People need people. That’s not a platitude, it’s a scientific fact.
Without regular interaction with other people, the resulting loneliness poses a threat to our physical health. Statistically, feeling lonely is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. And then there is the fact that loneliness plays a major role in suicides.
According to a recent Boston Globe article by Harvard University faculty members Michelle Williams and Jeremy Nobel, more than one-third of American adults suffer from loneliness. It can affect anyone at any age, but certain groups have a higher incidence of loneliness, including those who have experienced the loss of a loved one, those suffering from a major illness, the elderly, veterans, high school students, college freshmen, minorities and immigrants.
It is useful to reflect on what modern psychological research tells us about human behavior. We need others to feel whole. We can’t do it ourselves, no matter how capable or successful we might be. This is a fundamental truth for humans. In psychology, Attachment Theory demonstrates scientifically our need for being attached to a person or group. It’s not an option, it’s an ancient survival strategy for our species.
Contrary to what you might expect, research shows that social media and internet use generally makes feelings of loneliness even worse. Loneliness is linked to depression, anxiety and despair.
Connecting to people in a healthy way means actually looking in their eyes and talking with them face-to-face. Touching, as in a welcoming handshake, kiss or hug, enhances the experience. Loneliness generally affects single people, but it can also affect those in a relationship that’s not working.
I could go on and on about how loneliness and its associated effects can be devastating, even driving some to suicide. But let’s turn to what to do about it.
Break the painful sense of isolation
As a starting point, it’s important to know that if you’re lonely, it’s not your fault. It’s very easy and common for those suffering from loneliness to find a way to blame themselves for their dilemma. That’s a double whammy. There can be all kinds of reasons why someone is lonely, but focusing on trying something new can be more productive.
Next, find and make time for at least one new activity that involves other people. It could be anything that feels interesting or safe. Look for something that interests you, such as lessons offered at your local community or senior center. Look for book discussion groups at the library and volunteer opportunities at local nonprofit organizations. Check out the activity listings in this newspaper, organize a potluck with your neighbors or take a walk in your local park at the same time each day. Consider joining a church or social club, try a new sport or activity or become a regular at a local restaurant. Local universities and community colleges offer vibrant continuing education programs.
You may be surprised to find that others also feel lonely. Many Los Altos residents grew up somewhere else and find the distance from family and friends to be challenging. Take a chance, reach out to someone else and see what happens. It’s not just good for your mood, it’s also good for your longevity.
Remember, all of us need and benefit from connecting with others, so chances are good that others will be open to making new friends.
Nancy Andersen, licensed marriage and family therapist, provides counseling for couples and individuals in her Loyola Corners office. For more information, call 833-9574 or visit nancyandersenmft.com.