The Happiness Track: The Loneliness Paradoxes

The Happiness Track: The Loneliness Paradoxes

We live in a time of overpopulation on the one hand and extreme loneliness on the other. We crowd into urban areas and yet sit—and feel—alone. Or we buy large homes and then wish they were filled with more life and laughter. Our national loneliness rate is staggering, and research shows that loneliness can be worse for our health than smoking, obesity and high blood pressure. And still we wonder, How can this be? What are we to do?

There are reasons for our loneliness epidemic that we can do little about: Jobs and opportunities are spreading families farther and farther apart even as family structures and communities grow more complex and tenuous. The good news, however, is that there are some powerful things we can do to feel more connected no matter where we are.

The first is to acknowledge something obvious, yet paradoxically difficult to comprehend: Loneliness, like other emotions, is a state of mind—and can be independent from actual circumstance. Class research demonstrates that it's not how many friends you have that determines your level of loneliness. It’s how connected you feel on the inside. That’s why you can feel lonely in a room full of friends or family yet experience total belongingness in a room full of strangers (say, an audience at an inspirational workshop or talk). No matter where you are or how many friends you do or don’t have, you can always address the state of your mind.

And that leads to another interesting paradox. Research shows that emotions like anxiety and depression are linked to a tendency to focus on ourselves. You’ve probably noticed that when you’re stressed, you’re less likely to engage in conversation with someone new. When you feel more upbeat and more positive, on the other hand, research shows that your attention is broader. You are more likely to notice others and connect. So how can you snap out of those negative emotions that lead you to focus on me, myself, and I—and thus connect? The answer may be to pay attention to the person who is not paying attention to us—the person who has stopped caring for us: our own self. 

We may feel lonely because we don’t take care of ourselves—whether for lack of time, energy, or interest, or simply because we don’t deem ourselves important enough. Sometimes we feel lonely because it is our own friendship we are longing for. Sounds cheesy, but give it a try. You will see how the process of powerfully engaging in a few acts of self-care can help you feel more loved and connected. Again, self-care is personalized. It is an act of love for yourself that is nourishing physically, emotionally, or spiritually: a bath, a walk in nature, meditation, tidying up your house, reading, and so on. You know better than anyone else what it takes to make you feel better—and helps you to connect in your own way to others.

It is also easy to feel lonely when you find yourself among people who do not share the same values or lifestyle as you. You’ll notice that sometimes you experience loneliness along with a feeling of being profoundly out of place or even ashamed for who you are. Whether you were born into a family that is very different from you, or married into one, or moved to a community or place that is alien to who you are, it is normal in those times to feel like an odd duck and very alone. Low self-worth can settle in. 

Until the day, that is, that you meet someone like yourself. Someone who has similar views and preferences. All of a sudden, you realize there is actually nothing wrong with you. You simply had not found your people yet. You hadn’t met your tribe. Most people’s tribe becomes the friends they make over a lifetime; for others, it’s a spiritual community, or the family they build. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking—because it’s out there. Despite our busy and socially disconnected lifestyles, the Internet has made it easier than ever to connect with others who hold similar views. 

And at some point you may realize that all humans, whether or not they belong to your tribe or have the same opinions, have the same deep need for social connection and love. So a profound way of increasing social connection is through compassion and altruism for those who may not think like you. Research by psychologists Ed Diener and Martin Seligman suggests that altruism leads to better mental and physical health and speeds up recovery from disease. Furthermore, research by Stephanie Brown, at Stony Brook University, and Sara Konrath, at the University of Michigan, has shown that it may even lengthen our lives (provided that reasons for volunteering were altruistic rather than self-serving). Finally, my favorite study is one conducted by University of Buffalo’s Michael Poulin on more than 800 people who had lived high-stress lives (think war trauma, etc.). While high stress usually predicts a shorter life, this was not the case for those whose lives involved volunteering. 

In other words, a service-oriented lifestyle buffers you from stress, and feeling less stressed helps you connect with others. So compassion can be the antidote to loneliness. And it starts with yourself.  S&H

Emma Seppälä PhD is author of The Happiness Track, founder of, and Science Director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education.

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