Your life is full of things you count on.
Your favorite coffee shop. Your daily workout. Your check-in with a friend.
What if all those things were taken away?
What if you were stuck with no one but yourself and your thoughts for a week, two weeks, maybe even longer?
Could you survive?
How would you be changed?
People are Distractions
I’ve always admired folks who went on week-long silent retreats, or withdrew to an isolated cabin in the wilderness to work on creative projects.
The discipline it takes to voluntarily remove yourself from the world and its distractions is impressive.
Personally, I like modern conveniences. I like to be able to go grocery shopping whenever I want. I like gyms and coffee shops and libraries.
But I also know that I spend my days in a constant state of distraction.
I’m conscious of the world outside. I hate staying home to work when everyone else is playing. There’s so much I’m missing out on.
So I hop on social media, or check the news. Something to feel connected to the rest of humanity.
I don’t want too much time alone with myself. I want to be part of the world around me. It keeps me sane.
We Need People
That impulse to connect is buried deep inside every single one of us.
We’re tribal creatures. We feel safest in community. We need to belong.
Having a strong sense of belonging improves our mental and physical health. It reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease. We’re less like to overeat or abuse alcohol.
But when we’re isolated, even when it’s by choice, we suffer.
We’re more likely to experience depression, anxiety, even cognitive decline.
We’re at greater risk of chronic pain and fatigue.
Loneliness is a mortality risk on a par with smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
It doesn’t matter whether you live with other people or not. Feeling alone is just as harmful to your health as social isolation.
Unfortunately, as more of us work from home, live on our own, or move to places where we don’t have social ties, we find that digital community is all the community we’ve got.
We don’t have friends to hang out with, but we’ve got friends on Facebook.
We don’t have anything fun going on in the real world, but there’s always something happening online.
Can we survive in our apartments, by ourselves, without talking to anyone, as long as we’ve got our digital devices to keep us connected to the outside world?
Loneliness is an Epidemic
Lots of things keep us home alone.
Maybe we lost a loved one and lost the heart to socialize.
Maybe we developed health issues and couldn’t get out as easily.
Maybe we didn’t have the money to spend on going out.
Maybe we couldn’t kick a low mood and felt like bad company.
The numbers say it all:
- More than a third of adults over the age of 45 feel lonely.
- One in four of us has no close confidants. (Another 1 in 5 only has one confidant.)
- The size of the average American’s social network shrunk by a third between 1985 and 2004.
- We’re just as likely to confide in strangers as close friends.
We’re in a “loneliness epidemic,” and our digital devices don’t cut it.
A phone can’t smile at you. An image on the screen can’t reach out and hug you. The kind of connection we crave is face-to-face, rich with nonverbal signals.
We need people in our lives.
Human connection reduces stress and makes us feel better.
But what can we do?
It’s Not about Being Alone—It’s about Feeling Lonely
If you’re young and healthy, the assumption is that you can easily become more social if you wanted to. Brush up on your social skills, go on Meetup.com, or try an app like Bumble BFF or Friender.
What’s not so readily discussed is how easy it is to slip into social isolation when you’ve got digital distractions.
If you’re feeling lonely, you immediately try to distract yourself from the discomfort. Grab your phone, text someone, play a video game, disappear into a book. Keep yourself busy.
But distractions work like Band-Aids.
They help us forget that we’re lonely, without solving the reason we’re lonely.
That’s where sitting with yourself can help.
If you didn’t try to run from your loneliness, what would it tell you?
It might tell you that the problem isn’t being alone. The problem is feeling alone. And that feeling has roots in other feelings.
Feelings of lacking support. Feelings of being unlovable. Feelings of being a burden. Feelings of being different.
When we listen to our loneliness, we learn about ourselves.
We learn what we need, what hurts us, and how we can care for ourselves.
We learn why we say nothing when we could call a friend. Why we prefer social media to going out. Why the world outside doesn’t seem as safe as the world inside four walls.
The UnLonely Project seeks to start that conversation. They offer short films to help understand how socially isolated people feel and how loneliness can impact their lives.
What is your loneliness telling you? Will you listen?