We thrive in community, in connection, in giving and receiving love. In a survey I conducted with Stanford students, when I asked what single activity brought them the greatest fulfillment, the most commonly given answer was spending time with friends and loved ones. It is not surprising that loneliness hurts. A brain imaging study showed that feeling ostracized actually activates our neural pain matrix. In fact, several studies show that ostracizing others hurts us as much as being ostracized ourselves. We can hypothesize that, similarly, loneliness is associated with the pain matrix.
From one perspective, we are all fundamentally alone. We come into the world alone and we leave it alone. We are all independent entities with thoughts, feelings and emotions that no one else can fully understand or experience no matter how numerous our friends. On the other hand we are always completely interconnected no matter how few our friends. We are connected to millions of people all over the world through the intricate web of economic and social relationships that bring food to our table, clothes on our bodies. We are literally connected to every other human being who shares this same ecosphere with us simply by the air we breathe. We are in touch with every other person and animal on the planet by the ground we walk on. We are both alone and deeply connected.
When the pain of loneliness takes hold of you, here are some tools that can help build resilience.
Connect with Yourself 100%
Most of us have learned to distract ourselves the very moment that we feel an uncomfortable emotion such as loneliness surfacing. We may engage in "healthy" forms of distraction such as reading, exercising or working or "unhealthy" forms of distraction such as overeating, drinking, or watching hours of television. While these options may provide temporary relief, they often lead to other problems such as weight gain in the case of overeating or drinking, exhaustion and burnout in the case of overexercising or overworking and even addiction. Moroever, as explained by Harvard's Dan Wegner, when we try to resist something, it tends to persist all the more. Distracting ourselves from a core problem does not get at its root.
Children, on the other hand, often give free reign to their emotions. Though this may seem immature to adults, children also get over negative emotions extremely quickly and are able to move on to the next thing as if nothing had happened. Adults, in an attempt to bury and control their emotions often carry them with them for years. Allowing the emotion to arise and giving it our full attention may be a key to letting it go.
Here are three exercises to embracing loneliness:
1. Give the emotion full expression
Let the emotion take center stage. Especially if you are used to distracting yourself from your feelings, this exercise may feel uncomfortable but if you let yourself feel the emotion 100%, it may just move through you more quickly: observe the sensations of the emotion, notice the thoughts that it triggers, cry if tears come. Be with the discomfort fully.
2. Go into silence
Silence can be difficult and even scary for some people. We are used to televisions blaring background noise, car radios jingling, iPods playing, text messages beeping, cell phones ringing, Facebook notifications pinging, Tweets tweeting, and emails downloading. Set yourself a time limit for the silence such as half an hour. If you wish, you can take a walk during that time or engage in a relaxed form of exercise like swimming. Makes sure that the activity is not one that becomes a distraction. Choose to do something that simply allows you to be in silence. Be as present as you can with everything around you and within you.
3. Engage in Mindful Meditation
No longer deemed an exotic, esoteric or mystical activity, meditation has become a mainstream activity. Though meditation is very simple, it also can require great courage. Simply be with the sensations, thoughts and emotions that arise without trying to control or change them. Observe them with the kindness of a mother watching her child at play. Be patient. If they emotions get uncomfortable, muster up your valor, strength, tenacity, and patience. Set yourself a time limit and do not get up until the time is over. You can start with 5 minutes and eventually work up to sitting for 20 or 30 minutes at a time.
For those readers who want to jump to the next point because the very sound of being 100% present with their feelings sounds too difficult, remember that being present allows the emotion to pass whereas, in distraction, you may just be holding on and extending the feeling. Moreover, in a recent study, researchers found that being present with what is happening, no matter how unpleasant that experience, is always more pleasant than not being present. These findings suggest that we are actually happier if we do not distract ourselves from the present, irrespective of how much we dislike it.
Cultivate Inner & Outer Connection
Research shows that we reap the psychological well-being and physical health benefits of social connection not from the number of friends we have, but from our internal and subjective sense of connection towards others. In other words, we could have only 1 friend, or no friends at all, but if we feel connected from the inside, then we reap all the benefits thereof. This research finding is empowering because whatever starts from within is also within our power to calculate.
4. Take Care of Your Body
As part of our distracted lifestyle, we often don't listen to our body. We eat the wrong foods, drink, stay up too late and forget to exercise or over-exercise. We also carry around the false notion that our body's well-being is independent from that of our mind. This is not the case. As anyone who has started a healthy diet or exercise regimen knows, when we start to take care of our body, we naturally feel better and, with a positive state of mind, our whole outlook on life changes. As a friend of mine who was going through a divorce once told me "if my mind is ok, then everything is ok." One of the best ways to take care of our minds is to take good care of our bodies.
"Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle" is a quote that resonates with us all. There is always someone suffering more than we are. This gives us the opportunity to approach others with kindness and a sense of service. No matter what our capabilities, we can always contribute to others with as little as a smile or more. Service is very simple. "Help one person at a time, and always start with the person nearest you" said Mother Theresa. Whether it is the person working the cash register at the grocery store or your neighbor, even one small act of kindness can brighten someone's day. We can be of service to people, animals or even nature. Whatever you are drawn to, your act of service is an act of connection that will help lift your loneliness. As described at length in a prior post, research shows that compassion and service can be of tremendous benefit. Often, when we feel down or alone, our vision and universe become very narrow. Helping others can immediately change our perspective and re-energize us, which is why compassion has been linked to well-being. As Mahatma Gandhi wrote, "the best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others."
6. Connect with Nature
If connecting with people is a challenge, connect with nature. A recent study shows that taking walks in nature can increase our well-being even in the case of depression and another study showed that exposure to nature increases our value of connectedness and closeness and even make us more caring and ready to share with others. Connecting with nature can help broaden that vision and inspire an experience of awe at the view of a landscape. Cultivating awe through nature can also help broaden our perspective. Research on awe which is often inspired by beautiful natural sceneries such as a starlit sky or a vast horizon suggests that it slows our perception of time by bringing us into the present moment and enhances our well-being.
7. Practice Loving-Kindness Meditation
This exercise is a meditation designed to increase our sense of love and kindness towards others. A study I ran at Stanford showed that even 7 minutes of this exercise can make us feel more connected to others in a deep-seated way. Follow this link to read instructions for loving-kindness meditation.
8. Fall in Love with Yourself
"If you make friends with yourself, you will never be alone" wrote Maxwell Maltz We often run from solitude for the same reasons we run from loneliness. We fear being alone. But being alone also means doing what you please. You can dance at your own rhythm, eat whatever you fancy, watch the movies you wish to watch, and make choices that are entirely your own! Being alone is often the only time we can truly rest, undistracted, unstimulated by the environment and other people. Audrey Hepburn said "“I have to be alone very often. I'd be quite happy if I spent from Saturday night until Monday morning alone in my apartment. That's how I refuel." Being alone can be a great sort of replenishment and even bliss. Beneath the thoughts and emotions is a vast ocean of silence, peace and well-being. We all access it at times, sometimes it can be experienced when you lose yourself in a sunset, or just as you wake up before thoughts flood the mind, or in an act of service or love, in meditation or prayer. The more we can access that space, the more that well-being also permeates the rest of our day.
Finally, know that you are not alone. We are all deeply vulnerable. This knowledge alone may open your heart and make you feel connected to all. Moroever, the pain of loneliness is also one that gives you tremendous depth and empathy. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross who worked with dying patients all of her life in the depths of their vulnerability wrote: "The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen." Every difficult experience can make us deeper, wiser, more compassionate and grateful and, ultimately, happier and more fulfilled.
For more on the importance of social connection, see this post.
To stay updated on the science of happiness, health and social connection, see www.emmaseppala.com. Watch Emma's TEDx talk for a great summary of her work.
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© 2013 Emma Seppala, Ph.D.