What is the greatest gift you can give the lonely this season?
For Audrey, the approaching holiday season is full of despair. Everywhere she looks she sees smiling faces, people rushing to meet friends, finalizing party plans, and being warmly greeted by people they know. But for Audrey, the holidays bring fear. They are a dreadful, crushing reminder that she is so alone. Audrey has lost a person, never to have them back again, and she has grieved her loss, gone through the process of saying a formal goodbye at an event where she placed him somewhere. But the emptiness didn’t end there. It lives on in the belief that she is on her own - that there is literally no one now who knows if she doesn’t come home, who will help her if she needs it, or will listen with understanding to her experience. There are people around, but they are uncomfortable with her pain and don’t know what to say. What Audrey wishes they knew is that she doesn’t want them to say anything. What she needs is just the opposite. She is lonely and what she desperately needs is a very precious, costly gift but one that we all can provide. It’s the gift of time and attention.
I know. It would be easier to just send support, care and concern postage-paid from Amazon. And it’s true. It would be less messy. But the gift of connection, attention, and time could be the gift that saves someone’s life this year. It sounds pretty dramatic, but new research on loneliness proves that feeling lonely like Audrey is a life-threatening epidemic in the world, deserving our immediate attention. Here’s why.
The Loneliness Threat
In the March/April 2018 issue of Psychology Today author Jennifer Latson highlights an intriguing collection of research on loneliness. Citing authors and researchers across academia, nonprofit groups, and the like, the article paints a dire picture of the condition many people find themselves in at any given moment. Statistics like these will put the danger in perspective:
Loneliness is as lethal to the body as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and being obese
Loneliness is the new silent killer manifesting in higher blood pressure, sleeplessness, increased inflammation, compromised immune system, increased cortisol and epinephrine, increased chances of cognitive decline, dementia, Alzheimer’s, and in intense feelings of fear, stress, anxiety and anger
The emotional pain of loneliness hurts like an actual physical wound
Loneliness creates a deep sense of personal danger, perceived threat, and the need for self-preservation
Loneliness is contagious and spreads to small groups like an infection
Loneliness is in the eye of the lonely – it’s all about whether a person’s individual need for social connection feels adequate to their need for support, care, and emotional safety.
What is Loneliness?
Loneliness has little to do with how many social connections we have, but more with how connected and supported we feel in relationship. It is a perception that we are excluded and rejected by others, disconnected from their care and support. It is fueled by fear that we are on our own, isolated from a community, exposed to danger but left alone to fight our way to safety. Feeling unsafe, our body “helps” us fight by releasing fight-or-flight chemicals like cortisol and epinephrine that can increase our stress, anxiety, hyper-vigilance and anger.
Who are the lonely?
The lonely are single and married. They exist in large people groups or alone. They are young, older, and old. One of the most vulnerable groups are the old who have recently lost their constant companion and, based on longevity, have experienced compound losses of friends, family, siblings, and acquaintances. All of these losses plus the impact of a loss of mobility and independence, set this age group up to be one of the most vulnerable. Also at risk are returning veterans who have lost their sense of “brotherhood”. The young are not immune to loneliness, however. Teens between 16-24 are the most likely of all age groups to report loneliness. The immersion into social media as a form of superficial connection does not provide the same emotional and physical benefits as does face-to-face meaningful encounters, leaving many vying for relevance and inclusion merely measured by number of Facebook friends.
The gift of time and attention is easier than you think
Here’s what research tells us about how easy this gift is to give.
A 30-second offering of a genuine smile, eye contact including a greeting or the words please and thank you can lift someone’s mood – a yours too!
Be present (and out of your phone). Engage, look around, keep your head up. It signals attention and that the person you pass is worth greeting.
When you mingle at a party or event, allow at least 7 minutes to engage with a new person. Speaking as you walk past is good, but stopping, lingering, asking a probing question, helps build connection and interesting dialogue.
Express empathy and listen well. When someone hints that life is hard, don’t just hijack the conversation with “if you think your life is hard, let me tell you about mine”. Listen. Respond with an “I’m so sorry. What’s going on?” Show genuine interest. Ask how they plan to work through it. Engage.
Be vulnerable in conversation as well. If you don’t want to share when it’s your “turn”, simply ask for advice, or if someone knows the answer to a question you have. The reciprocity of conversation makes it meaningful. That way the person you are talking to knows a little about you as well and comes away with connection.
Familiarity builds connection. If you go to the same coffee shop, let the person know you remember them.
Work to create community. Plan Bridge Night, Mom’s Day Out groups, craft groups, book clubs, etc. It’s connection around a hobby or common life season and it offers the opportunity to get to know people over time in a safe setting.
Study ways to connect. It’s a lost skill. Let’s bring it back.
The benefits of reducing loneliness can be measured:
Boosts production of endorphins, the brain chemical that eases pain and makes us happier
Lowers risk of heart attack
Makes us feel part of something not isolated and in danger.
Lowers physiological stress responses
Helps fight inflammation and infection
Releases oxytocin that strengthens social bonds
Loneliness is a real threat to emotional and physical well being. Learn more about how to receive help and to support the movement to reduced loneliness by seeing the resources cited here and listed below.
Giving this gift costs very little money and is the gift that keeps on giving all year long.
Dianne Presley, LCSW / BC-TMH
Believe, Hope, Inspire Wellness Services, LLC
Anxiety, Depression and Relationship Therapy
Gottman Level 1 and Level 2 Trained Therapist
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The Unlonely Project https://artandhealing.org/
The book “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community”, author Robert Putnam
“Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection”, by John Cacioppo, Director of the University of Chicago’s Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience
“Alone Together: Why We Ask More from Technology and Less From Each Other” Sherry Turkle
“Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging” by Sebastian Junger
“The Village Effect: How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make Us Healthier and Happier”, author psychologist Susan Pinker.
The work of Julianne Holt-Lunstad, psychology professor at Brigham Young University and UCLA psychologist Naomi Eisenberger