...and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty. - Mother Teresa
My husband and I watched a wonderful documentary last night called "Wizard Mode." It's about an autistic man who is a world champion pinball player. It is a fascinating look into his life as he travels around the world, playing in competitions, while trying to gain some independence by getting his first job, learning to drive a car, and flying for the first time without his parents. Perhaps the most amazing thing about his journey is how he has used pinball to become more social, and as a way to open up communication with others, since the autism can make interpersonal interactions difficult and frustrating for him. We got a very personal look at all of his ups and downs, and while I was audibly cheering for him during the tournaments, I also found myself sobbing at the one thing he struggles with in all aspects of his life:
There's really nothing worse is there?
There have been several scientific studies published recently that prove that loneliness is worse for a person's health than smoking or obesity. Especially in older people. It makes sense when you think about it. And for anyone who has ever felt the heavy, dark, sour weight of loneliness in their chest, they will most heartily agree.
Smoking damages our lungs (and other internal and external organs). Obesity damages our hearts (and blood vessels and joints). But loneliness damages our souls, and unfortunately there's no medicine or operation that can repair that.
While no one likes to feel lonely, most of us can endure it for short amounts of time without any detrimental or lasting effects. But the research is showing that long-term loneliness can actually lead to earlier death based on a number of factors. Here is the link to one of the articles, and I highly recommend giving it a read: https://www.forbes.com/sites/quora/2017/01/18/loneliness-might-be-a-bigger-health-risk-than-smoking-or-obesity/#efd10d25d13e.
Here's one of the most interesting findings:
Social isolation may be a more significant health factor than smoking or obesity, whether the person feels lonely or not.
Wow! The effects of long-term loneliness could be significantly detrimental to a person even if they don't feel or exhibit any of the symptoms.
I'm not going to get into whys and hows and the facts of the studies here, but all of what I've read made me think: People have control over quitting smoking, and people have control over their exercise and nutrition, so can people have control over their loneliness?
At first thought it seems like that is a more difficult thing to overcome because the lack of loneliness absolutely depends upon other people. An individual makes a choice whether or not to put a cigarette into his or her mouth but to thwart loneliness, one or more additional people must be involved. This inherently creates risks - of rejection, abandonment, and exclusion. These can feel mountainous when you're putting yourself out there to meet people and hopefully make new friends. But like any other goal you wish you accomplish, it can't happen without great amounts of hope, drive, hard work, and determination to never give up.
So what are some ways that a lonely person can combat the loneliness? Well, since there is no "instant friend" that you can simply add water to, here are some ideas to help you feel less lonely overall:
1. Get out of your house and DO SOMETHING! Translation: Get out of your head and whatever you're thinking about from the past. Go somewhere, ANYWHERE, where there are other people around: A grocery store. A park. A museum. Downtown. Ride the subway. Stroll the mall. Surround yourself with other people, even if they are complete strangers. This will remind you that there is a big and potentially friendly world out there. Even if you're sitting completely alone on a park bench there will be life around you - bikers, hikers, picnickers, toddlers blowing bubbles, etc. You will feel like a part of the human race if you are in an environment where there is human activity. Not to mention, you could meet someone who could become a friend in one of these situations. You will be making yourself available for someone to find you and talk to you.
You could also go to places where talking with each other is encouraged. Join a tour group that's visiting your closest major city, even if you aren't a tourist. Everyone is always chatting and asking questions in those groups of people. Go to a general store in the middle of a small town - the proprietor will almost always want to tell you stories about the town and how long the store has been there, etc. If you have the money, take a cruise by yourself - I've heard several stories of people doing this and making lifelong friends in the process. The point is, get yourself out and doing social things and you will automatically be more sociable.
In that same vein, I highly recommend taking a class in a subject that interests you or join one of the thousands of MeetUp groups in your area that focus on one of your hobbies or passions. These MeetUps were specifically designed to help people meet others with similar interests so you might as well take advantage of the fact that they are out there just waiting for you to sign up.
I would caution you against solitary activities such as seeing a movie alone (you're surrounded by people but talking and interaction are discouraged), playing online/phone games, or scrolling through Facebook for hours at a time. These time suckers will certainly help to pass the lonely hours, but you will end up just as lonely when they are over.
Another way to meet people is to go to a restaurant that has communal seating. It may seem strange at first, but if you go out to eat alone and sit in a booth by yourself, there's no chance to meet someone besides the waiter taking your order. But if you sit at a communal table, there are ample opportunities for conversation. If no one is talking to you, you can ask the people next to you what they ordered and if they are enjoying it. They might even give you a taste. Some restaurants even have specifically designated "Community Nights" where the food is served family style and interpersonal communication is encouraged. The same goes for open mike nights, poetry readings, book groups (many libraries provide these for free), art appreciation nights at museums, etc. These can be easy situations because there is already something else going on (a performance or a lecture) and you already have something built-in to talk about. Whatever you can find, get out there and do it. Even if you don't end up making any friends, you weren't lonely for those few hours, and that will get the anti-loneliness chemicals going in your body and that will make you feel better overall. Even if it's difficult the first few times to put yourself out there, it will get easier by the third time, I promise.
I guess a more important topic would be figuring out how to prevent loneliness in the first place. To that, I have a few suggestions:
1. Don't let your friendships lapse. We all get busy, we all have limited time, but we also have to remember that we are also all going to lose loved ones at one time or another. While we might not feel like keeping our dress pants on and meeting that friend for dinner after a long day of work, in the long run it will yield a better result than sitting home alone in our comfy pants watching Netflix alone. Also, don't always wait for your friends to call you. If you have a spare moment, give them a call or send them a text letting them know you're thinking about them. A little word of encouragement can go a long way for a person going through a rough time, and chances are if you are there for them in their time of need, then they will reciprocate and be there for you.
It doesn't take much. If you're at the store and you see a fancy bar of chocolate with a panda on the label, and your friend loves pandas, buy the candy bar and give it to her the next time you see her, telling her it made you think of her. Or if you see a funny friendship card that reminds you of a far away friend, get it and take 30 seconds to sign it and put it in the mailbox. Or take the time to drop off some soup to a friend who is under the weather. These things don't take too much time or extra effort but they can make all the difference in keeping a friendship alive. Much like with marriage, if you don't consciously cultivate the relationship, the more likely it is to die on the vine from neglect.
Here's another idea: Try hosting casual get-togethers instead of intimidating dinner parties. Instead of watching Jeopardy by yourself for the hundredth time, record a bunch of shows in a row, invite some people over, put out some chips and have a Jeopardy party. People can come in their pajamas and instead of having to worry about making scintillating dinner conversation, there's already a built in activity that will most likely end up being fun and even rowdy. If Jeopardy's not your thing, then have a "Cleaning out the Freezer" party, where people can come and help you eat up the leftovers that are taking up space in your freezer. Here's a personal favorite of mine: If you're going to be repainting a room, invite people over beforehand to paint whatever they want on it. They can paint cartoons, a mural, graffiti, whatever; but there's something incredibly fun and kind of "exuberantly rule-breaking" about painting something on a wall. You're going to paint over it anyway, so it's just for fun, and it can be a really terrific time for everyone involved. Don't overthink your get-togethers, just take whatever you already like to do and bring some people into it.
2. Practice showing people consideration who aren't your friends. This will help you to practice your social skills in a non-judgmental, low-risk environment. It takes very little to acknowledge the people who generally feel invisible but your recognition will most likely be felt in a big way. For example, I always take a moment to thank the person who is collecting the shopping carts in the parking lot. Sometimes I get a response and sometimes I don't, but it doesn't matter. I'm doing it to show them that I see them, their presence is important, and that what they are doing is appreciated. Inside a store, when the cashier or clerk asks me how I'm doing today, I always respond and ask them back. (To be honest, most of the time I don't really care about their answer, but this is how a friendly world operates and that's the kind of world I'd like to live in.) I also think it's important to acknowledge your fellow human beings when you're on a walk or a hike. Sometimes it's just a nod, sometimes just a smile, sometimes it's a verbal "Hello" or "Good morning." But it's so refreshing to have these interactions so that we're reminded we're not alone in the world.
3. If you are a parent, please please please LISTEN TO YOUR CHILDREN!! This is vital to a child's self-esteem and can make all the difference when they want to open themselves up and be vulnerable to another person. Even if you've had a long day, even if you can barely keep your eyes open, even if there are dishes to wash and laundry to be folded and emails to return, take the time to listen to them and acknowledge what they have to say. I understand that all you want your preschooler to do is go to bed and that the last thing you want to hear is them repeating for the fifteenth time that they got to pass out the play dough today...but listen and smile and tell her how proud you are of her anyway. Not only is it your job to do this, but it is also a precious thing to remember when ten years from that moment the teenager has nothing to say to you about her day at school or her time at the mall with her friends. Keep in the front of your mind that this time will not last forever and it is now or never to forge a bond with your child. There is no way to build a foundation after a house is built, nor is there a way to build a healthy and trusting relationship with your child after the fact.
Here's what listening to your child - and I mean really, mindfully listening and reacting appropriately, not just absentmindedly nodding while playing Words With Friends on your phone - does. You are providing them with the single most important thing that any human being can provide to someone they love. You are showing them that they matter. You're not just telling them, you are showing them in a very tangible way. This does wonders for a youngster's self-esteem and has positive long lasting effects that you may not even know about. A regularly ignored child ends up having a sisyphean struggle throughout his or her life yearning to be validated while worrying that they aren't worthy of validation in the first place. Adults who crave attention didn't get enough of it in their childhoods and often don't realize it when they are being intrusive or annoying to others. Their unfulfilled need to be noticed was ingrained while their brains and emotions were still developing at a very basic level. The subsequent behaviors have a tendency to push people away, which can result in isolation, loneliness, and despair at not being able to fit in. So if you want what is best for your child (translation: a happy and healthy life from childhood through adulthood) please please please listen to what they have to say. If you do the listening while they are young and naturally want to talk to you, they will most likely relish you listening to them when they get older as well.
There's a reason why there's the saying, "It takes a village." In other countries and cultures it is very common for have two or three generations living together under one roof. Conversely, it seems like in America, branching out on one's own and moving away from the family is more the norm and "what people do to be considered successful." While I understand that people need their space and it can be cumbersome to always have family members underfoot, in those other cultures it's pretty difficult to be lonely. Or feel unsupported. Or unloved. Or completely alone. Which I believe is the point of those living situations.
Now of course there are loners - people who are naturally predisposed to enjoy alone time and who feel overwhelmed or uncomfortable in social situations. There are also people who are naturally shy and prefer fewer personal interactions overall. But there is a big difference between "alone time" and "lonely time."
Here's the thing about loneliness: It's painful. It can feel like the marrow is being sucked out of your bones leaving you empty, fragile, and despondent. It can unearth horrible of feelings of inequality and unfulfilled desires in a person's psyche and lead them to the conviction that there is something fundamentally flawed about them. When no one is available when someone needs help or a friendly ear to listen, loneliness is an extremely unwelcome guest who fills the air with darkness and desperate longing. It has the power to push a person who may be teetering on the edge of depression over into the deep black depths of despair, which is also a very significant reason why loneliness can lead to an earlier death.
Homo sapiens are, by design, a social species. When we do not get the social interaction that we physically and emotionally need, our brains go into self-preservation mode, the same way that a human will try to survive in the midst of severe hunger or thirst. Physiologically, loneliness can raise our levels of the stress hormone cortisol, resulting in high blood pressure and a compromised immune system. On a practical level, lonely people are more likely to perish in a fire, forget to take their medication, or be left for days undiscovered if they are in a fatal accident of some kind at home.
Simply put, we all need human interaction and to experience sociality. The root of loneliness is feeling unworthy and unwanted, which you are NOT! Whatever you do, DO NOT give into the loneliness and believe that it is just your destiny. You were put on this Earth for a reason and you are worthy of friendships and love because you exist. When loneliness comes calling, shut the door in its face and pick up the phone instead. Nourish your relationships. Fill your lunch hours and spare time with social interactions. Don't just fall back into the comfy pants - they'll still be there when you come back home.