Connections

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Easing Your Way Out of Loneliness

What can be done to escape the grips of loneliness?

What can be done to escape the grips of loneliness? In Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection, we suggest four simple steps, captured in the acronym EASE, for dealing with chronic loneliness. Some of what follows may seem obvious, but it is also obvious that "birds of a feather flock together" and that "opposites attract." Although both statements may be self-evident, they are internally inconsistent and therefore both cannot be true. This is what is so problematic about self-evident truths about the mind—we have a variety of ready-made labels for things after the fact, but these labels often do not predict or explain anything about howthe mind actually works. The real test is whether these work for you when you are resolve to give EASE an honest try.

E is for Extend Yourself. The withdrawal and passivity associated with loneliness are motivated by the perception of being threatened. To be able to test other ways of behaving without that feeling of danger, you need a safe place to experiment, and you need to start small. Don't focus on trying to find the love of your life or to reinvent yourself all at once. Just slip a toe in the water. Play with the idea of trying to get small doses of the positive sensations that come from positive social interactions.

To improve your odds of eliciting a positive reaction—and to reduce your odds of being disappointed—you may want to confine your experimental outreach to the somewhat safer confines of charitable activities. Volunteer at a shelter or a hospice, teach elders how to usecomputers, tutor children, read to the blind, or help with a kids' sports team.You will not necessarily receive gratitude and praise for your good deeds—that's not what you're after—but it is also unlikely that you will receive scathing social punishment. There will be no big scene of fulfillment in which you are at long last voted football captain or prom queen, nor will you immediately fall into a relationship with a movie star. But you may begin to feel the positive sensations that can reinforce your desire to change, while building your confidence, while improving your ability to self-regulate. Even "small talk" about sports or the weather, when it is welcomed and shared, can be a co-regulating, calming device, and the positive change it can bring to our body chemistry can help us get beyond the fearful outlook that holds us back.

A is for Action Plan. Some people view themselves as adrift on agenetic and environmental raft over whose course they have no control. The simple realizations that we are not passive victims, that we do have some control, and that we can change our situation by changing our thoughts, expectations, and behaviors toward others can have a surprisingly empowering effect, especially on our conscious effort to self-regulate. A second inkling of control comes from recognizing that we have latitude in choosing where to invest our social energy. It does not take an enormous change to alter one's course and destination dramatically.

Charitable activities enable us to put ourselves in the social picture with less fear of rejection or abuse, but even here somed iscretion is in order. Coaching kids' soccer requires a least a little knowledge of the game, but being manager or assistant coach often requires nothing more than a willingness to show up and pass around the Gatorade and the orange slices. Trying out for the community theater production could be awkward unless you really have acting or singing talent, but the theater group might welcome you with open arms if you volunteered to help backstage or in the ticket office. If you're shy with people but love animals, volunteer at an animal shelter. The animals will welcome you immediately. When you feel ready to reach out more to the humans around you, you can safely assume that theother volunteers share your interest in animal welfare, which gives you a natural basis for conversation, perhaps even connection.

Feeling lonely also make us fall victim to our own eagerness to please. Social connection does not involve superhuman strength. Committing to doing too many things for too many people in an effort to open ourselves to connection can instead make us feel overworked, stressed out, and faltering. The whole point is to be merely human-available to the common bond of humanity. Nor does anyone say that you have to become a long-suffering saint. Instead, the most adaptive model is an openness to engagement combined with realistic expectations, accurate perception of social cues—including cues that suggest caution—and realism about the type and number of commitments to take on. That may sound like a lot to manage, but when our executive brain is not distressed by feelings of isolation and threat, it is up to the task.

S is for Selection. The solution to loneliness is not quantity but quality of relationships. Human connections have to be meaningful and satisfying for each of the people involved, and not according to some external measure. Moreover, relationships are necessarily mutual and require fairly similar levels of intimacy and intensity on both sides. Even casual chitchat needs to proceed at a pace that is comfortable for everyone. Coming on too strong, oblivious to the other person's response, is the quickest way to push someone away. So part of selection is sensing which prospective relationships are promising, and which would be climbing the wrong tree. Loneliness makes us very attentive to social signals. The trick is to be sufficiently calm and "in the moment" to interpret those signals accurately.

In the same fashion, we all need to learn that being drawn to someone's physical appearance or status is not a good basis for a deep connection. Compatibility and sustainability depend far more on such things as common beliefs, attitudes, interests, and activities. When it comes to dating and marital success, the data show that similarity ("birds of a feather flock together") trumps complementarity ("opposites attract").

Deciding how to search for birds of your own feather requires selection as well. For those who tend to be more quiet than talkative, finding someone who is also comfortable with silent companionship may be a good idea. Enthusiastic readers, especially shy readers, are more likely to find people to connect with at an author's appearance at a bookstore, or by working in a literacy program, than by going to a dance club. How you should go about trying to meet people depends on what kind of people you want to meet.

E is for Expect the Best. Social contentment can help us to be more consistent, generous, and resilient. It can make us more optimistic, and that "expect the best" attitude helps us project the best. Warmth and goodwill on one person's part is more likely to elicit warmth and goodwill from other people—such is the power of reciprocity. With practice, any of us one can "warmup" what we present to the world. We have more control over our thoughts and behavior patterns than we may think, but then again, no one can exercise total control of interpersonal relationships, any more than we can force an immediate and complete turnaround in the way others see us. While we wait for the change in us to register in the world around us, fear and frustration can push us back into the critical and demanding behavior associated with loneliness. This is when patiently focusing on the small physiochemical rewards of reaching out to feed others can help keep us on track.

The need for patience does not end once we begin to find greater happiness in our relationships. Even if any of us were perfect, inevitably the other people we come to know will have different perspectives. The prototypical wedding vows, "for better or for worse, in good times and in bad," are a public proclamation of the ever-present likelihood of interpersonal friction. Even the best friends and the partners in the best marriages will disagree and hurt each other from time to time. Success in the face of this reality is served by not magnifying the moments of friction by over-interpreting them.

This holiday season, exercise a little patience and ease your way into healthy connections with others.

 

John Cacioppo, Ph.D., is the Tiffany and Margaret Blake distinguished service professor at the University of Chicago.

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