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Loneliness

Mindfulness for the Lonely

Loneliness is an epidemic, but mindfulness may prevent us from being its victim.

Key points

  • When you feel lonely, pause and notice how it feels. Recognize it will pass. Resist the need to judge and instead be compassionate.
  • Recognize that when we feel lonely, it is just a feeling, and feelings are temporary.
  • Mindfulness calms our nervous system and gives us room to see more options than we normally see.

In 1996, Eric Carmen sang, “All by myself, don’t want to be all by myself.” Most of us would agree that life is better with a few close friends. Mindfulness is one tool that can help us cut through the isolating thoughts that plague us. Mindfulness calms our nervous system and gives us room to see more options than we normally see.

A recent Psychology Today post about The Rise of Lonely, Single Men outlines a study by Dr. Barreto on how young and middle-aged people are lonelier than ever before and how this is especially true for men. This study validates what so many of us have been experiencing for some time. We feel disconnected from each other. It seems hard to be present with each other, and, instead of confronting the awkwardness of our loneliness, we are sinking further into it.

The Wisdom of Age

One interesting element of Dr. Barreto's study is that older generations are faring much better. They don’t seem to be feeling the loneliness that the younger group is experiencing, which begs the question: Is there something they could teach us? Certainly. Older folks aren’t on their phones as much; they aren’t on social media like their children and grandchildren.

Technology is wonderful and none of us want to do without it, but it often distracts us from making the effort to be present with people. In addition, social media create the tendency to judge—ourselves and others. Much of what we see in social media is staged and doesn’t reflect real life.1 It’s ironic, but being “friends” with 100s or 1000s of people impedes the quality of our connection to the few people who mean the most. Mindfulness reestablishes awareness and compassion, which are great antidotes to disconnection, judgment, and loneliness.2

Loneliness and Romantic Relationships

Loneliness is also connected to how we are forming relationships. Here are some examples of major contributors to loneliness in relationships today:

1. We tend to have unrealistic expectations for relationships these days. We believe our partner needs to fill so many roles that they could scarcely have time to have a job. We expect an emotionally engaged, financially savvy, fit, educated, witty conversationalist, who gets every aspect of our personality.3 And we don’t want to have to explain our own neurotic personality to them. Instead, we want them to just sense what we need and then fill that need. We’re looking for “Mr./Miss Right" on dating apps that are so reductionistic that the only information used to decide are the five photos that have been carefully chosen and edited. We have objectified dating, and there is little room or time to really learn something deeper about our date.

2. We are lacking the gentle art of relationships. Learning about our partner's or prospective partner's little obsession with a poet and researching a poem to share. Finding an old antique store that has the baseball card that was lost when he was 11. Buying some extra wrapping tape for the 10K they are running on the weekend. These little behaviors create connection and eliminate loneliness.

I remember a guy I dated long ago who dropped off a “care package’ early one morning when he knew I was taking the law school entrance exam (LSAT). He put sharpened pencils, gum, and some trail mix in a little bag. I still remember that as one of the kindest gestures someone could have done for me on that day.

3. We have a perfectionistic perspective. None of us is perfect, and we know it. Why would we want someone who is “perfect"? Perfectionism causes isolation. Unfortunately, when imagining who we should date, we move into a perfectionistic perspective. One study showed that individuals eliminate 60 percent of the people in a room as prospects before they are even introduced. What is strange is that when most people find a companion, they laugh about what was on their “must have” list. Is attraction important? Yes—but not as much as we sometimes think. Attraction grows as people spend time together and share a sense of humor or common values and interests.

Mindfulness and Loneliness

Here are some ways that you can use mindfulness to overcome loneliness:

Can we recognize that when we feel lonely, it is just a feeling? It’s like we have a river of thoughts and feelings that are constantly rushing by, and we often get caught in the current. If we can recognize that these thoughts and feelings are temporary, we can stay calmly on the bank of our thought and feeling river and just notice as they pass by instead of getting swept away by them. We could think, “I’m feeling lonely right now. This will pass. I’m curious what I could do to feel more included. I think I might call my mate and have some tea.”

Next time you feel a surge of loneliness, pause and notice how it feels. Recognize it will pass. Resist the need to judge the feeling and instead be curious or even compassionate. Maybe it’s been a while since you felt a real connection, and your body is simply telling you that is what it needs.

If you’re in a romantic relationship, create space to talk regularly about loneliness. We sometimes feel if we have a partner, we shouldn’t feel loneliness. But that’s simply not true. Loneliness touches us all. Observe when you feel lonely and voice your need to reconnect or feel companionship.

Loneliness is an epidemic, but we don’t have to be its victim. Mindfulness can help inoculate us from the negative consequences of loneliness. Give yourself a little mindful hug and then go give a hug to someone you care about.

References

1. Akram, W., & Kumar, R. (2017). A study on positive and negative effects of social media on society. International Journal of Computer Sciences and Engineering, 5(10), 351-354.

2. Leavitt, C. E., Allsop, D. B., Gurr, J., Fawcett, E., Boden, J., Driggs, S., & Hawkins, A. J. (2021). A couples’ relationship education intervention examining sexual mindfulness and trait mindfulness. Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 1-13.

3. Coontz, S. (2006). Marriage, a history: How love conquered marriage. Penguin.

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