10 Tips To Banish Loneliness
Feeling connected to others is essential for us to flourish. It can feel like magic when it happens. Connections ground us, encourage insight and growth, and give us new ways of thinking. But many of us are unaware of the actual behaviors that are the stepping stones to creating fulfilling relationships. In this blog, I share some of my own experiences with you and also what I have learned about how to connect.
Sometimes connecting with a single person can change your whole outlook. “Mandela is coming.” The word spread through the small crowd gathered in the lobby of the hotel in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Nelson Mandela came to celebrate the 25th year of Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan while I was there consulting with UNICEF. A few minutes later Mandela appeared, looking frail but also joyful and compassionate. He was wearing slippers and shuffled along, pausing to shake the hand of every person. When he came to me, he looked directly into my eyes. As he shook my hand I felt a surge of positive energy sweep through me. Though it all happened in less than 10 seconds, I remember thinking I don’t want to wash my hand. And, I have never forgotten my feeling that day of being seen and touched by Mandela. The connection I felt was profound; almost spiritual.
Another more mundane example of connection. I was having lunch recently with Vicki, a new acquaintance, and we got talking about dieting. I said, “When I am trying to lose weight and eating at a restaurant, I often ask to look at the dessert cart, despite the fact I am not going to order anything.” I added cheerfully, “Looking at desserts is almost as good as eating them.” Then I admitted, “No, that’s not true. It’s nowhere near as good.” And we both burst into a hearty laugh. My honesty — and the spontaneous laughter it elicited — connected us.
One more example. A few nights ago I was feeling drained and exhausted. The phone rang and it was Pat my friend of fifty years. Suddenly I was chatting away and having a lovely time. No effort to make conversation, no fear of judgment. Just a sense of being heard and loved. Many of us have learned to avoid the people who are toxic to us because we know they drain our energy. But we rarely stop to identify those people among our friends and relatives who are the people that truly bring us to life, who spark our energy, and who can change our mood. They are our connectors, the people who connect us to our energy and ourselves. We can let down our guard and relax. We can be our real selves and show parts of us that we usually keep hidden.
It is not always that easy to connect. In 2017, then-Surgeon General Vivek Murthy announced that there was an epidemic of loneliness in the USA. Loneliness is subjective, the feeling that the relationships that you have lack meaning and are not really satisfying to you. A 2018 Kaiser Family Foundation study found that 22% of adults say they often or always feel lonely or socially isolated. And loneliness has a big impact. If you are lonely, your risk of mortality goes up 29% and this is equal to smoking 15 cigarettes a day, being obese, or being an alcoholic.
Older people are more likely to live alone in the U.S. than anywhere else in the world. In the U.S., 27% of adults ages 60 and older live alone, compared with 16% of adults in the 130 countries and territories studied. Living alone doesn’t necessarily mean we are lonely, but it can make it harder to connect. As we age, our families are often busy with work and children. We are usually less mobile. Some of us have moved to new states away from all our old pals. Most of us have slowed down. Some of us have medical conditions or hearing loss that make it harder to connect.
During the pandemic, especially during the time of sheltering at home, we all learned what it was like not to have multiple short daily exchanges with several people in stores, at the library and the post office, and on the street. Murthy and others have explained how these interactions with people who we don’t know well, still have a huge impact on our well-being. A hello or smile, however brief, frequently is the spark that gives us energy. These people form a network of security that gives us a sense of community and belonging. It was only when it was gone that we began to understand how important it was.
Now a story about Maureen (not her real name) a former psychotherapy client of mine who improved dramatically during the year she was in therapy. As she was ending treatment, I asked her what had been most helpful. She replied, “Katharine, I remember one day when I was really upset, and as you walked me out of the office, you put your hand on my shoulder. I felt then that you really cared about me.” At first, I was taken aback by her comment, thinking of all the wonderful insights we had talked about. But her comment helped me learn that connection and healing are not all, or even mostly, about words. A sympathetic grasp of someone’s hand or a touch on the arm or shoulder can make a connection even better.
10 tips on how to connect with others.
Look directly at people’s eyes.
Smile when you look at people.
Listen more. Talk less.
Slow down. Being in a hurry is off-putting.
Be the one who reaches out and suggests getting together.
Spend time with one other person at a time. This is how relationships deepen.
Stay focused on the other person—no email, checking out who else is there, or looking at your watch.
Tell the people that matter to you that they matter to you.
Disclose your vulnerabilities as you gain comfort.
Identify who are your connectors and seek them out often.
Connection is why we are here; it gives us purpose and meaning in our lives. ~ Brené Brown