering domestic violence “Learn to take a punch” and we don’t tell alcoholics
“Learn to slow down and savor the taste of wine.”
While loneliness can be softened by developing greater comfort with oneself, you also know this isn’t a complete answer. Humans are typically social beings. So in addition to developing greater self-love and self-compassion, consider this…
There’s a difference between getting into something because there are people there, and getting into something because it brings your heart joy. If you think “I don’t want to travel to [awesome place] or do [awesome thing] alone, I want to share it with someone” then whatever that is, do it. If you don’t really want to do it alone, then take yourself somewhere worth going. Find things you’d do when no one else cares.
Whether it’s a particular set of values, an interest, or a hobby, when you connect with what makes your heart happy, you’ll eventually find people who feel similarly. Birds of a feather flock together, and all that. Wouldn’t those connections bring the most joy?
Trusting our heart feels hard when we’re anxious about disqualifying ourselves from connection and belonging. Yet when we allow ourselves flow joyfully in something, we develop a clear path between our inner Self and the world. And the people who will truly love us aren’t measuring our eligibility. They’re too busy sharing in our joys. So strengthen the inner connection with rewarding activity, and the outer connections are more likely to bring what you’re looking for.
Explore, Inside and Out
If you don’t know what you love, or your heart’s a stranger, then maybe that’s your start. Jump into the world and explore! Break out of your box. Explore your values and interests. If that’s scary, find a friend, mentor, or a therapist who can help you through that inner exploration. Doing this can also make us aware of what experiences we’ve excluded.
What activities or interests have you pushed away because of [insert nonsense reason here] ? Often you’ll recognize different ideas or groups that have come to mind again and again, piquing your interest, and you immediately shut it down. It’s as if your mind is revisiting them asking, “Are you still resistant to this?” I’ve heard many clients tell me they can’t do something they might love — and provide the worst reasons. That’s not my judgment. They’ll often say, “When I hear myself say it out loud, it sounds stupid.”
What potential joys have you excluded? Make a list of the people and activities you’ve avoided without much exploration. Show up at a meeting! You may find there are places, and people, and groups rich with potential. And no one excluded you, except you.
There isn’t a formula guaranteeing freedom from loneliness, and there are no easy answers. But we have a greater chance of feeling better about our place in the world if we focus on our own joys, and the choices within our control. May you find warm friends on the path you love to walk.