Have you ever been lonely, have you ever been blue?
Seriously, I’m asking. Have you ever been lonely? Not the kind that Patsy Cline, Roy Orbison or Bobby Vinton sang about back in 1962, but true loneliness that can steer you into social isolation.
One day last week, I caught the end of an interview on TV with two health professionals talking about loneliness and how it’s crept to be a leading public health issue in our country. Later that afternoon, an article popped up on my Twitter feed on the same topic. As I tried to go to sleep that night, I was transported back to my life in Japan.
For the last few months of my final year living in Japan, (it was a three year assignment) I fell into a pretty severe bout of loneliness. As outgoing and independent as I am, I no longer wanted to travel and explore and discover new things alone. I didn’t care about meeting new people. There was a fourteen-hour time difference between friends and family I wanted to talk with. I found a group of teachers on the base to play cards with occasionally, but at most, it killed a couple of hours and that was it. I intentionally withdrew from the world around me.
My loneliness impacted my ability to manage at work, much less, lead. I can admit now, I developed a bit of an addiction to computer games, and for hours at a time, I’d experience the thrill of beating the clock in Bejeweled. Lame, I know. Thank heavens I was never tempted to play online poker, or begin drinking or take up any other anti-social behavior.
Loneliness is when a person’s network of social relations is deficient, in other words, a social or emotional disconnect people experience. Don’t confuse being alone with loneliness, and don’t assume married people never suffer from loneliness. Many do.
Scientists now believe chronic loneliness represents as great a risk to our long-term health and longevity as cigarette smoking and obesity.(Psychology Today, Aug 23, 2017) Ultimately, it impacts an individual’s self-worth and if unmanaged, leads to a shorter life span. People want to be liked and likeable. Loneliness doesn’t allow that.
Social media was not an issue for me, but it has helped propel this issue that now impacts as many as 46% of all adults in the US. Young adults between 18-22 report the highest levels of loneliness. It’s easy to see the correlation.
“Social media is like cotton candy in your diet. It gives you the feeling of being full when you’re not.” Dr. Sue Varma, Ph.D.
I love that analysis. Social media makes people feel connected when they’re not. It drives comparisons which further isolate people and feed into feelings of loneliness.
When my job was coming to an end in Japan, I was a finalist for a great position in Texas. I had to withdraw. I did not have it in me to go someplace new and start all over again. It was a no-brainer for me that I had to return to the city I’d left. I had contacts here, threw myself into volunteer work and began to live again. It didn’t take me long to ‘heal’ but I also had people who knew I’d been struggling and supported me.
Loneliness has no age or socio-economic status or race attached to it. If you begin to see less of a friend, or a co-worker seems more withdrawn, or a family member becomes more isolated, give them a call. Invite them to join you in some volunteer work – giving back is one of the best ways to overcome the issue, as it reaffirms our value to others.
It is always important to me to be a part of several ‘circles’ so today, I have a writing group, church friends, a movie circle, and a couple of volunteer groups. Loneliness didn’t get the best of me, and because I knew it was short term, it didn’t lead to depression, but it gave me a good taste of how some people suffer on a very regular basis.
If you have a story to share, please do. And if you’re feeling lonely, please reach out to someone.
People need people and when those relationships are broken or we start thinking that our technology can replace people, we’re in trouble. Keep a special eye on those who are never unattached to their phones or computers. Cotton candy is good, but we can’t survive on it.