The Loneliness Problem (and How to Counteract It)
Loneliness is a silent epidemic that is all around us. A recent survey found that 2 out of 5 Americans feel isolated from others and that their relationships aren’t meaningful. What’s worse, 50 percent don’t have meaningful in-person social interactions on a daily basis.
It’s not just a problem in the United States. In the UK, more than 9 million adults say they often or always feel lonely. The UK even has a minister for loneliness, whose job is to raise awareness of the issue and help people build connections through joint efforts from health services, businesses, local governments, charities, and community groups.
Loneliness damages our health. The Harvard Study of Adult Development has tracked hundreds of men and their families for the last 80 years to determine what leads to health and well‑being. In this TED talk, the director of the study, Robert Waldinger, states that “the experience of loneliness turns out to be toxic. People who are more isolated than they want to be from others find that they are less happy, their health declines earlier in midlife, their brain functioning declines sooner, and they live shorter lives than people who are not lonely.”
Now, let’s talk about how to fight loneliness through social connection. What challenges stand in the way of cultivating great relationships? And how can we deal with those challenges?
How to Counteract Loneliness
The answer to the loneliness problem is social connection. But it’s not just the amount of social connection that matters. After all, you can be married and lonely. You can be constantly surrounded by people and lonely.
The nature of your connections determines whether you feel lonely or meaningfully connected to others. According to Waldinger, the quality of your close relationships is more important than the number of friends you have or whether you’re in a committed relationship. When you have high-quality relationships, you feel like you can count on others in hard times, and these types of close relationships protect us physically and mentally as we get older.
Why It’s Hard to Cultivate Great Relationships
If the solution is as simple as building quality relationships, why is loneliness so prevalent in modern society?
For one thing, our environments aren’t set up to naturally foster relationship building. Thousands of years ago, communities consisted of small hunter-gatherer tribes of a few dozen people. The agricultural and industrial revolutions and recent technological advancements led to larger and denser communities and increased connection between people around the world. Improvements in transportation and communication have broken down the barriers between cities and countries, which has made it easier for people to move and change jobs. For instance, people in the United States move about 11 times throughout their lives. These major life changes splinter our social groups and force us to make connections with new groups of people.
On top of the increase in movement, in-person interactions are being replaced by digital interactions. This can be seen by the rise of telecommuting, which increased by 115 percent in the United States from 2005 to 2015. The internet has enabled us to find and connect with new global tribes that are based on shared goals and interests rather than proximity.
We’re more connected than ever, but these new connections are often weaker, shallower, and less meaningful. Local tight-knit communities and social institutions are being replaced by larger groups that are more loosely connected.
In addition to the technological changes that have created new challenges for social connection, we’re all busy. We’re trying to get ahead at work. We’re trying to squeeze in a workout before dinner. Then, we have kids or chores to take care of at home. There’s also that never-ending to-do list.
In the midst of all these responsibilities, it’s easy to lose touch with friends and put off quality time with family. Working on your relationships never seems urgent. You see that missed call and tell yourself, “I’ll call tomorrow. I just want to relax and watch TV tonight.”
So, how can you cut through the noise and prioritize your most important relationships?
How to Put Relationships First
“As we develop new beliefs about who we are, our behavior will change to support the new identity.” —Tony Robbins
We behave consistently with our identities. Your identity is the compass that guides your day-to-day behaviors. Changing your results starts by changing your identity.
Prioritizing relationships starts by becoming the type of person who puts relationships first. When faced with a tough decision, ask yourself, “What would someone who prioritizes relationships do in this situation?”
That person would choose date night over putting in more time at work. That person would seek out a community of like-minded people when she feels alone in a new city. In other instances, that person would ask for help so he can face the fears and anxieties he has about relationships.
Another way to become the type of person who prioritizes relationships is to fake it till you make it. Start acting as if you are that type of person (fake it). As you make more decisions that put relationships first, you’ll see evidence that you are that type of person. You will feel more like someone who prioritizes the people in his life, which will lead to you effortlessly acting like that type of person.
How to Follow Through on a Daily Basis
When you set out to get a promotion or lose 10 pounds, you put plans in place to get there. You also follow through with consistent action. Your actions reveal your priorities.
Your habits tell you where you’re going. In his book, Atomic Habits, James Clear writes, “Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement.” When you zoom out, you can see the meaningful progress from the daily actions that have stacked up over time.
So, what are the things you can do on a regular basis to improve your relationships? The list is endless, but here are a few ideas:
It’s not just about you. Focus on other people by celebrating their successes, being interested in their lives and hobbies, and trying to understand them better.
It’s easy to show up during the worst and best times. However, most of life happens in the middle. Show up in between the ups and downs. Show up in real life (not just digital life).
Open up. Share your deepest fears and hopes. Be vulnerable. This builds quality, substance, and connection in your relationships.
Create your support system. In The Blue Zones: 9 Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest, Dan Buettner highlights the Moai in Okinawa, a group of lifelong friends who support each other through the ups and downs of life. It started as a financial support system in villages but has evolved over time to become a social support system, where members are always there for each other.
Cultivating and nurturing relationships is an ongoing process. Great relationships don’t happen by accident. They’re built one interaction at a time.
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