About one in five people describe themselves as lonely. That means they persistently feel some degree of isolation – a significant theme in our working environments today. Many feel lonely even when they are in a committed relationship. Others who are not in a committed relationship do not feel lonely at all. Why the disparities? How does this relate to you?
The reality is, most of us feel lonely at times. That’s normal. Being alone is not the same as feeling lonely because some people cherish the time they have alone – at least for a while. Loneliness is more about not feeling connected to others.
Humans are social animals which means their need for connection is in our DNA. Yes, some have a stronger need than others. For instance, I am much more social than my wife, who would appear on the surface to want more engagement. So, what do you need from others?
At its most basic level, our need for connection is a protective instinct. It’s from our caveman/cavewoman heritage. We are constantly and unconsciously scanning, looking for people who will support us when we need them in a dangerous situation. We want people who will not reject us from the connection to the community – it’s a survival instinct.
This instinct places the responsibility on us to give the same support to others. It requires caring, forgiveness and support, but also recognizing the benefits of mutual connection. It’s about having a shared context. That means to avoid loneliness, you need to determine some level of shared interest, goal or community and maintain it.
We have a shared connection with people who we regularly say hello to every day. If we share information about our family or interests regularly, the relationship is a little deeper. When you expand that to working or playing together, loneliness reduces even more. Long-term relationships of interdependence drive the connection much deeper.
This came home to me in painful clarity late last year. This situation initially really terrified me, but it also taught me a great deal.
My wife was briskly walking down the street one afternoon in a strange city, trying to get in some exercise, when an unkempt man walked up to her. Her immediate and unfair guess was he was going to hit her up for money or harass her in some way.
Instead of money, he said, “I don’t want money. I just need to talk to someone. I haven’t talked to anyone since yesterday morning and I just need to talk.” With that context, and because she saw his true need for connection, she believed he did not represent a threat. They had a pleasant and eye-opening conversation on his experience for a couple of blocks. When she got to the hotel, they both went on their way.
As you can imagine, when my wife told me about it, I had a variety of reactions! But I also got a painful taste of the reality of someone feeling that lonely and invisible. I realized how blessed I am to be able to talk to great people all the time.
I have had many lonely days in my life. Fortunately, they are fewer today than in the past. It was only when I could be more comfortable with myself that I became less lonely.
Helping Others to Help Yourself
This all reminded me of what I realized about myself as a kid. When I felt sad or depressed in those days, one of the best things I could do was to find a way to help someone else. It always made me feel better to help someone else. It turns out that that is a very powerful approach to feeling less lonely.
For example, a group in California is actively recruiting retired people to help in schools, to just be there. They are often referred to as “Grandma” or “Grandpa”. It has been extremely helpful for the students and the volunteers to build a community. The volunteers also expanded the community to build peer relationships with the teachers. It has been very successful for all of them, for different reasons.
Simple connections like this matter. It doesn’t take much. If you have not talked to a friend or relative for a while, give them a call … you and they will likely feel better. Make more effort to positively greet others in a store or at work can make life much more positive. It meets a basic need for us and them.
Here’s a basic need you can fill for others whether you are remote or in-person – realize the contagious nature of your smile. When coaching a client, I told him to smile more. He thought it was a strange suggestion. I recommended he try it for a week and call me. He started at the airport bookstore by smiling at the clerk and was amazed at how much better life went for him the rest of that trip and the rest of the week.
When we talked later, he was shocked that something so simple could be so positive … and it was free (the smile – not the coaching). 🙂 Reaching out to others in these types of small ways, like just a smile, can help you feel less lonely. The bottom line – the more you can articulate or show your care about others, the more likely they can demonstrate their care about you and their connection with you.
I find it helpful to think about some quotes about loneliness and how to overcome it – they can really give you a perspective that you’re not in it alone:
- If you are afraid of being lonely don’t try to be right. – Jules Renard
- The most terrible poverty is loneliness and the feeling of being unloved. – Mother Theresa
- When you have nobody you can make a cup of tea for, when nobody needs you, that’s when I think life is over. – Audrey Hepburn
- I felt a haunting loneliness sometimes and felt it in others – young clerks in the dusk wasting the most poignant moments of night and life. – F. Scott Fitzgerald
- Loneliness is the poverty of self; solitude is the richness of self. – May Sarton
Finally, remember what I always used to tell my staff in the early, lonely days of Change Masters – “The power that fear (or loneliness!) has is that it feels like it will last forever. It never does.”