Happiness Habit #6: Relationship and Connection
Loneliness is an epidemic in this country. A recent survey by Cigna of 20,000 U.S. adults ages 18 years and older revealed:
· 46% of Americans report sometimes or always feeling alone or left out (47%).
· 27% rarely or never feel as though there are people who really understand them.
· 43% Americans sometimes or always feel that their relationships are not meaningful and that they are isolated from others (43 percent).
· 20% report they rarely or never feel close to people or feel like there are people they can talk to.
· Only around half of Americans - 53% - have meaningful in-person social interactions, such as having an extended conversation with a friend or spending quality time with family, on a daily basis.
· Generation Z (adults ages 18-22) is the loneliest generation and claims to be in worse health than older generations.
· Social media use alone is not a predictor of loneliness.
Persistent loneliness can be harmful to our health and is linked to increase in cardiovascular problems, premature death, less quality sleep, reduction in creativity and reason, and decreases workplace productivity. It is linked to anxiety, depression, suicidality, compulsive technology use, smoking and self-harm. Cigna reports that loneliness has the same impact on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, making it even more dangerous than obesity.
Humans are hard-wired for connection and belonging. This is essential to our well-being and according to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, it ranks just above our basic physical needs in terms of importance. We can’t achieve our full potential unless we have this established.
Obviously, it is ironic that in our age of technology where “connection” is a swipe or a tap away, we are lonelier than ever. What gives?
It is important to establish that feeling lonely is different than being alone. We can be surrounded by many people and feel lonely. We can even feel lonely within our marriage and romantic relationships. Some people need alone time to recharge and we all have different levels of social interaction need. But regardless if that level is low or high, the social interactions we do have need to go beyond surface level. Loneliness is related to the level of emotional intimacy we feel with others.
People have stopped developing deeper friendships and building emotional intimacy with others. Culturally, we have moved away from living in smaller communities and groups to focusing more on independence. We share neighborhood space with many people and hardly interact with them. Everyone is very protective of their lives and has walls up. Technology and social media are culprits, though we can’t blame the entire problem on technology. People are posting the happy, filtered versions of their life leading to a) their own sense of isolation due to others not knowing what is actually happening in their life and b) falling into comparison traps with others’ highlight reels and curated life. This leads to maladaptive thought patterns that everyone else has a “perfect” life and they must have that, too, or what they do have is not good enough. People are losing the fine art of communication, whether that is on the phone or in person. It takes practice to refine our ability to read nonverbal cues, to practice starting a conversation, to endure awkward moments and lulls in conversation, and to understand the dance of building intimacy and trust with another. When these skills aren’t developed or practiced, then our tendency is to want to avoid it because it brings about anxiety or uncomfortableness, which then fuels the loneliness.
How do we start to combat this epidemic?
1. Monitor the time you spend on social media daily.
Social media can provide a sense of connection, but only if used in moderate amounts and if it is followed up with spending time together in person. It is no secret that longer periods of time on social media are corrected with increase in depression and anxiety. Monitor the time you spend on social media daily and develop a healthier relationship with it. One study found that individuals who logged in for a half an hour per day felt less lonely compared to individuals who logged on for more than two hours daily. Further, participants who logged in nine times weekly felt less isolated when compared to respondents who checked over 50 times per week.
2. Increase the amount of human interaction you have daily or weekly.
Join groups based on shared interests: book clubs, meetups, outdoor clubs, running clubs, yoga groups, religious or spiritual groups, volunteering, classes, pet-based activities, etc. Start your own group and invite others to join. Knock on your neighbor’s door and say, “Hey, how’s it going?” Host a game night with your friends or neighbors. Host a movie night. Start a dinner club or join one. The possibilities are endless.
3. Practice vulnerability.
It takes being real and honest about our lives with others to feel that sense of connectedness. That we are not in this alone, that what we are experiencing is normal, and that we have support from others along the ride. Your closest and most trusted friends should know about the challenges (and positives) that you experience in your romantic relationships, in your parenting experiences, and your family dynamics. We have to lower the shield of perfection or the desire for others to think we have it all together less they figure out who we “really are.” Nobodyis perfect. This state does not exist. No one has it all together and we are all just doing the best we can. By not sharing our real lives with our friends, we increasingly turn to our romantic partners to be our best friends in addition to all the other roles they fill. This puts more pressure and strain on that relationship, which in turn, can increase disconnection. We need to have friendships outside of our romantic relationships because it is unrealistic to expect one person is going to fulfill all of our needs and that we can do the same for someone else.
4. Go to therapy.
Therapy is a great place to practice all the skills mentioned above. You will slowly build rapport and trust with a person. You will learn to be vulnerable and share the challenges you are experiencing in a confidential and non-judgmental environment. You will learn to navigate conversation, to endure short periods of silence or awkward pauses and both of you figuring out where to go next. Your therapist will normalize many experiences you have because we see many of the same themes among our clients daily. And, we experience the same challenges and stressors of daily life and our doing our best to live healthy lives. Just because it looks to you like we “have it all together” doesn’t mean we don’t struggle with motivation, with relationship challenges, parenting challenges, and balancing all the demands of life. Your therapist will work with you on building those intimate relationships outside of the therapy room so you can establish that sense of connection and belonging in your world. And the therapeutic space can serve as a place of connection and belonging when you already do have friendships and romantic relationships, but are feeling lonely and disconnected within those. You can also work on maladaptive thought patterns that are increasing loneliness and preventing connection. You might even go one step further and join a group therapy based on a particular issue you’re struggling with so you can actually see and relate to others that are experiencing the same thing.
5. Practice the Wellness Habits and limit alcohol and drug use.
At the end of the day, we all want and need connection. Let’s all work against these myths that other people want to be left alone and not bothered, that others are perfect and we need to be, that we can’t be exposed as frauds and take the initiative to start up conversation here, there, and everywhere!