Oh I’m a lucky man, to count on both hands the ones I love,
Some folks just have one, yeah, others, they’ve got none- Pearl Jam
Since 1985, the number of Americans who say they have no one with whom they discuss important matters has nearly tripled. In one recent study, the most common answer to the question “who do you confide in?” was: “Nobody”. University of Chicago researcher John Caccioppo estimates that 20% of Americans (60 million people), report chronic loneliness. 27% of Americans now live alone, up from 5% a century ago. The biggest growth is in men: the number of men living alone has more than doubled.
It’s not a matter to shrug off: Without social connection we literally start falling apart: genes and telomere lengths suffer, intelligence declines, immune systems fall apart. Connection is a survival instinct, and loneliness is an indicator that our survival may be at risk. Simply having the feeling of being chronically lonely ups the risk of death from illness by 26%. A lack of social connection is even more devastating to a person’s health, at increasing the death risk by 32%.
When you’re alone, you ain’t nothing but alone– Bruce Springsteen
Lonely is not the same thing as alone.
Lonely can be lonely in a room of hundred people or in bed with his wife. Alone can be connected, in flow and creating when there’s no one within a hundred miles.
A friend of mine says, “I don’t get very lonely. I am happy being alone. I actually can get annoyed by what I perceive to be the falseness of others, or the theater of conversation. But I think I’m not lonely often because I experience solitude as an active choice. I can always stop, reach out and connect. But I know that there are those that feel like there is no one there.”
The difference between lonely and alone is the perceived availability of connection.
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent– John Donne
Ingredients in the lonely storm
If you can’t show your true self, you will experience a fundamental core loneliness, no matter how many people you know. For people who have social contact, yet still report inner loneliness, it may come from the feeling not acting as your true self, not being able to expose your true self. Lifelong conditioning of conforming to social norms, keeping up with others’ expectations of who you should be, and being valued for your performance can leave people with the sense of not ever being able to be truly seen. There is an internalized judgmentalism. Cacioppo reports that lonely people tend to find greater fault with themselves, and then extend that judgment to other people.
If you feel like “it’s all on your shoulders”, you’re more likely to be lonely. Whether it’s lonesome cowboys, lonely superheroes, celebrity icons, Horatio Alger’s “up by the bootstraps” stories, or the philosophy of Ayn Rand: if you’re an American, especially a male, then loneliness is in your cultural inheritance. We have generated a patently untrue mythology that people stand alone, when in actuality everyone is existing in a web of support that is woven by actions and deeds of others.
If your life is designed for hyper-mobility, or you’re very busy, you’re more likely to have shallow relationships, if any. Connections take time and shared activities, inquiry and place. People move more frequently and farther away, people change careers more often, relationships don’t last as long, and we’re spending more time working or commuting than ever. Participation in civic and volunteer activities is at an all time low. Designing life for connection takes an active choice to make place for it.
Suggestions for stepping into connection, and counteracting loneliness
Step 1: Cultivate self–awareness, self-love, self-acceptance and then show more of your true self to the world. Say more of what you actually think, do the things you truly desire, share your inner life. It’s on this basis that lasting connection is made.
Step 2: Develop more gratitude for the seen and unseen support of others that is always present in everyday life.
Step 3: When in the world, look up. Make eye contact, say hello, engage in small talk. Feel the power of these small and often ignore gestures of connection.
Step 4: Redesign some part of your life to have a committed active in-person community.
What about social media?
Social media isn’t an answer, it’s just a tool. Research suggests that people who use online connections to substitute for face-to-face ones, become lonelier and more depressed. Lonely people use the Internet as a crutch, but non-lonely use it as leverage to find and enhance relationships and expand their “IRL” (In Real Life) connections.