How to fight the loneliness epidemic


How to battle loneliness

Image by Unstuck artist-in-residence Bridgette Zou            (This Feels Nice Series, 2017, © Bridgette Zou)

As counterintuitive as it might sound in a world that’s constantly connected, loneliness is on the rise.

According to The Wall Street Journal, loneliness has actually doubled in America over the past thirty years, rising from around 20 percent in the 1980s to nearly 40 percent today.

And as terrible as loneliness may be as a feeling, it also has profound physiological effects, with studies linking it to health risks like high blood pressure, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, and stroke.

So whether we’re talking about your mental health or your body, loneliness is never a good thing. That much is easy to understand. The difficult question is: How do we fight loneliness?

1. Acknowledge loneliness

To stave off loneliness, it’s important to realize that loneliness is a feeling and to acknowledge it. That might sound obvious, but it’s important to differentiate between the feeling of being alone and actually being alone. Just because you feel lonely doesn’t mean that you’re alone. However difficult you might feel it is to reach out and connect with them, you should seek out the people in your life that care about you and who would love nothing more than for you to reach out to them. 

The truth is that loneliness isn’t about feeling a lack of connections, it’s about feeling a lack of deep connections. So talking to the people who know us best, picking up the phone and calling our family and oldest friends, can go a long way in combating loneliness. And of course, there’s always the potential for new connections to deepen.

Depending on your situation, fostering those kind of meaningful encounters with people might have to begin with small steps like getting outside more, interacting with acquaintances, or just running errands. Even brief encounters with neighbors can be meaningful in their own way. And don’t be afraid to talk to strangers.

2. Take the focus off yourself

The British writer Samuel Johnson wrote that, “No cause more frequently produces bashfulness than too high an opinion of our own importance.” It’s a pretty harsh sentiment, but it contains a kernel of truth that applies to loneliness as well. Loneliness might superficially seem like it’s about other people, but it’s really about us focusing on ourselves and our feelings of isolation.

The perfect remedy for that is to focus on someone else for a while. Spending some time volunteering or offer to help a friend out with a project they’ve been meaning to get around to. You won’t just be giving yourself the opportunity to interact with people, but you’ll be focusing on the very real connections that are built through helping people. And that’s more or less the opposite of loneliness.

3. Engage with others who might be lonely

Something that I try to do when I feel lonely is to reach out to someone else I think might be lonely also. It’s sort of a two-birds-with-one-stone maneuver.

Phone calls are great, of course, but in my own experience the best thing to do is get outside and interact in the real world. Take a friend kayaking or on a hike. Or, if you don’t live in coastal Maine like myself, go out for a cup of coffee or a run. Being active and busy is an integral part of nurturing happiness, and to my mind it’s something that goes hand-in-hand with fighting loneliness.

4. Consider a new (furry or feathered) friend

I’d be remiss if I wrote about loneliness and didn’t mention the friend that keeps me from feeling lonely while I work from home everyday: My dog Otis. Studies have shown that humans benefit from their pets in much the same way psychologically as they do from their human friends, and I can personally vouch for that. Besides having another personality nearby, he also forces me to focus on someone other than myself and gets me outside and talking to my neighbors when I might otherwise be indoors and staring at a screen.

There are many other specific ways to fight loneliness that might work for you — from taking in new roommates to going to church — but these are what have worked for me in my own life. The most important principles are get outside, get involved, and take care of someone else. They’re antidotes to loneliness, sure, but they’re also sort of the basic recipe for having pleasant days.

Scott Beauchamp is a writer who lives in Maine. His work has previously appeared in The Guardian, Bookforum, Dublin Review of Books, and elsewhere. You can find him on Twitter here.

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