Updated: Jun 4, 2019
At the beginning of 2018, so many British people were feeling lonely—nine million to be exact—that the Prime Minister appointed a minister for loneliness. And unfortunately, Canadians are feeling pretty isolated too, with one in five Canadians saying they feel lonely.
While on the surface it might not seem too serious, loneliness affects our physical health just as much as it does our mental health. In fact, it has been reported to be more dangerous than smoking and adversely affects the immune and cardiovascular system.
In today’s post, we’ll talk about how to combat this troubling problem.
Being Alone vs. Loneliness
While it might seem paradoxical, being alone and feeling lonely are not the same thing. Loneliness involves the perception that you are alone and isolated. On the flip side, introverts especially know that alone time can be incredibly important for recharging your batteries, reflecting on life, engaging in self-care and more. Nonetheless, it’s when we feel as though there is an unpleasant disconnect between how much time we want to spend with others versus how much time we are spending with them that we start feeling down.
But what do we do about it?
1. Define what kind of interaction you’re missing.
Are you missing one-on-one connections with others? Feeling a sense of community? The general company of others at social gatherings? Knowing this can give you some direction on what to do next.
2. Understand that you’re the only one that can change the situation.
I talk to a number of people who feel lonely and will say things like, “My friends never reach out.” And yet, when I ask them about the last time they reached out, I hear silence. While of course it’s important to allow yourself to feel sadness about your situation, there comes a point where you must ask yourself, “So what am I going to do about it?” Rather than being the back seat driver of your life, take initiative and text the people you miss yourself. We are all busy, including your friends, and maybe being social hasn’t been on the top of your friend’s priority list. But that doesn’t mean they don’t want to see you—and if being surrounded by loved ones would be helpful, then make it happen.
3. Add routine to your day—and incorporate time in public spaces.
I’ve noticed that loneliness seems to be exacerbated when people’s days lack structure. They’ll wake up on a Saturday morning and have no idea how on earth to fill the day, which can contribute to unhelpful self-talk that perpetuates a vicious cycle. I have no one to hang out with so I might as well stay in bed. What’s the point of going out anyway? No, no, no. Identify the days of the week or times when you feel the most lonely and make a plan of action to fill that time. If you feel lonely on the weekends, for example, maybe you could start your day by going to the gym, going grocery shopping, reading your book in a cafe, and more.
This brings me to another point: while all of those activities could be done at home, such as doing yoga in your living room, it can be helpful to do them in public spaces instead. As someone who lives alone, I know I go absolutely stir-crazy if I don’t get out of the house, and it becomes way too easy to feel like I’m in my own little universe. Even if the activities I’m doing aren’t social, like reading a book or writing a blog post, engaging in them in public space at least gives me some human connection.
4. Reconnect with yourself.
I sometimes wonder if lonely people not only feel disconnected from others, but from themselves as well. As such, engaging in activities that make you feel alive just for you can also be super helpful. If you’re a movie buff, go to a movie alone. If you’re a music lover, check out your local record store and talk to some of the staff members about new records. Make sure that the many different parts of you are feeling seen by you even if they aren’t being seen by others.
6. Make new friends.
I’ve done an entire blog post on how to make friends as an adult so I’d invite you to go check that out. The good news is that social media has made it way easier to connect to like-minded people. When I first moved to Guelph for my master’s degree years ago, I didn’t know a single soul. So, I ended up downloading BumbleBFF, an app that allows you to swipe through profiles and connect with people nearby so you can become friends. I met two lovely women through that app—and if I can do it, so can you!
7. Build a sense of community.
Community can be defined as "a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests and goals." Sometimes, it is even just the feeling that you are surrounded by like-minded people that can make all the difference, even if you aren't necessarily conversing with all of them. This is a big benefit of going to church, for example, because people are coming together and connecting over some shared values.
If church isn't your thing, here are some other ideas for improving your sense of community:
Do group fitness classes
Partake in a cooking class
Join a reading group
Attend talks at a local health food store
Walk your pet at a nearby park with other pet owners
Volunteer! I tell everyone in my life to do this because it not only helps people gain a sense of purpose, but it's also a great way to meet people.
8. Realize that connection doesn’t just happen through people.
If spending time with other people feels too overwhelming, unsafe, or unappealing to you, know that there are other ways to feel a sense of connection. Some people feel it when they are walking through nature by themselves; they feel connected to the earth, the grass beneath their feet, and the sunshine on their skin. Some people enjoy being a part of a choir, not for the social engagement, but so they can experience the surreal sound of perfect harmony. Or, maybe you feel a sense of connection when you dance, paint a canvas, or play with your pet. This earth provides plenty of opportunities for non-human connection as well, we just need to take advantage of it.
The Bottom Line
First of all, I want to say this: if you are feeling alone and isolated right now, I want to remind you that you aren’t alone. There’s no question in my mind that there is someone out there who appreciates you and loves you dearly. If you’re feeling disconnected from your friends or loved ones, pick up that phone. Know that all of us are different when it comes to the amount of social connection we want. Have some compassion for your friends and/or family members if you haven’t seen them in awhile and remind yourself that if you are longing for more time with them, it is your responsibility to make it happen. Host a dinner party. Go out for brunch. Do something, anything that makes you feel back in charge of your own life. And if it's not connection with other people that you miss, perhaps it’s a connection to yourself.