Natalie was so eager to leave her small rural town behind. There she felt claustrophobic and insignificant. She was hungry for new sites, new people, new experiences. She felt conviction in her decision because she knew staying was the path to boredom, mediocrity, and regret.
She was tired of everyone knowing her business or thinking they deserved to know it. She was more than ready for her independence and anonymity. She was sure happiness was waiting for her someplace else. So she set off.
Fast forward six months. Natalie is settled into a bigger city which feels incessantly active and hectic. She has her desired anonymity...no one in her apartment building knows her name nor cares to. After working full days she comes home and eats alone. Her weekends are full of more idle time but she tries to keep busy running unnecessary errands.
While she has met some nice people at work, their interactions remain superficial. Now that she is six months on, the thrill of the change is wearing off. She begins to realize the grass isn’t always greener on the other side. Natalie has to acknowledge it. She’s lonely.
What It Means to Be Lonely
Loneliness is not a condition but a state of mind. It’s a perception about your connections to others and your companionship with them regardless of their proximity to you. Dr. John Cacioppo, an expert in loneliness, confirms, “Living alone, being alone, and the size of your social network are only weakly related. Think about patients in hospitals: They aren’t alone, they have all the support they could ask for, but they tend to feel very lonely. There’s a difference between being alone and feeling alone.”
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Often loneliness comes about without realizing it. It’s the slow creep of social disengagement. Weeks turn into months, months turn into years. You wake up one day and find yourself feeling alone after pulling back from friends and family for some time even though it may not have been entirely intentional. You feel a little bit justified when you cite your busy schedule. You tell yourself it’s a reasonable explanation but deep down inside you know it’s just an excuse.
After a while, the invitations come less frequently and the distance grows. You may never have wanted to end up here but now that your relationships have grown stale, you don’t know how to course correct. You may wrestle with guilt and ambivalence about what to do but in the end, you feel paralyzed by indecision so you just do nothing.
Take this 10 point questionnaire to determine your level of loneliness.
Loneliness - the Taboo Subject
Loneliness is not about you as a person. It’s about how you feel. And there’s no shame in that.
Those around you may be oblivious to your pain because it’s not apparent. It’s a feeling we keep hidden from others — and often from ourselves — out of shame. Much like how the topic of depression was not openly discussed until recently, the topics of loneliness and social isolation are still questionably taboo. People may be loath to admit such feelings as it would acknowledge one of our biggest social fears of being ostracized.
But it would be wrong to assume the descent into loneliness is a reflection of poor sociability and likability. Many corporate leaders and accomplished athletes report being lonely. Mental health professionals speculate the issue has arisen from how our modern cultures are adapting to new socialization norms and circumstances. Just think about how rapidly things are changing in our society. It has happened faster than our culture can adapt.
Even just a recent as twenty years ago our lives were so different. In how we lived, in how we communicated, and in how we socialized.
Americans work longer hours with fewer boundaries of when work starts and stops
Many relocate and don’t live near close family or friends
Most of our interpersonal communication is done through some form of technology
Our interactions tend to be more transactional and consequently more superficial
And we don't even go into stores to shop anymore
Social Media and Loneliness
A very common target for blame for our unraveling personal connection is technology and our prolific use of it. Some would argue it has depersonalized our associations because it eliminates the in-depth intimate exchanges that we have face-to-face and over time.
With technology being ever-present it is fundamentally changing the way we relate as human beings. Its overuse reaches ridiculous levels when families choose to discuss important matters (or argue) through text instead of in person. While it’s easy for social media and technology to take the punches on this issue, data is inconclusive on its effects on loneliness.
Taking Charge of Our Social Life
So here we are feeling disconnected in a hyper-socialized world and we are stumped about what to do. While governments wrestle with how to deal with it to help their citizen, we don’t want to outsource our socialization to a bureaucracy. Instead, we need to take responsibility and initiative for improving our own personal connections. We are the only ones who care enough because we have the most at stake. And with the right effort, things can change.
It’s your life. Only you can dictate its direction. A common refrain from those suffering loneliness is “No one ever calls” or “No one ever reaches out to me”. This puts the onus on someone else who you can’t control. Naturally, others just don’t have the same motivations or perspectives as you. This thinking can lead to a victim mentality that leaves you feeling disempowered and further insecure.
Instead, you need to focus on and put effort against what you can control and what will change the present circumstances. Just taking one small step can be the beginning of momentum. Remember, an object in motion tends to stay in motion.
Dr. John Cacioppo developed the acronym EASE to help ease people out of loneliness and towards regular socialization.
E - Evaluate Your Circle. Make some deliberate effort to reach out.
A - Action Plan. Decide what you are going to do and how you are going to do it.
S - Seek Collectives. Find groups you have an affinity for/with.
E - Expect the Best. Set a positive intention for the outcomes of your social interactions.
How To Put a Plan into Action
Step 1 (Evaluate):
Pick one or two people in your life you’d like to reach out to proactively. Who do you wish you had a closer relationship with? This could be a distant relative, a colleague, a neighbor, or an old friend. Take the time to think about why you’d like to be closer to this person. What is (was) your connection and experience with them? What do you think you’ll gain by having a closer relationship? How do you think they would benefit from having a closer relationship with you?
Step 2 (Action Plan):
Make a detailed plan of how you will reach out over the next six months. Approach this with sincerity and generosity. Perhaps you send a card, make a call, invite them to dinner, forward them an interesting article, or call them on their birthday. The key here will be moderation as to not make them feel uncomfortable with such sudden and direct attention. This is a long-term agenda so the key here is to slowly and naturally build some ties.
“Hey John, I wanted to give you a call. I know we haven’t talked in a while but I read this article last night that made me think of you. I thought it would be nice to touch base and reconnect.”
“Hi Margie, Hope you’re doing well. It’s been such a long time since we talked. I was at this shop last week and saw something that just made me think of you. That inspired me to reach out and see how you’re doing.”
Sometimes a good excuse to reach out is to solicit their help or expertise. People feel special and honored to think others think of them as an expert.
“Hi, Jenny. Hope things are well. I know we haven’t talked in a while but I was thinking of you yesterday when I was attempting a new recipe. It turned out okay but I’d love to get your advice for my next attempt. This would be a great excuse to catch up too.”
Now think about how you would feel if you got an email/text/call like this from someone out of the blue?
I encourage you to stand out as the considerate one. Through small gestures, you begin to garner a reputation of generosity and thoughtfulness that is attractive and endearing. It will have cumulative effects if done consistently and with a pure heart.
Step 3 (Seek Collectives):
Identify places where your kind hangs out. Meaning groups of people you have some affinity with such as special interests groups, faith-based communities, Meetup groups, support groups, sports leagues, or social clubs. Here you will feel like you are among people like yourself and conversation will be easier. Check out this resource for breaking the ice in the initial conversation.
Consistency in attendance is key. In building lasting relationships it’s most effective to have regular contact with the same group of people. You begin to know names, recognize faces, and feel connected to the people and the larger community. It’s nice after a period of time when others greet you with warmth and familiarity because you become a regular face.
Volunteering with a similar group of people is a great venue to build such relationships. You can invest in something you care about and do it with others that share your passion. And generally, people who volunteer have a kindness of heart that extends to their fellow volunteers.
Step 4 (Expect the Best):
This is probably the most important step. What you believe will manifest, good or bad. Approach this initiative with the expectation of success. Play out in your mind reconnecting with an old friend and feeling like no time has passed. Or envision meeting someone new who you just click with right from the very beginning. Set the intention that you will have a rewarding experience. Remind yourself that you deserve this and that you are also serving others with what you bring to them. You really need to believe this.
Just Do It
I realize that every situation is different and you may have many reasons why you may believe this suggestion of giving first is overly optimistic, unrealistic, and perhaps ineffective. Carefully consider if your reasons are just excuses. You will never ever know unless you try. Without taking on this responsibility yourself, I can almost guarantee you that your social circumstances will not change. Take to heart the common adage: Be the change you wish to see in the world.
Decide on one or two people you wish you had a closer relationship with. Come up with a proactive communication plan that could span the next 6 months. Suggest a time to get together and visit. Set a goal of meeting one old or new friend/colleagues/neighbor/relative in person within the next few months.
What are some of your creative ideas on how to connect or reconnect with others? What’s worked for you? Please share in the comments.