Experts are warning us that we are in midst of a loneliness epidemic. In fact, the U.K. has recently appointed a minister of loneliness to deal with what Prime Minister Theresa May says is a “sad reality of modern life.” Our mobile society (with people increasingly moving away from family and friends), our technologically wired culture (where people are engaging less with their real-life environment and other people in it), and the growing pressure to work more (so, in part, that people can consume more), create a kind of existential stew that contributes not only to loneliness, but also to a general loss of connectedness.
Loneliness is invading more and more people’s lives, increasing stress, depression, even affecting physical health (it’s associated with greater risk of cardiovascular disease, and research shows that it is as bad for people’s health as smoking 15 cigarettes per day). But what can a person do, given the modern-day barriers that can lead to these feelings of isolation? Perhaps it’s about building our own small communities within the larger context of society, making meaningful connections within the very situations and structures that may have contributed to our loneliness in the first place.
Loneliness can overtake people in small, quiet towns and in large, bustling cities. It can overwhelm the stay-at-home parent as well as the top executive of a major corporation. No matter where you’re living or what you’re doing, the answer is about making connections with people who care about you — and whom you care about as well. Whether you have moved away from family and friends or are feeling isolated in your own hometown, there are ways to find a new support system. Sometimes it’s as simple as joining a newcomers club or checking out groups, such as a book, food and drink, or hiking club (meetup.com lists many different categories — music, film, social, and tech are only a few examples). A friend of mine also says that she’s combated loneliness by going to the gym on a regular basis, which not only helps her physical and mental health, but also keeps her connected to a community that she’s slowly but surely created and that she fondly refers to as her “fitness family.”
Although clubs and gyms are great ways to meet and connect with people who share similar interests, sometimes loneliness stems from something larger than a general lack of community. Sometimes loneliness hits people because they feel as if no one in their lives can understand their struggles and pain. I know from personal experience that when I first experienced anxiety, I had never felt so alone. Even though I had family and friends around me, it seemed as if I were stranded on a kind of emotional desert island.
With time, I learned to use many modalities to help free my mind from the constant “what-if” thoughts (including the cathartic act of writing, replacing negative self-talk with productive statements, and studying self-help books on anxiety). Part of my healing process also involved connecting with other anxiety sufferers on Twitter. Knowing that I wasn’t alone in my struggles decreased my overall sense of isolation — and, yes, even loneliness. I have read many similar sentiments online as well. So while our technologically obsessed culture can increase alienation and loneliness, it can also have quite the opposite effect. It’s learning how to use it to your advantage by connecting to others going through similar struggles, by not only getting support — but also giving it.
Loneliness can also stem from work exhaustion. In fact, an article in the Harvard Business Review (June 29, 2017), states that close to 50% of people in the General Social Survey of 2016 said they were often or always exhausted due to work. This is a 32% increase from just 20 years ago — and it’s important to note that there’s a significant correlation between feeling lonely and work exhaustion. (This article also notes that research by Sarah Pressman at the University of California, Irvine demonstrates that loneliness reduces longevity by a whopping 70%). Given these startling statistics, it’s important to recognize if one’s feelings of ongoing loneliness are due to work burnout. And if that’s the case, then it may be time to challenge priorities and find a healthier life balance.