In a time when we are more connected than ever before, it is hard to understand why so many of us are experiencing chronic loneliness. Through social media, email and messaging apps, barely a waking hour goes by when we don’t reach out and touch someone. Why is it then, that we feel more isolated and alone than at any other stage in our history?
Recent studies have shown that up to 50% of adults report feeling lonely sometimes or always. When asked the question “how many people truly know you?” many respond with “no-one.”
Researchers, such as Johann Hari and Brene Brown, to name but two, have clearly shown the link between social isolation and depression, anxiety and even addiction. In Brene’s words, “we are hard wired for connection.” What is it then that is stopping us from forming and maintaining the types of connections we so desperately need?
Doped on Dopamine:
We have all heard of the hormone dopamine. Dopamine is often associated with pleasure, however, it is more closely related to the reward center in the brain. Every time we hear that ping announcing the arrival of a new email, or signifying a “like” has been achieved, our brains receive a little shot of the drug. It lets us know that something good just happened. It encourages us to try to do it again.
We chase these little rewards throughout the day. Often to the extent that we ignore the real, human connections in our lives. We sacrifice our most sacred relationships to answer the Siren call of our tiny devices. When we hear the beep, we feel like we have won a prize. We instantly abandon whatever else is going on to attend to it. Even though, we know on a rational level that it is most likely spam. Of all the hundreds of thousands of emails I have received in my life, exactly none of them have been telling me I have won a prize.
A simple way to mitigate this is to simply go through your apps and disable all non critical notifications. Every single one of them is constantly vying for your attention, so cut them off at the pass.
Set rules for yourself. No phones in bed is a good place to start. Some of the most important conversations I have had with my husband have been just before we go to sleep at night. Sometimes these are about serious topics, but equally important are the silly moments. The ones when you nearly choke because you are laughing so hard, but can’t remember what was so funny. These are the moments of real connection. They seldom take place with a smart phone in hand.
Another unfortunate side effect of living in the digital age is our compulsion to compete. Anything you can do, I can do better. As I write this, it is Pancake Tuesday in Ireland. The day before Lent begins. Originally it was Shrove Tuesday, the last day of feasting and getting rid of luxuries from the home, before 40 days and nights of fasting. Now, however, it is national day of showing the world how big and impressive your stacks are.
There are a couple of things that amuse me about this. (That’s not to say I haven’t done the same myself, I have) Firstly, pancakes need to be served hot. Any time you spend faffing around with lighting and filters, will only serve to detract from the overall pancake experience.
Secondly, Pancake Tuesday is such an institution that it can be assumed you have had pancakes, even if you don’t tell me. I don’t need you to tell me you have brushed your teeth this morning either, I will just give you the benefit of the doubt.
Lastly, does anyone really care?
This is a simple example but I hope it illustrates my point. We are spending an inordinate amount of time highlighting how amazing our lives are, instead of just living them. We seem determined to elicit envy from our “friends” at every opportunity. It’s hardly surprising that in doing so we alienate people and create even more loneliness.
So, the next time you want to show someone how awesome your pancakes are, why don’t you invite them around to try some?
Yes, no and maybe:
I have spoken at length, both on the blog and on the podcast, about how important it is to be able to say no. We are so overwhelmed with tasks and responsibilities that we barely have time to draw breath. It’s vital for our well being that we know when to draw the line, or we risk stress, overload and eventual burn out.
However, I fear we are saying no to the wrong things. We do it automatically without considering the consequences. Studies have shown that people will only extend an invitation to you seven times. If you refuse the seventh invitation, they will be unlikely to ask you again. Let’s face it, nobody is going to keep on putting their hands out to be slapped.
This could be your friends inviting you on a night out, or your colleagues asking you to join them for lunch. The next time it comes up, before you refuse, ask yourself how you would feel if you weren’t invited.
Most of us have probably experienced the feeling of being left out. I know I certainly have, and it’s awful. If this is a situation you want to avoid, try to ensure you don’t unintentionally create it. Make a habit of at least occasionally saying yes!
The road goes both ways:
I am someone who tries very hard to keep in touch with the people who are important to me. I make an effort to send a message, suggest an event and generally reach out, especially when I am aware that it has maybe been a while.
Occasionally though, I find myself thinking that perhaps I am not being met half way. I start feeling like I am doing all the running. When this happens, I have two choices. I can either continue to make the effort with that person, or I can disengage and see what happens.
What I decide to do will depend a lot on the person and on the situation. If they have a lot going on in their life, or if they mean a lot to me, I can usually let it go. But if I find myself feeling resentful of the un-reciprocated effort, it can be difficult to maintain the relationship.
If you have a person in your life and you are aware that they usually initiate contact, try to buck that trend. Take action straight away. When you find yourself thinking about the person, reach out. If some one is important to you, don’t allow them to drift out of your life from sheer neglect.
I don’t claim to be an expert on avoiding loneliness. But I am someone who has both experienced and researched it. As the planet prepares to reach a population of 10 billion, is is astounding to me that we can still feel utterly alone in the world. Be well, together xxx