As a therapist, I see clients who struggle with a variety of life stressors — many
exacerbated by feelings of social isolation, lack of meaningful connection or loneliness.
In my own life, I have recently entered the stage in which our children no longer live at
home most of the year. Without the buzz of teenagers’ schedules and energy in the
house – it can feel a little, well, lonely.
At the beginning of this month, the U.S. Surgeon General released an 85-page report
entitled Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation. In it we learn the scary news that,
like smoking, loneliness can take years off our life, and more people are reporting
feeling socially isolated and lonely than ever before. The tone of the report is somewhat
dire and calls this an “urgent public health issue”.
So you can imagine – after reading the report, not only was I feeling lonely and
concerned about the lack of connection and isolation of many of my clients — I was
now worried about the years being taken off our lives as well! It was like pouring salt in
If we’re already isolated, how are we supposed to change the feeling of being isolated?
Many of us rarely see our neighbors and we can’t even see inside car windows
anymore – is anyone in there? Our strong values of individualism and privacy,
combined with the greater number of folks now working from home, means we are
entrenched in our separateness.
The recommendations for individuals on page 66 of the report are a start—but they
weren’t concrete enough to make me feel better. So after I took a deep breath, I came
up with some doable things that can improve our own feelings of isolation and
loneliness in our lives as they are today:
- You may not feel like it. Do it anyway.
- Channel your inner Victorian aristocrat: “keep up with correspondences”
- Set “get-together goals”
- It’s not what you do, it’s how you do it. Look for “micro-connections”
- Let the Spirit move you: connect to something bigger than yourself
- Do it anyway.
The reality is—the more you feel isolated, the more you feel like isolating. We can all
remember that feeling we had as the pandemic eased and we started going to the
grocery store more often or having meetings or school functions or get-togethers, and
even the gregarious among us felt an awkwardness that wasn’t there before. “Ugh –
small talk? Do I have to? Why don’t I know how to do this…?” Well this is true—the
more you’re alone, the harder it can be to reach out and connect.
We need to take this on like it’s our job. Here, the Surgeon General’s tough ta
equating loneliness to smoking can be helpful. No ex-smoker ever quit smoking
because they felt like it. They went through the uncomfortable process because they
wanted to see the Eiffel Tower and spend time with their unborn grandchildren.
We must get serious about our social life – even if it’s out of our comfort zone.
Just like that exercise you don’t want to do – you’ll feel better after you do it.
- Channel your inner Victorian aristocrat: “keep up with correspondences”.
A paradoxical side effect of all the advances in communication technology is that we
take communication for granted. Since we know we “could” be in touch with someone
at any moment of any day, it feels less critical to do it regularly. Before the telephone –
the one with the cord and a separate hand piece – all there was was letter writing. If
you were to stay in touch with people who weren’t in walking distance, snail mail was
the only option. Period. Keeping up with correspondences was very important if you
weren’t planning on being a hermit.
The good news is that – thanks to the above-mentioned advances in communication –
you don’t have to write the letter, you can make it a quick text!
Make it a point to text or call a different person each day. This doesn’t have to be
long – just a check-in goes a long way. Connection begets connection and this will start
to change things! You will slowly develop stronger ties to these people if you keep it
up, which will feel good! The critical point here is: make this a daily priority. Not
because you feel like it – but because it’s important self-care.
- Get-together goals: Set them and keep them
The reality check of this new report will hopefully lead us to view our connections to
others differently. This is such an important part of our health that we should be setting
goals as we do for other important parts of our health – yearly checkups, exercise
Set a goal for your get-togethers. Extending ourselves to others is an energy that
is contagious. You can set these goals with yourself or partner with friends and do it
together. Goals thrive with others for accountability. Perhaps you commit to having
coffee with someone once a month, or you aim to have a conversation with siblings on
a weekly basis instead of just birthdays and holidays.
Use some things in your life as triggers for this:
- If you have a schedule for cleaning your house, make it a habit to invite people
over every time the house is clean!
- The next time you hear yourself say, “We really need to get together…” let that
be a trigger to pull out your calendar and add, “Let’s set something up now!”
- The next time you think of a friend you haven’t seen in a while – have that be a
trigger to reach out and send that text or schedule that coffee.
- Micro Connections – It’s not what you do, it’s how you do it
When you get yourself out the door and into the world – look for ways to “microconnect” with anyone you can. You’re already going to the food store and the dry
cleaner – why not leverage some connecting time while you’re at it?
I don’t mean following strangers around in the aisles of the supermarket, but — when
you get to the cash register, make a point of looking the cashier in the eye and smiling.
Maybe make some positive comment about the weather. Look at the bagger in the eye,
smile and thank them for bagging. Look at and smile at people you pass on the street.
Wave “thank you” when someone let’s you go first in traffic.
Our nervous system’s job is to keep us safe. In any given moment – even when we are
not aware of it – our bodies and brains are continuously scanning our environment for
signs of safety or danger. Just as a baby looks to their parents for signs of safety, we
look to our fellow humans to sense that all is well. In psych terms we are “coregulating” our nervous systems. Studies also show that when we smile, even a fake
smile, our body releases feel-good hormones into our system – dopamine, endorphins,
and serotonin. No prescription necessary!
This report made me feel that this was a big task for us to solve, but if we make a
concerted effort to look for tiny “micro-connections” throughout our day, week, and
year — we will not only be spreading the love, but we may be extending our life
expectancy as well.
- Let the spirit move you.
Spirituality and religion can play a constructive role in soothing feelings of loneliness.
Some reasons for this are obvious and practical and others are more nebulous.
On the practical side – places of worship offer a ready-made community of welcoming
people. Getting involved in a local church is one of the best ways to meet people
who are open and happy to see you. There are services to attend and events and
groups to join. Values of love, relationship, and community are widely held as extremely
important by all the major religions — values that are a perfect antidote to loneliness –
and many have an online option for attending services as well.
Also, things we do alone can oddly help us feel more connected. Several studies in
recent years have shown that a regular practice of meditation or silent prayer
lowers feelings of loneliness in participants. How this happens is not clear – but the
studies show it seems to help.
Loneliness is defined as a discrepancy between individuals’ desired and achieved
levels of social relations. There is a difference between being alone and feeling lonely.
In all of the world’s traditions, there is an understanding that we are part of a bigger
and benevolent whole. That there is a spark of the divine life-force within us and
beyond. In the Hindu tradition this is Atman, in Christianity it is Christ Conscious, in
Buddhism it is Buddha Nature, in Judaism – the Holy Spirit. Taking time daily to sit
silently and focus on our breath or a centering word can inexplicably help us feel
connected to that more significant and benevolent whole we live in.
Different apps and websites have guided meditations – some specifically for loneliness:
headspace.com, calm.com, insighttimer.com – to name a few.
I have put all these practices to work in my life and they help. The reality is we have
more that connects us than we think – even if one of those things is a common feeling
of loneliness. Good things happen when people connect – to themselves, friends and
family, and to something bigger than themselves.
- Martha Evans Morris, LCSW
- Lifework Psychotherapy, PLLC
- 37 Danbury Road
- Suite 201, office 2
- Ridgefield, CT 06877
- marthaevansmorris.com Pronouns: she/her