"Live a good life, and in the end, it’s not the years in the life, it’s the life in the years."

Feeling lonely? Here are ideas to help

By on January 31, 2018 in Columnist with 0 Comments

June DarlingIf you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.

— African proverb

In December, with my encouragement, my husband took off for 10 days to explore the Amazon.

After he left, I didn’t feel so good. I wasn’t just alone, I was lonely.

Loneliness is not just painful; it is dangerous.

Humans are highly social creatures — that fact is not debatable. Researchers like social neuroscientist Dr. John Cacioppo say loneliness is not just about being alone, however. It’s more complex.

Many of us can be married, in a crowd, even in a family setting and still have inner feelings of loneliness. Loneliness is partly a state of mind.

Here are a few statements that chronically lonely people agree with:

I often feel that there is no one I can turn to.

I often feel left out.

I feel that my relationships with others are not meaningful.

The perception of being alone is just as important, perhaps even more important, than the actuality of being by one’s self or with others.

That’s an important idea to hang on because researchers have tried to help lonely people in all the wrong ways. They’ve tried boosting social skills. They’ve thrown lonely people together. They’ve tried giving social support (for example, offering a professional listener). None of that worked well. It was concerning.

Loneliness has become an increasing concern for two reasons. First, researchers have reported heightened health risks associated with loneliness. Second, loneliness seems to be increasing.

In terms of health, the impact of loneliness is comparable to the effects of high blood pressure, lack of exercise, obesity, and smoking. Loneliness even accelerates the aging process through stress hormones and impacts immune and cardiovascular functioning.

Loneliness hurts.

Brain scans show that loneliness activates the same region that registers physical pain and social rejection. Lonely people drink more alcohol, exercise less, and have less energy. Loneliness can make us more demanding, critical and passive, which isn’t exactly a good recipe for making friends.

Why is loneliness increasing?

Perhaps because more people live alone. People also have fewer strong friends. In 1985 researchers asked a cross-section of Americans how many confidants they had. Most reported having three close confidants. In both 2004 and in 2014, most people reported having no confidants.

Fortunately, researchers like Cacioppo now better understand what loneliness actually is (the perception that the social interactions you are having is not what you want) and its causes — that part of it is caused by isolation and part is caused by perception.

Loneliness affects absolutely every age group and both genders. The holidays, most assuredly Valentine’s Day, can make loneliness feel even more miserable.

Researchers like Cacioppo now offer better advice on how to become less lonely and more socially connected which you can use anytime, especially when you see those hearts and flowers popping up.

Find small ways to extend yourself, strike up short conversations with people, and expect the best (lonely people have a harder time trusting others). Some of those encounters can develop into more meaningful relationships. Use your social skills. Researchers have found that it isn’t so much that lonely people do not have social skills, but that they become so focused on their own pain that they forget to use them.

Develop a long-term plan for becoming more socially active. Service clubs and service activities are especially good if they fit well with your values. You will be in a better position to engage with people in ways that seem meaningful to you.

Understand that when you are lonely you are in a stressed state. You have a small repertoire of behaviors — fight, freeze, fight. You’re focused on yourself. Exercise, meditate, read, get outside, sleep, look for the best in others. Be relaxed, open and appropriately welcoming to others’ social overtures.

When my husband went to the Amazon, I became not only curious about the research on loneliness and social connection, but also about what real people in my world did. I decided to investigate a group of women I think of as “The Bunco Babes.”

The Bunco Babes started their group 17 years ago when Delores Boswell’s husband, Tim, died. Delores reached out to a friend, Claudia Spanjer who was divorced. Together they found 10 other women in Cashmere, Peshastin, Wenatchee and East Wenatchee who were single.

The idea was that they would get together once a month to play this game, called Bunco. Bunco was chosen to give them a bit of stimulation, but more importantly it offered a chance to socialize. Over time, they evolved into a close-knit group.

I twisted a few arms to get an inside peek at what happens when they play Bunco. What I heard and saw was both laughter and comfort as friends shared moments of triumph and woe.

These women were mostly in their 60s and above; they had a lot of life stories. I was uptight before getting to Bunco, not looking forward to another night of being alone at home. As I listened to the chatter and as I interacted with others, I noticed my deep sense of relaxation.

Afterwards, as I reflected on that Bunco night, the person who affected me the most was Shirley Milne. Shirley’s in her 90s though you would never know it. She has macular degeneration and accepts a little help from her friends when it comes to counting her score from the roll of the die.

When Shirley and I were first introduced that evening, we chatted for a moment about her life in Peshastin.

Then, for no reason that I could fathom, she said with a grin, “I’m not afraid of you, June,” which clearly surprised me and made me giggle.

I still don’t know why she said it except that maybe Shirley knows something — that we are more often afraid of new people than we let on. Later when I left, she gave me a hearty hug.

It was Shirley that I remembered the most as I went home to my empty house. Maybe she was dropping a few hints about how to successfully deal with loneliness. Be brave, don’t fear others. Hug. I slept well.

No matter if you feel lonely or not, take February to enrich your social connections. Have courage, be patient, exert a bit of effort.

And don’t look for perfection in your friendships — that’s impossible. A thousand friends on Facebook won’t count either, but two or three real-life ones will.

How might you take February to strengthen your social connections and move up To The Good Life?

June Darling, Ph.D. can be contacted at drjunedarling1@gmail.com; website: www.summitgroupresources.com. Her bio and many of her books can be found at amazon.com/author/junedarling.

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