Loneliness is the new smoking. It's a pandemic sweeping across the world (yes, on top of the other one), making us not only more depressed but more likely to die from physical illnesses. How do we counter it? Savvy Psychologist will walk you through the science and art of (re)connecting.
If you’ve ever watched Mad Men, you might have marveled at how normal chain smoking was back in the 1950’s. Nowadays, smoking rates have gone down drastically, but there’s been a growing new epidemic that is, arguably, just as bad for our health: Loneliness.
In fact, some health researchers say that loneliness is as damaging to health as smoking 15 cigarettes per day, contributing to problems like cardiovascular disease and immune system dysfunction. And it has reached epidemic proportions, with over half of adults reporting that nobody knows them well, and almost half feeling like they’re isolated or don’t have meaningful relationships.
If you’re surprised to hear that the numbers are so high, that’s probably because nobody admits to being lonely. There’s a stigma to admitting you’re starved for company, so we often portray our lives as going great on social media even when we feel disconnected. This, ironically, fuels everybody’s sense that they’re the only one left out.
Or perhaps you’re not surprised by how common loneliness is. After more than a year of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us are feeling cut off from others. I’ve certainly heard about this from more than a few people. Interestingly, during the pandemic, the overall rate of loneliness was actually lower for American older adults than usual. They actually perceived increased social support, perhaps because their children and community were concerned about their health during the pandemic.
There’s a stigma to admitting you’re starved for company, so we often portray our lives as going great on social media even when we feel disconnected. This, ironically, fuels everybody’s sense that they’re the only one left out.
Younger adults -- millennials and Generation Z -- have been having a harder time. They’ve had about a five-fold higher risk of being lonely compared to older adults. And this loneliness leads to higher risk of mental health problems, of risk behaviours, and of negative coping strategies. Maybe that’s why there are professional services that will send you a cuddle buddy or match you with a close-by cuddler. We’re feeling so isolated that we’re desperate for human contact. (By the way, I don’t necessarily recommend Internet cuddling services, for a variety of reasons.)
But don’t worry, there’s a science to anti-loneliness, and it’s not as complicated as you think. Expanding (and then maintaining) a social circle takes work and time, but rest assured, your people are out there. Here's how to get out of our lonely bubble and (re)connect:
Tip #1: Start by reconnecting with old friends
Start with your existing but neglected social circle; it’s easier to reconnect with old friends than to start from scratch. Think about who you’ve lost touch with: An old roommate from college? A childhood friend that made you a friendship bracelet back in the day? Now that everybody has been feeling cooped up for over a year, this is a great time to write a cold email or text someone out of the blue -- no excuses needed. If they’re close by, see if they want to go for a walk together. The great outdoors will brighten anyone’s mood.
If you’re hesitant to reach out to someone you’ve drifted away from, think about it from their perspective. How would you react if they contacted you?
Tip #2: Don't be afraid of rejection
If you’re still not sure about reaching out, or tend to think that you’ll be rejected, there might be a good reason you feel this way. The lonely among us, it turns out, see the world differently. In a fascinating study, lonely and not-lonely college students watched video clips of lunchtime at college dining halls. In the scenes, there were always both positive and negative social interactions happening at any given time. The study participants might see positive interactions where someone smiles, nods, or leans into a conversation. But they also might see negative interactions, like someone turning his back.
Here’s where it gets really interesting: Researchers used eye-tracking technology to see what parts of the scenes the study participants focused on. Lonely individuals immediately fixated on the negative interactions. They picked up on signs of potential rejection right away, perhaps better to avoid it and protect themselves.
This makes sense. If you’re already feeling vulnerable, you’re naturally on guard for situations that could kick you when you’re down. Zeroing in on threat means that when you’re lonely, you see potential rejection everywhere. But here’s the thing: Lonely people anticipate rejection much more than they actually get rejected. The problem is that their expectation of rejection leads them to avoid socializing in the first place, which makes others believe they’re simply not interested. So it’s just a big ball of misunderstanding on both sides.
Tip #3: You don't have to be the life of the party
You may worry you’re lonely because you’re too quiet, too introverted, or too shy. Luckily, the opposite of loneliness is not hard-partying extroversion. You don’t have to change your personality to find your people. Nothing is wrong with you.
The only thing you probably shouldn’t do is be totally passive -- avoiding eye contact, hiding in the corner behind the houseplant, or not showing up in the first place. This sends the message that you’re not interested.
But fear not. You can be actively engaged by simply smiling, or listening attentively, asking questions, and simply being agreeable. You don’t have to be the life of the party. You don’t have to be super charming and witty and thought-provoking and hilarious. Conveniently, just as there is a wide range of personalities in the world, there is a wide range of what people like -- low-key is just as likeable as witty. So, you just have to be yourself and be truly present.
Tip #4: Keep showing up
Social psychologists have known for a long time the real secret sauce to friendship. It’s not compatibility. It’s not shared interests or values. It’s proximity. That’s right -- how physically close you live to someone is the biggest predictor of whether you’ll become friends and stay friends long-term. This phenomenon is so well-known that it has a scientific name: The Proximity Principle.
This is good news, because it means that we’re all capable, at any age, of making long-term friends. There is no sophisticated algorithm or complicated skill. We just have to show up and hang out with people a bunch. So if you volunteer, do it regularly, at the same place, same time, with the same people. Learn to salsa dance and show up to the bonus weekly practice dances. Join a Facebook group for local gardeners and keep sharing pictures, paying compliments, and offering advice for your neighbor’s tomato plants.
The real secret sauce to friendship is not compatibility, not shared interests or values. It’s proximity.
You can, of course, still do drop-in fitness classes and other one-off events where the people change constantly. But know that if it’s loneliness you want to cure, you should try to invest more time in consistency -- a ready-made group where the same people show up repeatedly is your best bet. Give it at least a couple of months before giving up, even if you feel a little awkward at first.
Tip #5: Pay it forward
Let's say you’ve gotten into the local quilting gang or taken up bonsai tree cultivation -- good for you! Now that there’s social media, everyone is just a click away from anything they might be interested in trying.
Once you’ve established yourself, try to take on a leadership role. Having a role to play is a blessing for the shy among us because it requires less social improvising. You’ll have a set of duties and a reason to connect with everyone, even if it’s just to remind them to pay their quarterly dues or encourage them to donate to the food drive. Plus, you get to pay it forward and cultivate this social haven for others.
Tip #6: Be proactive
Most of us don’t feel lonely all the time. Instead, it comes in waves. Each time loneliness flares -- a weekend with no plans, a particularly sappy 90’s rom com, with a bowl of popcorn for one -- use it as a cue to plan for the future. Whenever you feel lonesome, take action: Email a friend to meet up for a run next weekend or look at the schedule for that book group you’ve been meaning to join. It won’t make company appear in the moment, but you’ll have created something social to look forward to.
Now that things are opening back up with the easing of the COVID-19 pandemic, isn't it time for the other pandemic of loneliness to ease up, too? With people excited to come out of the coop, it’s a better time than ever to start laying the groundwork for your comeback. Be patient. It’s not always easy or fun to get through the first part of getting the ball rolling, but soon you’ll be feeling more connected, and better yet, helping others to feel more connected, too.