Spending time in New York recently demonstrated clearly for me how one can feel so lonely in the middle of a crowd. After a day of wandering around by myself in that teeming metropolis of 8 million people I found myself craving some social interaction. It was good to have a friendly doorman to stop and chat with on the back up to my apartment. Although brief that conversation provided for me that much needed connection with another human being .
In our busy, individualised society we often lack any meaningful connection to the people living around us . Missing too is the security that comes from being held by a community that acknowledges and values our contributions. Left to muddle through life alone it is no wonder that so many of us are lost to addictions, depression or even suicide. Statistics such as ‘ 1 in 5 Americans report feeling lonely’ (1) should spark a national outcry and targeted initiatives to address this lamentable situation. Especially given the growing body of evidence that shows that feelings of loneliness and social isolation are correlated with poorer health and shorter lifespans (2).
It seems a simple situation to address. In a world of more than 8 billion people there should be ample people out there for each of us to have at least one person to share a meaningful chat with on a daily basis. Looking more deeply though it becomes apparent that in modern western society the loss of strong community networks, increasingly hectic schedules, highly mobile workforce and desire for privacy means that it is easy to become isolated from the rest of society.
Imagine for a moment an older person, lets call her Elaine, who is a widow with mobility issues and whose adult children are spread across the globe. The daughter living closest to her is juggling a full time job with raising her own children. Visiting her mother still requires a long commute that can in the average week be extremely difficult to fit in, if not impossible. Meantime Elaine’s friends have moved out of the neighbourhood . She does not know her neighbours who are all young people always busy rushing in out to work and social events. So Elaine can now spend days without talking to even one other person. This is regrettably not an anomaly in western society. Research compiled by The Campaign to End Loneliness organisation in the United Kingdom states that many older people do not have regular contact with family, friends or neighbours (3).
Of course loneliness is not just an problem afflicting older people. Many young people, for a range of reasons, are socially isolated as well. Some see the burgeoning use of social media platforms as an indication that people are now connecting in alternative online methods. Here again though research suggests that these connections can be somewhat hollow if not actively harmful to our wellbeing (4). I use Facebook and know that I check it more often when I am feeling isolated, such as when I am stuck alone in the office with no work, or as I have been these past few months, traveling for an extended period by myself. I am also aware connection via social media does not enhance my wellbeing in the way that exchanging a physical hug, a face to face smile or an audible laugh does.
While in New York I participated in a workshop that explored the role for community in creating a better world. One simple, but also exceedingly discomforting, exercise conducted was to approach another participant and silently gaze into their eyes for a minute. What emerged was a strong recognition and connection with the other person. There was a sensation of empathy and understanding for who the other person was and how they had been shaped by their life experiences.
A variation of this exercise was performed at the end of the day. After silently gazing at a randomly chosen partner we bestowed, and received in return, a personalised blessing. All the people there were strangers to me. Yet the appropriateness of the blessings left me deeply moved. I was not alone in appreciating these connections. Looking around I could see many tears and hugs being shared that evening, demonstrating the power in the simple act of being seen and valued for who we are.
Any relationship can be messy and does require a lot of energy and time to maintain, but what we receive in return from a healthy relationship makes it all worthwhile. It is unfortunate that the life skills needed to maintain relationships and build strong communities are not taught in schools.
I know I certainly would struggle without the wonderfully supportive and encouraging friends I have in my life. It has made a world of difference to me when dealing with difficult life situations. Surely ensuring our loved ones have adequate support to flourish is as important as any other work we do. So lets all make it a daily priority to simply be there for the people around us.
1. Robert Waldinger. Nov 2015.What makes a good life? Lessons from the longest study on happiness. TEDx Beacon Street↩
2. Justin Worland. Mar 2015. Why loneliness may be the next big public health issue. Time Magazine
Rob Margetta. Feb 2016. The Profound Power of Loneliness. National Science Foundation.