Many of us are lonely today. It crops up in my own life from time to time even though I am married, do work I enjoy, and have a few people I care deeply about and who also care about me. You don’t have to be alone be lonely.
It is my nature to question things and look deeper (both a curse and a blessing!), so I’ve delved into this feeling of loneliness almost as an afterthought from writing about happiness. I believe that loneliness is a common and misunderstood obstacle to happiness. Loneliness is a serious issue and impacts the quality of our lives. There are many different kinds of loneliness. It is sort of a catch-all term that says very little about what is really going on. Are you lonely because you miss a best friend? Do you miss being part of a group, something larger than just you? Does it make you feel unseen because you do not have a place that seems familiar, where you are known? Are you missing a romantic partner in your life? Are you feeling overwhelmed because you don’t have someone around whom you can lean on and depend upon when things get difficult? Loneliness has so many faces and so is harder to pinpoint.
A sense of connection is often the missing link in our lives and is a common thread with loneliness. The Welsh have a word for a special kind of loneliness, called Hiraeth. It doesn’t have a precise English translation, but in general means “a homesickness for a home you cannot return to, or that never was“. It is similar to the Portuguese “saudade” which is the theme of Fado music. Hiraeth is a mix of longing, yearning, tinged with grief or a sense of loss and a desire to connect with or touch that which has been lost. It is the feeling of separateness or disconnection that is at the root of any type of loneliness. There is help for this deep existential form of hiraeth as well as the temporary fleeting feelings of loneliness we all experience from time to time.
Nurturing a sense of connection is the best (and maybe the only) way to shift a feeling of loneliness. I believe that we are all interconnected and interdependent with each other, but the illusion of separateness persists due to our egoic minds, modern life, and our culture of fear and lack. But since I also believe our view of reality is almost entirely perceptual, the “illusion” of loneliness is a very real part of a lonely person’s life.
I do not intend to trivialise the problem of loneliness, but sometimes actionable steps are simply the best way out of a bad cycle. Just taking a step in the right direction immediately improves our perception and thus our situation. Try some version of my suggestions, tweak them as much as you need to so they are meaningful to you. and take a step out of any bleak feelings you are having. (The only reason I “know” about this is because I have felt it myself, and edged my way out of bleakness by trying something different.)
- Make a habit of nurturing others. For happiness in general, studies show that it is just as important to give support as to get support. Make eye contact and smile at someone. Even if they don’t smile back, it cost you nothing to do this and is likely to bring about a lovely smile in return. Offer to get groceries for an elderly neighbor, foster a dog or cat, take care of a friend’s children, teach a class, volunteer in your neighborhood or community. Giving support to others creates a feeling of connection.
- Make real attempts at connecting with other people. Sign up for an exercise, language, art, sewing, craft class, join a book group, show up at the weekly office coffee hour, take a minute to chat with a co-worker, neighbor, or acquaintance, attend a community talk or lecture, start or join a local walking group. (Yes, I know. All the advice we’ve all heard before. But it really works!)
- Get better sleep. Sleep deprivation under any circumstances brings down people’s moods and exacerbates negative feelings. You will not feel like building connections if you are suffering from chronic sleep deprivation. It is important to tackle this issue. Give it your attention by trying different things for a couple of weeks at a time. (There is a mountain of information out there to cure insomnia, but my next blog will be about this very thing.) Chronic sleep problems are usually the result of bad habits that need to be changed.
- Make a habit of staying open. This can be as simple as being aware of the next breath you take or the food you are tasting. It involves staying open to life and experiences as much as staying open to people. I know that loneliness itself can make people feel more negative, critical, and judgemental. Sadly, people who are lonely are far less accepting of potential new friends than people who are not lonely so the hurdle comes down to feeling what you are feeling and gently pressing on anyway.
- Ask yourself, “What is it that I really want?” We often avoid this question in anything but a trivial way because it can be painful and can bring up what is “missing” in our life. But it is easier to know how to address an issue if you are clear what you really want. Chances are, you do not really want the third chocolate brownie or the 5th piece of pizza. Overeating is a common quick fix for feelings of lack or of not “being” enough. There are other things we do to mask discovering what it is we really want of course, but by far overeating is the most common. Without getting into a deep rut with this, touch into the question “What is it that I really want?” for a few minutes each day. Beginning to feel comfortable with this question – and the resulting answer – will go a long way in resolving feelings of loneliness and unhappiness.
Sometimes the wanting or longing you feel can be a marker for you to follow along your path. I wish you well as you listen to the whisperings that come along when you ask the important questions.
If you try, or have tried, any of these ideas to step out of feelings of loneliness and darkness, please let me know how they worked for you.