I tuck myself away from people quite often—not the best way to deal with loneliness. But I do so not to escape socialization (at least not entirely), but rather to work. Yet, there’s a part of me that can’t deny that a lot of this is because it’s safer to work than to socialize and try and meet other people.
I write, edit that writing, and then write some more. It’s reviews for Razorcake, the punk music magazine I’ve been with since 2005, or entries for this here blog post. Sometimes I’m editing a book or longer piece I’m putting together for another publication.
With writing and giving talks, with the extra jobs I take on (I currently have four part-time jobs), it’s all about keeping busy. I do this for two reasons: when I’m occupied with work I don’t think about how lonely I am, and also because time is of the essence.
Work is reliable. It rarely lets me down and the only person I have to please is myself. When I am deep into my writing or editing I feel productive and accomplished and that is a wonderful feeling. I also don’t have to acknowledge my loneliness, which can often leave me depressed—a road down which I don’t wish to go.
The past few years I’ve recognized that I’m getting older (just shy of 40). There are still too many people to help and things I want to do in my life. This includes spending more time doing something I enjoy: speaking about my mental health. There’s something about having a few suicide attempts in my life that cause me to want to work even harder at living in the moment and do even more.
I try and find time to slow down. I do this by exercising at the gym or doing yoga. I read, although lately I find it more difficult to find a good book. I enjoy vacationing and seeing historical sites, museums, and the outdoors in all its splendor.
Yet I can’t seem to slow down. And I know I need to. I need to find time to make friends and get to know others. It’s easy to stay in what makes one comfortable, especially when I can mask it as helping others. I’m putting them before myself and that can feel like a more noble route to take. Yet I don’t always follow my own advice about loneliness because it takes time too long to implement those practices.
None of this is to say I’m going to stop with my writing and speaking. Yet I have become more aware as of late that it’s important for my health to make connections with others. That can bring me joy in a different manner. A well-rounded approach to happiness is something that we all can use. So I’m doing my best to begin to attempt to go from “can’t stop, won’t stop” to “maybe can stop, should probably stop from time to time.”
,There is a lot of stigma associated with the word “loneliness” or saying “I’m lonely.” But loneliness strikes everyone at some point in our lives. It's challenging to take one's self out of a comfort zone and be in situation where we may know few, if any, people. For college students, being a young adult is already a time of questioning one’s self, meaning we may not feel as though we belong. Yet that is what we’re all seeking, especially when we’re unsure of ourselves.
Setting up a system whereby students become informed of their need for belonging and how to find that presents a positive notion. It says: here’s this thing you want and now let’s talk about how you can get it. This is in opposition to the way that loneliness often comes across. It's often seen as a dreaded state to avoid and connected to depression and inadequacy.
Yet everyone desires to connect and belong. Framing an attack on loneliness in this manner seems a more likely way to get students to interact with programs at universities. “How to find connection and a sense of belonging” versus “How to stop feeling lonely.” While the phrasing could be slightly different with each of those, the sentiment is the same. Having more people say “I’m lonely” along with rephrasing it as being about connection and belonging would find more success in aiding students who may be dealing with both loneliness and wanting to belong.
In my times of loneliness I discovered some qualities about myself that I wasn’t expecting. One thing I learned is how creative I can be. When I dealt with my loneliness I knew I had to find things to keep me occupied. I started going places on my own—not only on vacation but around Boston, where I live. I started visiting historical sites and not allowing my lack of friends to keep me from living life. One semester of grad school I went to look for different breakfast places around the city to eat at on Saturday mornings. It gave me something to do and exposed me to new parts of the city. Another time, I looked for the best burritos in the city.
Through my loneliness I also learned more about myself, mentally. I realized when I needed to exercise and release my life of tension and stress. It also allowed me to be around others, even if I didn’t have conversations with them. I would often leave feeling better. I forced myself to meditate more often because even though I thought it was boring, I ended up often feeling better after that. After these experiences with my loneliness, I realized I was stronger than I ever thought I could be.
I first had experiences with loneliness in high school and between my low-self esteem and immaturity I was often crushed by it. Years later, after a growth in my confidence and maturity, I acknowledged I was stronger than I may have otherwise thought. And that was encouraging to me. I could see that it wasn’t only about loneliness. I had strength to tackle other big struggles in my life.
Loneliness isn't something I wish upon others. Yet at the same time I can’t imagine my life without it because it’s made me into the emotionally resilient person I am today. We know loneliness is going to hit us all at some point. But it’s reassuring to know that with the proper mindset and practices we can emerge from it as stronger individuals.
When one is lonely, it can often feel overwhelming and all-encompassing. Yet, surviving a period of loneliness can serve as further proof that one can do things once not thought possible.
When I moved to Boston (where I currently live) in 2008 I didn’t know anyone. I moved to the city for graduate school having never visited. I felt lonely quite often and spent a lot of time hanging out by myself. It seemed so difficult to make connections and I didn’t feel as though I could find anyone to befriend.
I’ve always felt like someone who didn’t quite fit in. I came to graduate school for a masters in American Studies. There I believed I would find activists, punks, anarchists, and others akin to where I stood, politically and socially. It was disappointing to discover that none of these descriptions fit my peers. I had a difficult time finding much of anyone with whom I could bond in such a big city, which seemed like adding insult to injury.
Graduate school and working part-time also sucked up a lot of my week, keeping me from being able to make new friends. Despite our differences, I gravitated toward my graduate peers but often felt loneliest when at parties with them. I was older than many of them and had difficulty sharing my past with them: punk rock shows and radical politics.
Yet, as time went on, I survived. I’ve picked up a few acquaintances and friends here and there and having a partner has gone a long way, too. I didn’t think I could survive those lonely experiences, but I made it.
I have more strength than I ever knew I had. I am resilient in the face of not just loneliness but now know that if loneliness doesn’t get me down there are other issues in life I am certain I can break through: depression and anxiety, for example. Besides, if I could get through such lonely times, I knew I could deal with loneliness should it hit me again.
When loneliness occurs, it’s good to know that you have a well of strength from which to draw to help you through what can be a difficult time. During my long times of loneliness, I turned to meditation and reading self-help for some solace and ideas of how to deal with what I was experiencing. As much as it was possible, meditation taught me to be okay with myself and my condition.
I wouldn’t suggest subjecting yourself to loneliness as a means to build resilience. Yet it gives a great amount of agency to someone suffering loneliness to know they have power over it. In learning how to deal with lonely experiences, it can empower the individual to the point where it creates self-confidence.
For example, when I was in states of loneliness, I realized no one was going to take care of me when I was ill. I had to go to the drug store and get medication or drive myself to the doctor. This showed me that even at a weak point I was capable of accomplishing things for which I had in the past relied upon others.
I put myself in a situation in January 2009 when I traveled alone to Iceland. It was scary because I didn’t know anyone. I couchsurfed with strangers, and ended up having a great time. I learned that I can plan a trip to a foreign country and be social and meet others. This experience showed me that if I can meet people in another nation with a different culture and language, I can meet people at home. Once again, being lonely but forcing myself to do things, gave me self-confidence to know I could do even more in my life.
Given what I’ve written about loneliness, it might come as a surprise I would say one can find any benefit from it. But I very much believe you can. As Marissa Korda, the founder of The Loneliness Project, said in an interview with the Guardian newspaper: “Loneliness as just a normal part of being human. It comes, it goes, it’s something that we experience and it doesn’t need to be as isolating as it is….It’s not realistic to expect that we can cure loneliness and I don’t think we should—it’s part of being human.”
Too often, there is an all-or-nothing take on loneliness and a level of fear-mongering associated with it. It’s an “epidemic” and a “health crisis” that must be “defeated.” They way some write of it nowadays it sounds as if we’re dealing with the Black Plague. In reality, you might as well attack guilt or fear since loneliness is as real and prevalent as those feelings and experiences.
My times with loneliness have shown me that it can be something that is helpful and from which to draw strength. Given its inevitability, it’s important to see what we can learn from it and what lessons it might provide us in our journey as human beings. Thus, in my next few entries, I will write about what I’ve learned from loneliness and what you can get from it when it hits you. There’s no reason to sit and take it—there are methods by which you can get out of loneliness. But while it’s happening, reminding yourself of the benefits can ease the emotional pain it can cause.
I’ve found that the worst part about loneliness is being aware of it when it’s happening to you. Thinking about it can make it worse. That’s why I’ve found the best thing I can do is to keep busy. I tend to work on activities or take on extra jobs (I like feeling productive). But for those in college, my suggestion is to dip a toe in the waters of clubs and organizations.
Think of things you’re passionate about: writing, acting, exercising, film, etc. There are often clubs on campus for those sorts of things. And if there isn’t you can usually start one, either formal or informal. Your university’s website will often list official clubs and student organizations. Getting involved with these groups will not only keep your mind occupied but will also enable you to meet new people.
This way of making connections goes back to John Cacioppo’s EASE method, so the premise is the same. Think about what activities you like and create a list. Then decide what you have time for and what you really want to do. Any time you can spend bonding over similar shared interests is a way to grow closer to others.
Since I never felt I fit in on my tiny, rural college campus, I spent time at the nearby state school. I went to concerts there and got to know people in that music scene. In the end, that was the best way for me to make close connections in the midst of a college setting that otherwise left me feeling lonely all too often.
One of the great things about college is the wide array of activities available. These might include movies, lectures, theater performances, and volunteer events. Many are either cheap or free. If possible, make a point to attend at least one of these every few weeks. Mark it on your calendar and stick to it, even if you don’t always feel like going.
Such events are perfect opportunities to get to know people with whom you want to hang out. Go to an event and then get some food or coffee afterward. That bond of having the same experience will give you something to talk about.
I did this at college on occasion, but I often found myself uninterested because I stuck out like a sore thumb. I was the one punk kid at an otherwise pretty conservative school. Yet, at some point my freshman year a guy in my dorm invited me to play pool with him. It ended up being a good way for us to connect and build a friendship. I wouldn’t have expected to like pool but I did. And it helped me make a new friend.
Many of the activities offered at college take place on weekends, so a piece of related advice: don’t go home when your classes are over for the week. Some students will do that their freshman year, usually because they have a partner back home. Many times those students have difficulty making new friends.
I went home a few times my freshman year to see people I knew from high school or go to a show, and that’s understandable. But if you’re going home every weekend (or most of them), it makes it difficult to connect. Building relationships (and escaping loneliness) takes repeated shared experiences with others. That can only happen if you’re on campus.
Loneliness at college is all too often made worse by mental illness. When I was in college my bipolar disorder emerged. I had very low self-esteem and didn’t believe there were many (if any) people who wanted to be my friend. Combating serious depression and chronic low self-worth can take a toll on one’s mental health. It makes it all that much more difficult to get out of one’s lonely shell. So, if you’re having chronic depression or other mental health issues, address those. Seeing a therapist at your school's counseling center can be a good place to start.
Handling feelings of loneliness at college often goes back to what John Cacioppo said about “expecting the best” when trying to break out of loneliness. Ask someone from your dorm, that person you chatted with at a party, or someone from one of your classes if they want to hang sometime. It doesn’t have to be a weird date—ask them if they want to study together, go to a concert with you, or get something to eat. And then try your damnedest to be optimistic. I know it can be difficult because it’s all too easy to be cynical. Yet people are making connections all the time and there’s no reason you don’t have to be one of them.
And do yourself a favor: take some time off from social media. Or at least don't check it quite so often. Based on what your friends are posting on Instagram and Snapchat you may think they’re all having a fun time without you. Perhaps they are, but it’s also likely they feel lonely at times. But few people are posting pictures of that.
I’ve learned that if you want accountability for things you want to change in your life, it’s important to let other people know about it. For example, I want to start doing more public speaking about mental health, so I’ve told friends and family that’s a goal of mine. It works the same way when you want to overcome any issue: share it with others and people will follow up with you on it. They can keep you accountable. As I mentioned in the last post, you’re not alone in this. So, if you feel comfortable doing so, share with friends or family how you’re feeling. If nothing else, write about it in a journal. You’re feeling lonely. That’s okay.
Now for a basic piece of practical advice on how to open one’s self to a possible avenue of making friends in college: leave the door open. I lived in a dorm for three of my four years at college. I felt out of place for most of my college experience, but I learned early on that leaving the door to my room open encouraged others to be social. Of course if you need some privacy to study or make a phone call it’s understandable to close the door. Yet it surprised me how many people would stop by and say hey or ask if I wanted to go to lunch or dinner. I’m well aware this may not lead to meeting your best friend, but every chance you have to spend time with new people is at least another possibility.
There is still a lot of stigma attached to saying you’re lonely. This is especially prevalent amongst teens and those in their early twenties. While it’s becoming acceptable to share one’s struggles with mental illness, few want to admit that they don’t have the connections they desire. But statistics show college students aren’t alone in their loneliness. As Frank Bruni wrote in The New York Times: “In a  survey of nearly 28,000 students on 51 campuses by the American College Health Association, more than 60 percent said that they had ‘felt very lonely’ in the previous 12 months. Nearly 30 percent said that they had felt that way in the previous two weeks.”
The important thing to remember is you’re not alone. It can make you feel like there’s something wrong with you to not have as many friends as your peers seem to have (although looks can be deceiving). It’s hard to be patient when you’re going through so many changes anyway: the attempt to find friends seems like one more thing to deal with. Time can seem to drag while you wait to make those close friends everyone told you that you’d make in college.
Take solace in the fact that there are others like you out there; your fellow students who also want to make friends. You never know which person it is in your group for a class project who may become your new friend. Or someone who lives on the same floor with you in the dorm.
Being accepted to a college is both exciting and terrifying. It’s a relief to have some direction in one’s life but for many people it’s scary because you may not know anyone at your new school. I was anxious about going to a big school where I wouldn't have friends. So I only applied to the college my sister attended because I knew I’d at least know her and her friends, even though they were all seniors when I was a freshman.
In a new situation, loneliness can be prevalent. Many students are taught that college is “the best four years of your life,” which, I can assure you, was not my case (nor the case of many others). Some students are under the misconception that making friends in college is quick and easy. Yet that can also be far from the truth. To meet people with whom I felt as though I could identify, it took me almost to the end of my freshman year—and it’s not as though I went to a huge state school. My university had 1900 students.
There are a lot of issues that come into play with loneliness at colleges, though. One is social media, but there are also issues of anxiety amongst teens. It can be scary to put one’s self out there and try and make new friends. Homesickness also plays a role in making life more difficult for those away at a new learning institution. In following entries, I’ll be looking at issues of loneliness at college and what students (and parents) can do that might ease it.
In May the health insurance company Cigna produced the results of a study on loneliness. The most surprising piece of information was the group that suffers the most: young adults.
At first thought it doesn’t seem logical that those in their teens and early twenties would have such high rates of loneliness. Yet, the current train of thought is that loneliness amongst youth is due to a couple of reasons. First, youth haven’t developed an understanding of picking up on social stimuli. In other words, the more one pulls into loneliness, the lower their self-esteem can go. Others (friends, family, acquaintances) can try to draw the lonely individual in to relationships. But this may lead to the individual being more resistant to that attempt. Youth have a difficult time of understanding the sincerity of positive connections. This causes them to draw further into their loneliness.
I speak of this from personal experience, too. I went to a small liberal arts university that was fairly conservative. To put it in musical terms, my school was very pop radio and I was more punk rock. I did have some connections and friendships, but when I received an invitation to a party, I often declined. Granted, much of this was due to my depression (which I’ve covered before). Yet the two fed off one another. I couldn’t comprehend the idea that others had a genuine interest in being my friend and so I withdrew further. It took years of therapy and coming to accept I was someone worth loving for me to believe others when they asked me to do things with them.
The other primary issue with youth and loneliness is the internet, especially social networking. Some teenagers find the web to be a good place to escape from society. (This isn’t relegated to teens, of course.) The possibility to avoid awkward social interactions and use the internet, instead, is appealing. Witnessing others living curated lives can be deceiving, though. When one views others engaging in fun occasions, it can leave the lonely teen feeling as though she or he is even further engulfed in loneliness. As one article stated: “Though we temporarily feel better when we engage others virtually, these connections tend to be superficial and ultimately dissatisfying.”
Utilizing the web isn’t always a bad thing. As Rebecca Nowland, Elizabeth Necka, and John Cacioppo point out: “When the Internet is used as a way station on the route to enhancing existing relationships and forging new social connections, it is a useful tool for reducing loneliness…. This suggests that lonely people may need support with their social Internet use so that they employ it in a way that enhances existing friendships and/or to forge new ones.” (“Loneliness and Social Internet Use: Pathways to Reconnection in a Digital World?” Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2018, Vol. 13(1) 70– 87).
Thus, like most things, it comes down to how we use it. The fast growth of the internet and our readying acceptance of everything associated with it has caused us to leap first, without looking. My hope is that, through the work of schools, parents, non-profits, and the mental health community, we can teach everyone—and especially teens—good boundaries in their use of the internet so to avoid the frustrations of loneliness.
Given the highlighting of loneliness over the past many months, I’m not surprised that someone would come up with a religious response to the issue. Recently a FOX News blog post ran on their website titled “God may have put you in a lonely place for an incredible reason”. The article begins with background information on the current state of loneliness in our culture. Then the author, Pastor Rick McDaniel, dives into the meat of his essay.
His argument is that it’s during our lonely times we can turn to god. McDaniel describes this as a great opportunity to be closer to this supreme being. Throughout the article McDaniel confuses the idea of being alone and being lonely. He speaks of loneliness as being a situation without having anyone around. Instead, as I’ve highlighted before, being lonely is about not having the connections you want.
McDaniel writes that loneliness can develop our character. The only example he gives is that our patience can increase while we wait in our loneliness. Speaking from experience, I can assure you there are many less painful ways of learning patience. I wouldn’t suggest someone become lonely as a means to learn that ability.
McDaniel also states that loneliness can inspire us to become creative. Yet here he once again confuses being alone and loneliness. He seems to think it is when we are alone that we find we can tap into our creative juices and birth great achievements. Solitude does allow us to work well. I’m writing this while I sit alone in my apartment, but that won’t take me out of feeling lonely. The act of writing a piece about loneliness won’t bring me the connections I desire.
Finally, McDaniel expresses the idea that loneliness can create in us a desire to serve others. It’s not clear to me why loneliness is necessary to serve others. Here, once again, he confuses loneliness with being alone. I can understand how in solitude one might reflect and realize the needs of others. Yet, one doesn’t have to be feeling disconnected from those around them to have the desire to serve others. I would hope that might come from empathy toward others and love for our fellow human beings.
In McDaniel’s article, all his responses point back to going to god for support and finding solace there when one is lonely. This, unfortunately, leaves many individuals who do not believe in god without a solution to their loneliness. I can appreciate someone offering their two cents on the issues of loneliness. *ahem* Yet people in positions of authority peddling out useless advice that offers an incorrect understanding of the concept about which they’re writing are no help to anyone. If anything, they’re a hindrance to those who might be trying to find a way clear of their loneliness.
Besides writing my own blog, I follow the work of others who deal with the topic of mental health, including depression and loneliness. Here are a few I want to highlight.
Jordan Brown – Jordan is a recent graduate in social work who is one of the top mental health writers on Medium. He writes encouraging, thoughtful posts that come from a very personal place. Jordan truly has a heart for helping others with their mental health and it shows in his posts.
Mike Veny – Mike’s message is a powerful one about how he’s overcome suicide attempts and being expelled from schools as a youth. He’s now a top mental health speaker and someone whose success as a speaker I admire. He works to overcome the stigma that all too often comes with depression.
UnLonely Project - The UnLonely Project has been featured on the Today Show and in Psychology Today for their work on combating loneliness in our society. They also have a streaming film festival of short films that deal with the topic at their website. Their work seeks to give tools to those dealing with loneliness and tie it in with the arts as a means to combat the issue.
NAMI Blog – This blog for the National Alliance on Mental Illness covers a range of topics on mental health. These include insurance, depression amongst teens, and self-care. The blog is updated multiple times a week with posts that are easy to understand and which are quite helpful.
The Lonely Hour – This podcast is an examination of loneliness and solitude by host Julia Bainbridge. It’s not a bummer, though. Through interviews she explores various aspects of loneliness: whether it’s brought about by the loss of faith or a life of addiction. It’s an honest and thought-provoking exploration of loneliness.
Over the years, I've found that loneliness affects people in one incredibly dramatic way that often goes unaddressed. I've seen in the lives of both friends and myself something that shows the power of loneliness in causing fear. And that is the prevalence of individuals entering relationships that are detrimental to them because they're scared of being alone.
The fear of loneliness is striking. It can be terrifying to imagine ourselves in an isolated state. Few like the idea of being away from any loved ones, and especially that notion of experiencing hurt with no one around to help.
This concern can cause both men and women to enter into relationships with a less than ideal partner. No one person will match us in every way. Yet, there's a distinct difference between someone who isn't quite a perfect match and someone who is cruel.
Unfortunately, I've seen some friends (and myself) enter into abusive or misaligned relationships. Often times, one party (or both) are fearful of solitude. It might be they're afraid they will never find the right partner. Thus, they settle for individuals who are emotionally unavailable or whom they find unattractive. One person may think they can "change" the other person.
Besides these concerns, most people do want a romantic connection with someone else. And our society makes sure to remind people that a relationship is a be-all and end-all. If you're not in a relationship you're often viewed as defective or having personality issues. It can also be difficult to feel like the "third wheel" or having to do things alone, such as eating at a restaurant (although I have mad respect for those folks).
So how does one deal with loneliness when that is the option compared to being in a bad relationship? Check out my tips on getting out of loneliness. Also, I've found it helpful to remind myself that there are a lot of other people out there. One's options for finding a partner are many. And most of all, life is too short to be in relationships where you're not content. Everyone deserves to find happiness and healthiness in their lives. This includes in their relationships.
I’ve often been a cynical person who also deals with depression. For a large part of my life I’ve also had issues with low self-esteem and being critical of myself. This is a harsh dynamic to handle if one also wants to break free of loneliness. And these issues—cynicism, low self-esteem, and self-judgment—have all too often kept me from making connections.
I have a history of volunteering or joining organizations and then I have not made an effort to get to know others. I would hang out by myself or not start any sort of conversation beyond the minimum required to do whatever task I had to do. I wanted to get in, do the thing I was there to do, and then expected that somehow I would magically have friends. I made that first step in the EASE method, extending myself. Perhaps I had even sought out others, but then didn’t expect that anything good would happen.
Looking back, much of my problem was my depression. After experiencing it for years, it had beat down my sense of self-esteem. On too many occasions I believed that I wasn’t good enough for others and that no one liked me. These thoughts weren’t true, but I had been telling myself these things on an almost daily basis for over twenty years. It was a hard habit to break.
What can one do (and what did I fail to do) to expect the best? First, acknowledge that there may not be success all the time in attempting to make connections with others. It’s possible that not every opportunity will be fruitful. But, we won’t know unless we try. So even if we expect the best, meeting our best friend forever may not happen with the first person with whom we speak. But it also could happen. The lesson is to try.
Second, keeping an open mind when going into situations where we put ourselves in new surroundings to meet people is essential. One friend I made from my experiences is not someone with whom I may have expected to be friends. But I found I clicked with her spirit of adventure and sense of humor. We bonded over shared academic interests. But this all occurred working at a non-profit store that sold art from artists in developing nations. I wouldn’t have expected to meet someone who became a good friend in that environment. Yet I was quite surprised because I did keep an open mind at that time.
All too often I have gone in to volunteer settings thinking that I won’t find people with whom I will want to connect. This is often because of the type of activity I am going to do. While I hope I could’ve been more open minded, that’s also a sign that I should have created an action plan more in line with what I enjoy. Once I found activities that matched what I wanted to do and that would put me in a position of meeting others, I now know it’s key to make sure positive expectations are there. In my struggles with loneliness, this has been the most difficult part for me, and something I know I will need to address should my loneliness hit again.
I’ve dealt with loneliness at various points in my life, but each time I’ve failed to seek out others who may share my interests. Part of this is due to the fact that I wasn’t aware of the concept of setting up an action plan. If I had known about that, I imagine I would’ve done a better job of finding a place that I felt I may have a chance to meet others.
I did things that I thought I would enjoy (leading historical tours, writing classes). Yet they weren’t opportunities that allowed me to interact with many people. They are activities that are solitary in nature. I should have thought about activities that were both things I wanted to do and that were in a group setting that would’ve allowed me to meet new people. I did try this on occasion, such as my stand-up comedy classes. But I didn’t find that the individuals had much in common with me beyond the fact we were taking the same class.
On occasions I have met people who I may share some things in common. Yet what kept me from succeeding with attempts to meet others is my lack of optimism that there were possibilities of friendship. And that has to do with the final step in the EASE method, expecting the best. I’ll write about that in the next entry.
When I was looking for ways to break out of my loneliness, I never put together a plan on how to do so. It never even crossed my mind. I can’t help but think that if I had created a strategic plan I might’ve had more success in making connections.
While I didn’t consciously have an agenda, I was consistently trying to think of things to try. At first this involved volunteering places, but they weren’t necessarily things in which I had a huge interest. I limited myself to what I thought were places I should volunteer: soup kitchens and a non-profit store that sold art from artisans in developing nations.
Later I thought about things I enjoy doing, but they were often solitary type things: six-week writing classes, stand-up comedy classes, or leading group tours. I found that many of these involved coming in, doing the activity, and leaving. While I hoped for connections through these opportunities, I didn’t find it. I also found that many of these individuals had families or lived in the suburbs (and I don’t have a car). This made it difficult to get together.
I think part of my difficulty with meeting people was not knowing myself well enough to know what I really enjoyed. But my other issue with not making the connections I desired involved the next two steps in the EASE method: Seeking Others and Expecting the Best.
For reference on what the EASE acronym stands for, see my last post. In the next few entries I’d like to look further into each of these steps and show examples of what I did in my personal experiences for each one. As I mentioned, in my experiences with loneliness, I’ve at times utilized the EASE method without even knowing about it.
The first letter in EASE is Extend. The primary way I’ve attempted to dip my toe in being social is through volunteering. I’ve volunteered at a lot of places over the years: soup kitchens, a non-profit store, tour groups, etc. Some of these things were one-off deals. I met a lot of different people, almost all of whom were friendly and approachable. I met a person or two whom I became actual friends with and still am to this day. Still, I found most of the attempts to be sorely lacking of what I hoped for.
Yet, the important thing is that I was making an attempt. I wouldn’t have even made friends with those few individuals I did meet if I hadn’t taken a chance to put myself out there. And the brief interactions through volunteering were opportunities to get out of my head, have some much needed social interaction, and feel less lonely for a little while.
Over the years, in my attempt to find friends through volunteering, I’ve often been frustrated due to not feeling like I fit in amongst these organizations or people. What I didn’t know about was the second step in the EASE method, creating an action plan. I’ll talk more about that in the next entry.
I’ve covered some of this in my videos, but to put it simply, one has to make the effort to get out of feeling lonely. And if depression is also in play, that can be difficult. For some people, including myself, I had to get to a good place, emotionally, before I was ready to tackle my problems, including loneliness. Until I could get out of the depths of despair, I wasn’t ready to approach any other issues such as low self-esteem, anxiety, or loneliness.
For some, perhaps their depression is more short-term and they need to ride it out while using coping skills to aid them during such a time. But for those of us who deal with chronic depression, seeing a therapist and medication may be necessary. Personally, once I was in a better head space, clear of the heaviest pain of my depression, I found I was ready to handle my loneliness.
If you’re dealing with depression and loneliness, it can be hard to break free of that place. But it is possible. I started working on reaching out and without realizing it, I was, to some degree, following the advice of the late John Cacioppo, a researcher of loneliness. He created a method called EASE. It stands for: Extend, Action Plan, Seek, and Expect. While you can read more by clicking the link, the basic gist is this:
Extend – Make an effort to put yourself out there, even for just an hour. Dip your toe in the water by volunteering or making small talk with a neighbor. This doesn’t have to be life-changing, just something simple that shows you’re making an effort.
Action Plan – Think about things you might enjoy doing and your strengths. Also, what do you have time to do? Come up with some places you may want to volunteer at, or activities you’d like to do (an intramural sports team, for example). In creating a plan, you put yourself in a position of power.
Seeking others – Once your action plan is in place, seek out others who may share your interests at the places at which you’ve chosen to take part. Start a conversation with them.
Expect the best – Taking charge of one’s mindset and expecting that good things can happen can be difficult, especially for those of us who are rather cynical or suffer from anxiety. However, studies have shown that when we open ourselves up to the possibility of connections, it can help. Expect good things and you might be surprised what happens.
To be lonely doesn’t always mean you’ll feel depressed and vice versa. There have been times where I felt lonely, but only experienced a general sadness. Sad at my condition, sad at what I thought was my inability to make friends, and sad that I wasn’t a better person—one who could make friends. Yet, those feelings didn’t necessarily lead to depression.
There were other times where I was lonely and depressed. But in those situations, the depression was there first. I often didn’t want to be social with others for whatever self-defeating reasons I had. It may be I didn’t think I was good enough for others to want to spend time with me. Or it may have been I was anxious that I would say something that would make me look dumb around others.
Being depressed sapped me of the energy to get outside of my loneliness and make connections. This caused me to become even more lonely, and it acted as a feedback loop, a never-ending cycle from which I couldn’t escape.
If loneliness persists for enough time, it can lead to depression for many individuals. So, if one is feeling lonely, it’s important to reach out to others and build those connections before depression comes about. It’s also another reason for us to reach out to our neighbors, friends, and family, who may be lonely. In doing so we can stem the depression that may come about due to extended periods of loneliness.
So how does one get out of loneliness if they’re depressed? I’ll cover that in my next post.
To many people a conference on loneliness doesn’t sound like the most exciting thing in the world. Yet, there are many folks, including myself, who find this part of the human existence to be quite important. So much so that dozens of us met for an afternoon of panels at the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater in New York City on Wednesday, May 9. Put on by the UnLonely Project, attendees included those from colleges, major corporations (such as Prudential and News Corp), The New York Times, and organizations that cater to seniors and military veterans. Co-chaired by Jeremy Nobel of Harvard University Medical School and Julianne Holt-Lunstad of Brigham Young University, the conference presented three panels.
The first focused on signs of optimism, looking at some promising attempts to combat loneliness. For example, AARP in Georgia creates activities to connect seniors to the arts (in this case, painting). Prudential Financial asks questions about loneliness as part of their view of employees' health.
The second panel looked at some of the obstacles faced in dealing with loneliness. This included issues with home care workers who work in isolation with ill patients and attempts with students at New York University (NYU) to find connections when starting school.
The final panel looked at whether innovations offered can be catalysts for large-scale changes in combating loneliness. Are there models that can be enlarged to tackle this issue? While the question has no definitive answer, panelists agreed it’s imperative we try.
The panels covered a range of groups affected: business, military, and seniors. But my personal interest in loneliness is with college students and I came away with a lot to think about. I thought about my experiences in college and grad school. I often felt as though I didn’t fit in, which left me feeling quite lonely. There is still so much stigma attached to loneliness that it spurs a basic question: How do you break through with those who may not want to identify as lonely? It’s possible an answer to this is to speak about connection and belonging with students as opposed to using that seemingly taboo word, lonely.
Allison Smith, who works with student health programs at NYU, raised another useful point. She spoke of how important it is for individuals to take the lead in discussions with loneliness. Universities should allow for places for this to happen but not force students down a specific path. This reminded me of the value of student-led mental health groups such as Active Minds. These organizations, and not college administrations, should be leading discussions on loneliness.
I also appreciated Smith’s comments on allowing places on campus for those who don’t fit in to traditional clubs and organizations. I know that in college I would’ve appreciated more options for people like me who didn’t identify with much of anyone at my rural, conservative university.
There were so many good points made throughout a half day’s conference that I hope the program is lengthier next year. Loneliness is a part of the human condition that is being brought into the forefront in our society. Yet there’s still a lot of discussion that needs to happen so that, as Jeremy Nobel said, we move this conversation from knowledge to action. The UnLonely Conference is a good start.
Odds are that you will feel lonely at some point in your life. Statistics vary widely on what percentage of the population regularly or frequently feels lonely, but it appears the number is between 25-45% of Americans.
The health effects are serious as well. Being lonely over long periods of time is the same as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Those who are chronically lonely have the same mortality rate as those who are obese.
Even if you aren't dealing with loneliness, chances are you know someone who is. And their well-being (both mentally and physically) can have an impact on you. As you grow older, you will likely lose more family and friends, and therefore may find yourself isolated. I don’t say this to cause fear, but to convince those of you who want to turn away from the importance of this issue. As life expectancy increases, it's logical to conclude that the possibility of having fewer friends and family will come into play.
Loneliness is also an issue for youth. There are many possible reasons for this (which I will explore in future posts) but for those of you who are young and reading this, or who have children in their teens or early twenties, it's something to be aware of.
What this comes down to is that even if you aren't feeling lonely, there's a good chance you will at some point in your life. Or someone you care about and love probably is dealing with loneliness. And if after all those numbers you’re still the type of person who says, “I only care about the bottom line,” then know that this is a health problem that costs us significant amounts of money due to premature deaths and unhappy workers who aren't as productive.
Loneliness isn’t about the number of connections, it’s about the quality of them. For me, I don’t have a need for a great deal of relationships—one or two people who I see frequently will suffice. However, it’s more important that they’re connections where I empathize with the person deeply and see them regularly. Thus, in my case, a close relationship with a partner can suffice.
Loneliness is different than being alone, then, in that I can be around others—at a party or at work—and still feel lonely if those connections aren’t meeting my social needs. However, I can be alone and not feel lonely. In fact, I often am. When my partner is out with her friends I rarely feel lonely because my social needs are, at large, being met. Thus, I can be alone and not feel lonely.
This blog is an exploration of the subjects of belonging and loneliness. I also look at mental health issues. I seek to provide content to my readers that is informative and helpful. If you don't want to miss anything, sign up for my email list.