More people claim to have no close friends they can confide in. How do we combat our isolation?
Before leaving the safety of my air-conditioned vehicle, I’d glanced at the temperature readout: 101 degrees. Now stranded an hour away from my car and without water, I knew I was in severe danger of dehydration.
Dribbling the last drops of water into my mouth I moved through the terrain of pink granite, trees, moss, and lichen. Hiking the terrain without water wouldn’t normally be a problem. What caused my concern was that I’d been running, jumping, and exerting all my energy in the punishing Texas summer sun. When I discovered I was out of water, I was also out of breath and sweating profusely, miles away from any campground in a desolate area rarely explored.
Each month, I try to escape to the wilderness. It’s a time to be alone, away from distractions to think and pray. The experience is freeing once you’re disconnected from your phone. Even if I brought my bit of digital connection for safety measures, it would be as useless as the rocks in the area because there’s no cell phone reception. Tightening my pack and resolved to make it out, I navigated through the more shaded areas. I reminded myself I’d been in worse situations and continued to move while taking small rest breaks when I ran out of breath. In time, I made it back to my car and cracked open a large water bottle with earnest greed.
Standing behind my car I was tempted with the same residual nagging I experience every time I’m in the wild. Hell, most any time I do anything. Snap a photo of this victory and share it online.
I have photos littered throughout my phone of landscapes, water, concerts, and other dumb things I felt the need to snap a picture of and share with the world. They now take up space on my phone.
Most of us do the same if we’re honest. But when’s the last time you looked at pictures of trees, moss, or lichen you snapped in the wild that now rest forgotten on your phone? How about the amazing dinner at that Tex Mex place you had to capture for no other reason than the presentation was immaculate? When’s the last time you went back and watched the live concert performance you videoed on your phone?
The vast reason we capture these moments is because we want to share them with other people. In the past, we’d recount these moments with friends over a meal or talking face-to-face and exclaiming, “you shoulda been there!” But now we upload a file and people we barely know “like” it. Most of the people who like our posts are ones we never talk to outside of a screen barrier. Play this little game to see if it’s true: How many of your online friends would drive you to the airport last minute or help you move?
That question alone is a devastating look into our relationships, but it also explains why so many of us are lonely. But it’s not technology, social media, dating apps, or the internet that are most at fault. We are.
Surrounded and Lonely
I often tell the people I mentor through addictions that what they think is their real problem is just a symptom of a much deeper seeded issue. While tech and social media play into why we feel more lonely, they’re not the root cause.
A while back a young man confided in me that he was growing increasingly lonely. He lamented that no one reached out to him. No one took an interest in his life (or Instagram posts).
“Well… who have you reached out to?” I asked.
The look he shot me was condescending. “What do you mean? People should be reaching out to me! I’m the one who’s lonely.”
His answer gave me all the information I needed to know about why he was lonely. Today we value rugged individualism over anything that benefits the group. The messages we’re bombard with revolve around the self and ego. Gimmicky cliches we take as gospel truth reinforce this because “you’re worth it” as L’Oréal Paris reminds us. Thus we believe people should be the ones doing their part to reach out to us. Combine this with social media where the illusion of friends is commonplace. Then when people don’t interact with us online — because algorithms — it feeds our loneliness.
In my life this has become increasingly clear. We often ask one another, “Did you see my post/this specific article/funny video/cat meme?” to which I answer daily, “No” because — again — algorithms. Plus I try to limit social media these days. We ask this question because we assume life revolves around what people are posting online as opposed to actually interacting together. What this instance has taught me is that all of us are desperate for connection with one another, but we no longer know how to ask for it.
In his book, Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression — and the Unexpected Solutions, Journalist Johann Hari spoke with the leading expert on loneliness, John Cacioppo who states:
“Loneliness isn’t the physical absence of other people — it’s the sense that you’re not sharing anything that matters with anyone else. If you have lots of people around you — perhaps even a husband or wife, or a family, or a busy workplace — but you don’t share anything that matters with them, then you’ll still be lonely.”
Most of us are not tuned in to the idea that loneliness is a symptom reminding us something is wrong. Your body tells you when you’re hungry or hurt. Hunger reminds us we need to eat to survive, so we cook dinner or pay for food at a restaurant. Pain reminds a specific area of the body is injured and we must heal. Loneliness tells us we’re missing out on human connection and that need must become a priority.
There’s just one problem though. The way we view our solution to loneliness is self-centered and unrealistic most times. When you have hunger pangs, none of us sit at the dinner table and exclaim, “man, someone should bring me food. I’m hungry.” Nor do we hope that food magically appears in front of us. Instead, we get up and cook or drive to a restaurant to eat. The way we view loneliness, however, is the opposite. We wait for someone to magically reach out to us first and fix the gnawing desire for community and friendship.
Because we take this approach to combatting loneliness, it never gets fixed and thus we retreat into our digital worlds for a false sense of connection with other people.
I Used to Be A Human Being
Author and blogger Andrew Sullivan penned an essay a few years ago that struck a nerve on the pulse beat of today’s digital society. He lamented how he had gone from being human, to burying his loneliness and need for connection in a digital world.
The most damning and eye-opening sentence came when he wrote about how many of us are numbing our isolation in plain view of one another.
Just look around you — at the people crouched over their phones as they walk the streets, or drive their cars, or walk their dogs, or play with their children. Observe yourself in line for coffee, or in a quick work break, or driving, or even just going to the bathroom. Visit an airport and see the sea of craned necks and dead eyes. We have gone from looking up and around to constantly looking down.
Each day, many of us quell the pangs of loneliness with social media. Not that social media, the news, or the internet is bad. However, what we’re using it for most days is a band-aid over the festering infection of loneliness we’ve left oozing in our lives. We continue to believe our loneliness would be cured if other people just reached out, but never take steps ourselves to reach out. To take such action would mean we’d face the possibility of rejection or ridicule, and it’s just so damn easier to post an update and have someone like it to get a quick hit to appease the monster of loneliness.
So what do we do if we’re tired of feeling alone and isolated? Toss our phone out a window? Make drastic changes? No, it’s a little simpler than that.
The leading expert on loneliness, John Cacioppo (who I mentioned earlier), has a simple acronym he recommends to combat loneliness. He dubs it “EASE.”
The E, he explains, is for “Extend Yourself.” Reach out to other people, but safely. Do little bits at a time.
The A stands for having an “Action plan.” Many people fail to reach out because they don’t have a plan to do so. The same way you get out of debt applies in this aspect. You have to have a plan instead of wishful thinking.
The S stands for “Seek collectives.” Seek people who have similar interests, activities, or values. This can be a hobby, intramural sports, volunteering at a pet shelter, or a church community.
The E stands for “Expect the best.” Most times we expect the worst or view people as a social threat when we’re isolated. Instead, believe the best about people.
While this advice may seem simple, remember that it requires action which can feel overwhelming. The reason it feels overwhelming is that, like a starving man who’s lived on snow-cones for nourishment, reintroducing real satiating relationships can cause discomfort at first. You’re not used to the nourishment.
But give it time and keep feeding real relationships. Because if you do, the pang of loneliness will become nothing more than a reminder for you to reengage in life, as opposed to checking out on your phone.
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