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Deadly loneliness

Last week's post An AI friend? Or a wake-up call? was the most viewed blog post I've ever written. I don't know if it's because it involved the hot topic of AI or because it was about the possibility of a safe, always-available, non-judgmental friend.

The latter is the more imminent critical issue for each of our lives. Google Assistant can't even tell me what time it would be in Atlanta for a Zoom with my coach after Daylight Saving ends - AI is not about to take over the world any time soon! (My AI-obsessed husband agrees.)

I mentioned last week that in the UK they have a Minister for Loneliness. This is because the developed world is suffering endemic loneliness. This was true even before COVID-19 came along and lockdowns make it worse. It is especially true for those of us living alone, or who haven't established good social networks nearby.

In her recent book The Lonely Century Noreena Hertz reveals:

The research shows that loneliness is worse for our health than not exercising, as harmful as being an alcoholic and twice as harmful as being obese. Statistically, loneliness is equivalent to smoking fifteen cigarettes a day.

Connection with others - being seen, understood and cared about, is a fundamental human need. We are social creatures. It's in our DNA.

So it's not surprising that loneliness is a associated with clinical depression, suicidal thoughts and behaviours, hostility and sleep disturbances. It's also really bad news for our general health - our cardiovascular, endocrine and immune systems. It's a serious issue!

What makes this worse is that we often feel ashamed for feeling lonely, so we keep it to ourselves. We start evaluating ourselves and others more negatively and find ourselves in a downwards spiral. Perhaps some of the following scenarios resonate....

  • It doesn't matter how many dinners, coffees, parties, drinks sessions or lunches you attend, you always feel like connection with people is fleeting. You try to keep your social diary full, but as soon as you part company, you feel lonely again. Empty. You don't exactly love time on your own. Time alone with nothing to do is very uncomfortable.

  • You have plenty of people in your life, but it always seems so 'surface'. You don't really feel like you connect. You can feel lonely even when you're with people. You tell your stories, they tell theirs, but it's like you're inside a bubble. You're just entertaining each other, being 'sociable', but not really conecting.

  • You just don't have enough friendship in your life. If you didn't organise to see people, you could go for weeks or months without company. You have a sense that gravity is pulling you towards isolation.

In essence, for whatever reason, you don't feel embedded in a supportive social fabric.

There are many wonderful things about our modern world, but with them have come isolation and loneliness, even around other people. Our social networks can be far flung geographically. Social media might help us keep up with what's happening in their lives, but it's no substitute for being IN their lives.

Even the friends who are in our lives can be so busy that we never have enough time to talk about the things that are troubling us. We can count our 'good friends' on one hand...or maybe we're not even sure we have any.

We can also feel a pressure to be positive all the time, to ride over the top of feelings of loneliness. Admitting to loneliness can feel like it will make matters worse! Who wants to be friends with a lonely person? There must be something wrong with me if I don't have enough friendship in my life!

The Nine Elements of a flourishing life

Being lonely doesn't mean you're faulty. There might be some choices you've made that contribute to it, but our modern way of life predisposes us to it.

The needs to connect and belong are serious. They are right up there after air, water, shelter and food. It's how our species survived in a world where we weren't the fastest or the strongest. It's a natural human thing to feel at risk if we are not connected. Owning this need without shame, taking responsibility for meeting it, and becoming a good friend yourself are essential ingredients on the path to salving loneliness.

You don't need the perfect partner, or the perfect personality, body, car, job, income, sense of humour, or anything else in order to be deeply and genuinely connected with others. In fact it's sharing the messy experience of humanity that builds strong friendship. This is a very important part of flourishing in your life.

But you DO need to take seriously the issue of loneliness if it's affecting you. If your body was suffering from malnutrition, you'd take action to improve your diet. If you're suffering from loneliness, your wellbeing is at risk. We need social connection just like we need protein, carbohydrate and fat.

So get out there and put yourself in the way of possible friendships. Treat friendship as a verb - be a good friend to people. Say yes to invitations without being too picky. Get involved. Accept that it's a numbers game - make lots of offers to connect, knowing that many will go nowhere. Initiate contact with people you love but aren't regularly in your life. Create some regular catch ups with people so that by default your life contains relationship.

The need for Connection is a critical element of a fulfilling life. Ignore it or downplay it at your peril.

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