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Social Connection for the Socially Hesitant

The Surgeon General declares an epidemic of loneliness. Here's how to respond.

Key points

  • The U.S. Surgeon General reports that half of American adults experience significant loneliness, especially young adults.
  • Our technology use and the social isolation required during lockdowns have robbed us of opportunities to practice social connection.
  • Several simple actions, when practiced, can make social interaction more manageable and lead to better health and less loneliness.
Source: Geoffroy Hauwen/Unsplash
Source: Geoffroy Hauwen/Unsplash

This week, the U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, issued an advisory, offering a strategy for addressing what he has named an “epidemic of loneliness” in the United States. Alarmingly, half of American adults report experiencing notable loneliness, and young adults face some of the highest rates. Complicating matters, less than 20 percent of those who feel lonely or isolated recognize it as a major problem. This is a concern as higher incidence of loneliness is correlated with poorer health and premature death. The good news is that there are measures we can take to reverse the trend of decreased social connectedness over time.

Social isolation plays a significant role in this epidemic as does a culture that does not have an equitable distribution of resources. Socioeconomics, racism, capitalism, and even the zip code in which a person is born often determine what kind of social skills, opportunities, and resources are available. We cannot deny this truth and must work to correct it.

Loneliness and social isolation, however, also traverse all human demographics and are distinct from each other, yet related. Loneliness is an internal psychological state resulting from a perceived or actual lack of meaningful relationships. Social isolation, on the other hand, is the felt experience of having infrequent social interactions, limited roles within the community, few group memberships, and too few relationships. In essence, we feel loneliness and we experience social isolation. While they are related, they are not mutually exclusive.

While the sources of our loneliness and social isolation are many and complex, it’s clear that our easy access to, and reliance upon, technology for connection, vocational success, education, entertainment, and information gathering plays a major part. As we know, practice makes proficient, and research is clear that we practice interacting with our devices at an alarming rate. If for no other reason than a limited number of hours in the day, our hyperconnected, super-multitasking, interacting-with-multiple-devices-at-a-time behavior is robbing us of opportunities to become proficient social connectors.

We have major work to do to address the inequities that make loneliness more likely and risky for some populations, thereby improving community health. To do this work, we must begin to come back to ourselves individually, free of devices, to re-learn how to be, first, with ourselves, and, then, with others. We must do the work of breaking some of our distracting and distancing habits so that we might enhance our abilities to tolerate awkward moments and work through the big feelings that result from being out and about in a world of others. It is imperative that we set down our devices, even for short periods of time, and begin practicing skills that will empower us to combat social isolation and loneliness.

Here are a few places to start:

1. Practice emotional regulation skills.

The world of social connectedness can be an emotionally provocative space. Coming out of a period of necessary social isolation to control the spread of a virus, our relational abilities are likely rusty or overly anxious. We’ve either craved connection and are tossing ourselves into the world with wild expectations or we’ve become so familiar with being alone that it feels like the easiest option to maintain, regardless of the price. In either case, we need to have some ways of keeping ourselves calm and regulated as we interact with others. If we don’t, we’ll stop trying at our first failed attempts.

Practicing deep breathing, inhaling through the nose and exhaling through the mouth, can be a helpful tool to keep ourselves calm as we interact with others. If social connection makes us feel anxious, stopping prior to entering a situation and taking three deep breaths can slow us down and calm our central nervous system. Communicating with others what we need to make encounters manageable can also help. Set a time limit on the experience or arrange it in a space that is comfortable and that you can remove yourself from if you become overwhelmed.

The goal is to develop strategies that help you succeed in social settings rather than avoiding them altogether. Anxiety isn’t the enemy; it’s something to be worked with gently and strategically.

2. Embrace and re-integrate “soft” forms of social interaction.

We have become exceedingly comfortable executing many of the tasks required for daily living without ever interacting with others. We order our coffee on apps and pick it up at an un-personed counter. Our groceries are delivered to our door, meaning we miss the opportunity to practice small talk at the register or emotional management in the context of strangers and neighbors.

Even small intentional actions can help with this. With your emotional regulation skills intact, order your to-go food or drink from a person at a register. Make an effort to look the person taking your order in the eye and ask them a basic question (see below). When at a store and approached by a sales associate, practice looking them in the eye and saying, “Thanks. I think I’m good on my own” rather than simply avoiding them or brushing them off. Or, for every five conversations you are having in text, move one to a phone call. Every incremental step you can take toward embodied encounters will help you build skill, proficiency, flexibility, and resilience in social connections.

If you are a parent, equip and empower your children to do these things.

3. Have a few “go-to” conversation starters and condition yourself to listen to the answers.

If the thought of having to make small talk keeps you from addressing your loneliness, write out four short questions that can be used in most situations. We all joke about talking about the weather, but it’s actually a great example of an effective conversation starter. The weather is a shared experience, so it’s safe territory.

What are other shared human experiences to capitalize on? “It’s Wednesday. How’s your week going?” “I’m asking everyone I encounter today what their favorite color is. What’s yours?” If you’re at a grocery store or restaurant/coffee shop, “What’s your favorite product here/item on the menu?”

Even if the person you’ve asked seems surprised or doesn’t respond quickly, it’s meaningful to them to be acknowledged. Wait a beat to see if they answer and, if it feels overly awkward, you can simply name it. “I’m trying to practice interacting in new ways…that’s why I asked.” Smile and be on your way. Then return to the emotional regulation practice spelled out above and resist beating yourself up for creating an awkward moment. Instead, celebrate a step toward skill development.

If the thought of asking a question feels overwhelming, think about a few universal comments or compliments you can offer instead. Even a simple, “Thank you,” spoken clearly on the exhale of a good deep breath can be meaningful practice. Extra credit for some eye contact tossed in the mix.

4. Don’t minimize how hard it can be to interact socially.

Our brains wire together where they fire together, and we’ve not been offering them much fire in the social interaction arena. It’s emotionally taxing to try new things. Give yourself credit for efforts in this area.

If you are a parent or person who works with young people, this last point is especially important. Our children lost access to some of their most important learning opportunities in the last several years. It’s no small task for them to learn to interact and engage with others in the world. Empower and equip them and model well, leading with empathy.

I’ll be addressing the Surgeon General’s advisory (which you can read here or interact with highlights from here) and how our technology use intersects with loneliness in the coming weeks. Please follow along/interact here and let me know what you’d like to learn about.

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