We live in contradictory times. Thanks to technology we’ve never been more socially connected. And, yet, despite our constant digital contact, loneliness is an epidemic.
Plenty of us feel isolated and blue at times. In small doses loneliness, like hunger, serves as an evolutionary prompt to fulfill a need – in this case for social connection. But there’s more and more evidence that loneliness is becoming less of a fleeting phase that motivates us to go out to dinner with a friend and more of a chronic state that poses serious health risks.
Nearly half of Americans say they sometimes or always feel left out, according to a survey of 20,000 people last year from healthcare provider Cigna. Even more troubling, is that more than half of people surveyed said that no one knows them well. One in four said they feel isolated. It’s not just happening in the U.S. After launching a governmental program last year to combat the phenomena and appointing a rather forlornly named Minister for Loneliness, the U.K.’s former Prime Minister Theresa May said that loneliness is the greatest health challenge of our time.
To be clear, loneliness isn’t about being alone. Just ask any introvert who loves to while away the hours reading a good book or going for a hike alone. Sometimes solitude is a salve for extroverts, too.
In contrast, loneliness descends when we feel rejected, empty and alienated from others. All of which, can happen in the midst of crowded subway or at a party. Loneliness is a complex state of mind that can lead to debilitating emotions such as depression and health issues such as an increased risk for heart attacks, strokes and cancer. According to a study by Brigham Young University, loneliness is on par with obesity and smoking in shortening life expectancy.
Why are we feeling so lonesome?
There’s no single answer. More of us are getting married later. More of us work alone as part of the “gig” economy. Many organizations that once fostered meaningful bonds between us – churches, civic groups, bowling leagues- are no longer as prominent in our lives. And while social media connects us, it also disconnects us. How many times have you felt more isolated rather than less as you’ve scrolled on social media through photos of friends that you’re not with at events you’re not attending?
It seems meeting face-to-face with others would be fix for loneliness. Maybe joining a bowling league, going back to church or starting up conversations with the grocery store clerk are good ideas. Certainly, all of that helps.
But experts say the solution to loneliness is more layered than that. Research shows, for example, that the brains of chronically lonely people have entered into self-preservation mode and are more alert to perceived threats. Lonely people are more sensitive, for example, to negative social outcomes. As a result, social situations can sometimes seem threatening.
The late University of Chicago psychologist and loneliness expert John Cacioppo suggested that one way of helping lonely people is to change their perceptions of others and to enter into reciprocal relationships by volunteering, for example. Being kind to others also helps with loneliness, he said.
The suggestion that changing our perceptions and being kind to others could relieve loneliness led me to wonder whether the mindfulness practice of loving-kindness could alleviate our collective sense of isolation. There’s only a smattering of research that suggests loving kindness practice enhances social connection and none that I know of that relates specifically to loneliness.
But maybe we don’t need reams of data to prove an experiential point. The purpose of loving-kindness practice, which entails visualizing people in your mind’s eye and silently sending them phrases of goodwill, is designed to make us feel more connected. Research shows seven weeks of loving kindness practice increases positive emotions such as hope, love, joy, interest and awe while reducing negative emotions. Experiencing more positive emotions protects us against despair if not against loneliness.
The wonderful thing about mindfulness is that you don’t have to take anyone’s word for it. Experiment with loving kindness on your own. Give it some time and notice how the practice makes you feel. Do you feel more connected? Less lonely? Here are some basic instructions for a simple loving kindness practice that you can do as a stand-alone exercise or before or at the end of a mindfulness meditation. It’s not important you feel anything as you practice. The intention is to plant the seeds of kindness and nurture them through the practice so that they can grow in your daily life and, maybe, make you feel less lonely.
- Find a comfortable chair to sit in. Take a few slow, purposeful breaths. As your breath settles, feel the rising and falling of your breathing in your chest and connect to your heart.
- Call to mind an image of someone you love. It’s helpful if your relationship with this person or being is uncomplicated and easy. You can even call to mind a beloved pet. Silently recite the phrases: “May you be happy. May you be healthy. May you be safe. May you be peaceful and at ease.”
- Now, call to mind an image of yourself and silently recite these phrases: “May I be happy. May I be healthy. May I be safe. May I be peaceful and at ease.” As you say the phrases imagine yourself receiving them.
- Next, call to mind someone you don’t know well but might see in the course of your day – a store clerk or a neighbor. Connect again with the sensations of your breathing in your chest and silently extend the phrases to them: “May you be happy. May you be healthy. May you be safe. May you be peaceful and at ease.”
This blog originally appeared on eMindful.com
On My Mind
The documentary the Biggest Little Farm (now available on DVD and streaming) is worth watching for multiple reasons – for the eyeful of bucolic scenery, for the harkening back to a simpler way of life and for the meaningful lessons on ecology and sustainability. The film’s also worth watching for the subtle life lessons it offers. All of which remind me of the value of practicing mindfulness and, in particular, the value of the attentional stance of observation.
Often, for example, when we’re confronted with a problem we forget to simply observe and allow our understanding of the obstacle to unfold. Instead, we go into reactionary solution mode. Sometimes this yields results. Other times it makes the problem worse.
As farmer John Chester encountered one problem after another bringing his vision of Apricot Lane Farms into being he adopted a different strategy: Step back and observe. It’s inspiring to see the elegant solutions he arrives at using his hard-won strategy. So much so I’ve boiled it down to a formula: Problem + Observation = Creativity.
You can watch the trailer to the film here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UfDTM4JxHl8. And if you’re really curious, you can visit Apricot Lane Farms in Moorpark, Ca. https://www.apricotlanefarms.com/
My next six-week series of UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Practices class: Mindfulness in Daily Life begins in Santa Monica begins tomorrow, Sept. 12th at 7 pm. There few spaces open for those of you who are spontaneous. If not, make a mental note that I’ll be teaching mindfulness again in Santa Monica in January.
You can learn more about the class register on my website under the classes tab. Registration for January will open up in November. https://kellybarron.com/classes/