"Loneliness," I scoffed, as knowing and world weary as only a twenty something could be. "It's just self-indulgence, self-pity, so stupid."
After I finished my rant and actually did some research, I think I wrote a passable article despite various platitudes about "loneliness is one where once there were two" though I had no real understanding of the complexity and nuances of loneliness.
But life has a way of teaching one, humbling one, and all these years later, I have a completely different understanding of this complex and health-threatening emotional state.
Loneliness can, indeed, happen when a love relationship ends -- through a breakup, a divorce or the death of a partner -- and we're faced with reconfiguring our place in the world alone. Being single again after being part of a couple can feel intensely lonely -- whether the split was voluntary, necessary, and life-affirming -- or whether it was due to the devastating sense of loss after the death of a long-time, greatly beloved spouse.
Loneliness can happen with life changes -- when you stop working to retire, or go to a new workplace with a less inclusive culture or relocate to a place where you know no one and are faced with starting life anew -- a prospect that can be both exciting and daunting, with its share of lonely moments along the way.
Loneliness can happen when you feel you don't fit -- in a family, a workplace, a new community.
Loneliness is a silent phone, an empty email in-box, no text messages when you're longing to hear from an adult child.
Loneliness can happen when you think back on losses -- and wish you could spend a day, just a day, with a beloved parent or grandmother or aunt or a cherished pet.
Loneliness can be particularly painful when you're in a troubled relationship and have grown increasingly distant from your spouse -- or as you watch a dearly loved husband or wife disappear, little by little, into a disabling, terminal illness or dementia, crossing an unseen divide that is ever-widening, obliterating gradually but relentlessly the life you shared before.
Loneliness can be fleeting -- a moment of feeling very much alone in a crowded room -- or overwhelming, feeling isolated in a new place or in a relationship that isn't working.
Beyond being a painful feeling, loneliness can be a significant health risk.
- A recent study from Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston that followed 8,300 men and women 65 and older over a 12 year period, and found that those who, at the beginning of the study, reported feeling the loneliest had a 20 percent faster decline in mental ability than those who said they weren't lonely. How and why does this happen? Lead study author Nancy Donovan speculates that the psychological stress of loneliness may cause harmful brain inflammation, thus leading to the significant decline.
- A study from the University of Chicago has found, for the first time, a direct correlation between loneliness and high blood pressure among people 50 and older. Among subjects reporting feelings of loneliness and social isolation, a blood pressure increase was evident two years into the study, and continued to increase until the study ended four years later.
1. Reach out in positive ways: Reach out with the concept of giving to others or to another. This might mean volunteering with others for a cause you believe in or participating in a group with shared interests. It might also mean reaching out to others -- whether the person is an old friend or an adult child with whom you haven't had much contact lately -- in non-guilt inducing ways. Express genuine joy at seeing them, hearing from them, reconnecting instead of making a comment like "Hello, stranger..." or "It's about time...!"
2. Let go of expectations that one person, a spouse, or certain people, your adult children, acting differently, are the solution to your loneliness. As loving as a spouse may be, he or she can't meet all your needs for companionship, entertainment, love and affirmation. You both need time alone, time with friends, time to pursue special interests. In the same way, your adult children aren't and can't be the buffer between you and overwhelming loneliness. They have their own lives. Ideally, their lives with intersect happily with yours at certain intervals, but if you have raised them to be independent, productive citizens, you've done your work as a parent well. Now is the time to rediscover some interests and pursuits of your own, a renewed intimacy with your spouse, the joy of having a circle of friends and comfort with your own company.
It can be especially difficult when you've been part of a close couple and then a spouse's disability or dementia has added stress and a growing sense of loss to the mix. I've seen this happen with more and more friends and neighbors.
"It really points up the fact that time with others and time for a little fun and escape is essential," one of these friends told me recently. "When I can get out of the house for lunch with a friend or to go see a movie, I get away from life as I've come to know it for a little while. For two hours, my life feels normal once again. And that's a good feeling. It gives me the strength to go back and be an attentive caregiver once again."
3. Recognize your own part in your loneliness: Loneliness can be self-reinforcing as we defend ourselves against anticipated rejection, exclusion or disappointment from others. So some lonely people can put out "Don't mess with me!" or "Leave me alone!" vibes that keep others at a distance. You may find yourself actively avoiding contact with others or allowing your loneliness and depression to predict the outcome of any attempt to connect with another -- for example, putting off calling someone "because they probably wouldn't want to get together...or talk..." thus erecting walls of one's own making.
4. Take the risk of putting yourself out there. Especially when you're feeling depressed and isolated, there is a tendency to withdraw from others and activities, to wait for the world to come to you rather than stepping outside your immediate comfort zone and embracing the world.
I was reminded of this the other day when I complained to my friend Marsha that I have come to dislike our community -- rife with so much unnecessary infighting, deliberate unkindness, snobbery, pretensions, and junior-high style cliques -- and am disappointed that what once seemed like such a promising move has proved to be an isolating one..
"I know," she said. "It is disappointing. I know exactly what you mean. On the other hand, there are some good people here. You just have to get out and among them. I've developed a nice circle of friends playing MahJong and have met some terrific people at outdoor water aerobics. If you get out more, you'll run into more people you might like and get re-acquainted with some good people you already know."
And I knew she was right.
5. Accent the positive in relationships: Another quirk of loneliness is devaluing the relationships we do have, whether this is a relationship with a spouse ("Oh, I just can't talk with him! He never listens!") or with a friend ("She's so into her grandkids, she doesn't care...") or neighbors ("People around here are just a bunch of jerks..."). We feel -- and feed -- and growing distance by devaluing those closest to us, perpetuating feelings of loneliness.
Looking, instead, at how we've been blessed by relationships increases our connection with others as we appreciate anew a spouse's sense of humor or emotional support and generosity or a friend's willingness to listen or the thoughtfulness of an acquaintance or a neighbor that we might have minimized before or simply taken for granted. It's time to take a closer look at and cultivate new appreciation for the numerous blessings of our family and friends.
6. Be open to the new -- whether new level of intimacy in a friendship or new friendships. When we cultivate a sense of openness about the growth of existing relationships or the possibility of making new friends, we rarely find ourselves lonely. On the other hand, closing ourselves off to such possibilities is a fast track to loneliness.
One neighbor I'll call Ann greeted me with a sour expression and dismissive wave of the hand when Bob and I first moved to our present home, which was in a newly built neighborhood of people who had all relocated from other places within the previous six months. "We already have all our friends," she said. "So don't come looking to be my friend. We don't have room in our lives for anyone else." In the six years since, she has grown increasingly isolated due, in large part, to her attitude toward others and, in part, to the fact that, in any situation, some friendships are temporary and perhaps only a few have lasting power.
Our lives are enriched by all of the people we meet, whether or not they become forever friends. And some forever friends start out as acquaintances until the relationships move to the next level with mutual trust and respect.
7. Find ways to connect that feel comfortable. Increasing your level of connection with another, whether this is a spouse, a friend or a neighbor, doesn't have to mean long, soul-baring talks. It can mean time shared together -- taking a walk, enjoying music together, sharing views of a movie, a book or thoughts with a friend.
Warm connections with others may take forms you hadn't expected.
Maybe you won't have a deep, uninterrupted conversation anytime soon with a friend who has a young child but you might enjoy the child together, talking, laughing and sharing your thoughts between toddler emergencies.
Talking over lunch with a friend, perhaps just discussing books or movies you've enjoyed may not seem so revealing or in-depth -- until you realize anew how much you have in common -- and feel a closer bond in that moment.
You may not say much when you reach for a spouse's hand in the dark just before you fall asleep, but holding hands in the quiet of that time can feel incredibly intimate.
And in these simple, everyday moments, you suddenly realize that you are not alone, that you do have love and connection and companions. It's a matter of learning to be in and savoring the moment, valuing the thoughts you can share and feeling the love of a spouse, with you through moments of closeness and distance throughout your years together, with a hand held quietly in the dark.