Loneliness: What’s Going on in Our Lives?
Researchers are noting that large numbers of people report chronic feelings of loneliness. The numbers are so staggering that government agencies in many countries and health organizations are talking of a loneliness epidemic.
It may seem counter-intuitive that we are feeling more loneliness in our modern world where we have the ability to be constantly connected via our devices. Yet many of us have become slaves to our screens. One result of our connectivity is that we have less time to make meaningful social engagement face-to-face. We are so busy and stressed that we don’t or can’t make the time for real human connection.
Loneliness Affects Us All
People of all age groups seem to be experiencing a sharp increase in loneliness. Many more of us live alone than in previous generations. And even if we still live in family settings, we are all so busy that we don’t have time for positive social connections. Home is often just the place where we sleep–or where we all are glued to our individual screens with minimal interaction.
Adolescents report that they spend more time engaged with devices and less time hanging out with friends and family. But loneliness also affects many older people. As we live longer, we lose touch with people and begin to feel isolated.
And this condition leads to health problems. Loneliness has been shown to be a significant contributor to a range of medical conditions, including heart disease, strokes, and Alzheimer’s. Isolation and accompanying despair can increase the risk factors for obesity, diabetes, alcohol and drug addiction, and severe depression.
Antidotes for Isolation
The Buddhist tradition offers a number of antidotes to loneliness. Because the Buddha taught dependent origination– that everything arises dependently, connection matters. As humans, we are social animals who rely on others in order to live and thrive. According to the Buddha, each being has at one point been our kind parent. If we can be open to that possibility we will begin to understand that loneliness is not permanent–it is just a thought or a feeling. And if that seems too far-fetched then we can simply acknowledge that we depend upon many others for every aspect of our life–we’re never alone!
None of the practices below assume any knowledge of Buddhist teachings. Nor do you need to be a Buddhist in order to benefit from them. But all of these ways of working with the mind come from an ancient tradition.
Changing Perspectives: Focusing Outward
Buddhist tradition provides many instructions for cultivating positive social connections. To begin, we can turn our attention outward. Loneliness arises when we focus internally–and it involves a lot of self-criticisms. Instead, Buddhist masters advise us to practice kindness, love, and compassion.
When we cultivate those qualities and focus on others, our loneliness vanishes. We leave it no space to grow. This may sound strange–we might think that we can’t care for others when we are miserable.
But the irony is we can’t focus on our sadness and misery when we’re caring for others! Changing perspectives allows us to give love–and that itself cures loneliness.
Building New Habits to Counter Loneliness
As you choose to shift your perspective, you may want to try one or more of these simple practices. First, we begin where we are–we acknowledge our feelings but don’t allow ourselves to get caught up in familiar storylines. Take these practices slowly–you may begin with just one new habit and spend a few days working with that. Then begin to introduce the other exercises. See what feels right for you. And bring a sense of curiosity and of humor to the process!
- Practice mindfulness of your body. When you sense the wave of loneliness washing over you, don’t try to push it away. Instead, acknowledge the feeling and begin to examine it in your body. Where do you sense this? How does it feel–do you experience tightness or heaviness? What happens to your breathing? Try to note what is going on in your physical body and notice how sensations change. Loneliness might feel at first like a solid thing, but see if you can observe how each part of your body moves or changes with that feeling. Bringing our attention to the body helps us to see that emotions, feelings, and thoughts constantly change. We’re not stuck in one solid state even though it might feel that way when we begin.
- Appreciate others. Take some time every day to reflect on your connections with the universe. As you sip a glass of water or a cup of tea or coffee consider how many people were involved in bringing you that bit of refreshment. When you eat a meal, think about those that cleared and worked the land, planted the crops, and harvested the results. People worked hard to bring you a meal. You don’t know these strangers, but they brought you benefit today. Appreciate their labor and silently thank them and wish them well.
- Continue reflecting on connectivity as you go about your daily routine. When you commute, think about all the individuals who labored to create roads or mass transit or bike paths and trails. If you remain at home consider the architects, planners, and builders who made possible the roof over your head and considered your comfort. Although these people remain strangers, you benefit daily from their kindness and care. Acknowledge that, and again thank them silently. Think of the generations of people who settled your town, city, state, or country. You benefit from their forethought and care every day. How wondrous!
- Recognize and learn to ignore your own negative thought patterns. Often when we feel lonely, we decide not to make the effort to connect with others. We tell ourselves false narratives about our unworthiness. Instead, we can shift our focus to be about other people. Rather than worrying about what others might think of us, we can actively seek engagement with others. That may be as simple as smiling at people we pass on the street and saying hello. Can we notice when someone else looks uncomfortable or needs help? In such moments we can extend ourselves–helping an older person carry a package or cross the street.
- Watch for opportunities for connections. Research shows that even brief positive social interactions with casual acquaintances can alleviate feelings of loneliness and isolation. But we have to make the effort to notice these opportunities. So, the next time you see a brief acquaintance, make an effort to smile and to say something kind or gentle. Try to notice something positive and comment on that. Even a brief conversation about the beauty of the day will leave both of you with an uplifted positive mood. And every small minute in that direction matters. But don’t worry if your first attempts seem forced or don’t meet with positive responses. Your intention here is to share some kindness and connection with others–drop any agenda of receiving something in return.
If these practices make you curious about your mind, you may wish to explore Samye Institute’s short home-study program Training the Mind: An Introduction. There, Tibetan Buddhist master Phakchok Rinpoche explains how to work with our minds in today’s busy world.
Note: This advice is not meant to take the place of professional mental health guidance. Mental conditions are complex and people differ widely in their conditions and responses. If you suffer from serious anxiety or depression, we suggest that you seek the services of a trained mental health professional.