“We build too many walls but not enough bridges” – Isaac Newton
In this age of technological advancement and hyper connectivity, it seems as though the world is at our fingertips. A baby is born to a friend in Paris. Minutes later, we can watch the newborn gurgling on our phone screen in Singapore. A sister in New York is undecided about which dress to buy. A continent away, we can follow her to the changing room and help her choose. A nephew in London walks up to collect his well earned graduation degree. Miles away, with pride we can witness this honourable moment, in real time. In India, our mum struggles with the numerous buttons in her new washing machine. From our iPad screen, we can instantly help her to figure it out. A friend is heartbroken in Sydney. We can still comfort her from a million miles away. All of the above scenarios are possible without even budging from our sofa! We can be everywhere, all at once, thanks to our miracle devices. We can now effortlessly reach out to almost anyone, in any part of the world. Who would’ve ever thought that any of these marvels of modern technology would be possible even a mere decade ago?
Communication has never been more accessible. It has become fast, easy, efficient, instantaneous and literally costs us nothing more than – our time. Yet, time can be in short supply. Living in this most connected era in the history of mankind, it is shocking that loneliness has reached epidemic proportions. Paradoxically, as the world is becoming smaller, we are growing more distant.
The improvements in modern technology has been a double edged sword for human connection. On the one hand, whilst we are now connected to the remotest parts of the earth, simultaneously our need for real, face to face connection has reduced and been replaced with the quick convenience of the online world. Our opportunities for good old fashioned human interactions such as talking to a neighbour over the fence, bumping into someone at the local library, cinema or in the gym have greatly diminished as these daily activities are now available online in the form of instant messages, Netflix, online reading, work out apps etc. There is no necessity to leave the comfort of our home for recreation or social interaction. From everyday tasks such as shopping and banking online, to even friendships and relationships are now formed and maintained in the cyber world. Want to play a game? Go online. Buy new shoes? Shop online. Talk to your child’s teacher? Chat online. Eat out? Click on the food delivery app. Find love? You guessed it..go on Tinder.
As our cities have grown, transport networks have improved, communication has become easier, people now have greater access to the outside world and have thus moved further away from their communities in search of better opportunities and brighter futures. Our societies have become more individualistic, our communities are less cohesive, we have less time and this has overall impacted our social interactions. We see less people and less frequently than ever before, even though deep within, our biological needs for connection remains unchanged. Hence we feel conflicted, unfulfilled and lonely.
Like hunger, loneliness is a bodily need. It is intrinsically tied to our urge to form social connections – to belong, to feel loved and to be understood. Research has shown that loneliness is as harmful as smoking cigarettes or even obesity. It has a detrimental effect on both the physical and mental health. Studies indicate that loneliness causes stress, which produces higher levels of cortisol in the body, which in turn can damage the immune system, lead to other health related issues such as heart disease, can impact our mental health, cause depression and dementia, and sadly can even be a predictor of early death.
Loneliness can hit anyone, at any age – both old and young. Think of the forlorn child sitting alone during lunchtime, or the elderly man on his armchair gazing outside his window or Bridget Jones eating a TV dinner by herself. They are all lonely. Loneliness can be triggered by any major life event that involves change. Be it a divorce, a bereavement, a retirement or even a new job, a new move or the birth of a baby. Strange as it may sound, loneliness can exist in both negative and positive circumstances. New mums welcoming in a new baby into their lives can feel just as lonely and isolated as an empty nester whose children have left home. The expat who has moved to a new city for an exciting job opportunity can be as lonely as someone who has recently lost a loved one. These feelings of loneliness can be brought upon by a myriad of reasons. It could be generated by not having adequate social interactions thereby resulting in feelings of isolation or equally by not being surrounded with people that one can relate to. This sense of disconnectedness can be accelerated by not feeling supported, or cared for, or understood. It is the lack of a sense of belonging, bereft of meaningful relationships, where one is unable to share one’s joys or sorrows with someone, which causes loneliness. It boils down to our biological need for seeking validation and protection and the security that arises from being accepted.
Social skills do not erode away loneliness, neither does money, power, wealth or success. Likewise, social media popularity and an ever growing “friends list” cannot make one immune from loneliness. In other words, we don’t have to be alone to feel lonely. Contrary to that, we could feel lonely even in a crowd. Loneliness is an individual experience and is deeply subjective. If we “feel” lonely, the chances are, that we are lonely.
In that respect, Loneliness and solitude are not to be confused. Whilst loneliness is the pain of being alone, solitude on the other hand is the joy of being by oneself. Solitude is a state of mind where one is at complete peace and harmony with his own company, is self aware and content. Whereas, Loneliness is when one seeks company and craves for someone to relate to. Loneliness is damaging, whereas solitude is empowering. Solitude is a choice, but loneliness is not.
We can become trapped in a vicious cycle of loneliness. Our brains can go into a defensive zone where we feel vulnerable and victimised. To counter that we go into a self preservation mode, whereby we perceive hostility in others and become mistrustful of their intentions. In our depressed and sad state of mind, we may read too much in between the lines and are at risk of misinterpreting our social interactions. Our judgement and objectivity can get hampered and the world can then seem to be a reflection of our own bitter attitudes and perceptions. As Henry David Thoreau rightly quoted “It’s not what you look at that matters. It’s what you see.’ Sadly, in this instance, we can end up seeing the worst in others and questioning their intentions towards us. As we wrongly detect hostility, we become even more negative, bitter, cold, unfriendly and uncommunicative ourselves. Unconsciously, it becomes our protective sheath. Due to our negative perceptions, we may start altogether avoiding social interactions and declining invitations until they too trickle to a stop. We may end up shooing people away from us, thereby leading to further isolation and compounding our loneliness problem.
But, there is hope. Accepting the problem, is part of the solution. Acknowledging that feeling lonely is a normal part of our emotions, just as other negative feelings of fear, anger, sadness or dejection. There is no stigma attached to it and getting down to the root of the issue can help. It is an opportunity to self examine and introspect. How about giving others the benefit of doubt? Putting ourselves in their shoes and try to understand where they’re coming from? Try to understand their story, their situation and their challenges. We can often get consumed by our own self centred approach and thus lose sight of what others are going through. Self analysis and introspection as well as looking at things from a broader perspective can help to shift our own perceptions and behaviour patterns.
So, anytime you feel desolate and lonely, try these effective strategies and see if it helps to tackle loneliness. Remember, you are not alone.
Reach out. Pick up the phone and make the call, ring on the doorbell. Make the first move and make yourself heard. Put your ego and defence mechanism aside. You may realise that sometimes the people around you are caught up in the fast pace of life, have their own struggles and are not consciously trying to make you feel left out. Give them the benefit of doubt and open up your communication channels. Talk. It helps to resolve issues.
Make time for others. Make them feel valued and respected too. Pause, listen and respond. When someone is trying to reach you, return the phone call. Listen to them and be attentive to their thoughts. You don’t want to be the cause for someone else’s loneliness.
Invest in meaningful relationships. Relationships are not just in name. Like plants, relationships need to be harvested. They cannot magically blossom on their own. Therefore, nurture your relationships with love, compassion, understanding, patience, open communication and time. Don’t take it for granted. Remember, as you sow, so shall you reap.
Join a community group. Social interaction is medicinal. Join a bridge club or a senior citizens group, a reading club or expat wives group or mother and toddler group. Being around people that you can easily relate to can work miracles. It helps to know that others face similar challenges and being in the same boat makes us more empathetic. For instance it can be a life saver for a new mum to know that some other mums are also dealing with similar sleep deprivation or temper tantrums issues or even post natal depression. Your own situation seems less daunting, more real and perhaps even more acceptable. Sharing tips and suggestions can help you to overcome the difficulties, together. Simultaneously, comforting others makes your own problems seem smaller. It puts things into perspective.
Pursue a hobby. Be it a yoga group, cookery club, book club or gardening. This is your opportunity to learn a new skill, sharpen your existing skills, feel active, alive and engaged. It can boost your mental health with positivity and joy. It can serve as an opportunity to meet like minded people and to connect.
Volunteer and do your bit for the world. There’s nothing more meaningful and satisfying as making someone else’s day better. Delve into your own strengths and offer whatever skills you may have. You could volunteer in a charity shop, or read to the elderly or work in a soup kitchen or simply spend time with others. Volunteering can give you a sense of purpose, a new direction and be deeply rewarding in terms of personal fulfilment.
Ditch the phone for a change, and have face to face interactions instead. Psychologists stress about the importance of real social encounters versus connecting via a screen. According to them, when we meet someone in person, our gestures and emotions are mirrored in each other, a bio chemistry and a neural firing is involved which is a crucial part of forming lasting bonds and meaningful relationships. Connecting online, we can miss out on the non verbal communication cues such as the subtle gestures, the body language, the emotional responses and reactions. Moreover our online personas can be quite different from the real us. Relationships which are formed on such platforms can often be short lived, leading to feelings of disconnectedness and loneliness.
And finally, seek professional help. You don’t have to tackle loneliness on your own. Remember that help is at hand and that Loneliness is a problem with a solution. You were not meant to be alone, nor do you really have to struggle with being alone.
Let’s build those bridges.