I read this article in January long before the pandemic set in, “Most Americans Are Lonely, And Our Workplace Culture May Not Be Helping.” The article cites a report from the health insurer Cigna that found that three in five Americans are lonely, a nearly 13% rise since 2018. A professor at the University of Utah who studies relationships and health says pervasive loneliness has widespread effects and is linked to mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. But the impacts don’t end with mental health. He says, “Evidence is really pointing to the fact that relationships — the kinds of bonds you have with people, how close you are, how connected you feel to others — impact physical health as well.”
I can only imagine what the impact the current global situation has had related to these statistics. It seems that as people’s worlds get smaller, many who were struggling with mental health issues experienced an exacerbation of symptoms or a recurrence of symptoms that had receded. If you are experiencing this, please be gentle with yourself. Know you aren’t alone and know it doesn’t have to be this way even with these circumstances.
Unfortunately, even though the researchers can track that loneliness is reaching concerning levels and that it has an impact on mental and physical health, they don’t know how to address it. They look to better quality relationships as a solution. Doug Nemecek, chief medical officer for behavioral health at Cigna says that in-person connections are what really matters. Taking the time to have meaningful interactions and meaningful conversations and sharing our lives with others, is important to help us mitigate and minimize loneliness. This makes sense to them because they see from their results that people in close relationships feel more emotional security and well-being, and they have lower scores on their experience of loneliness.
This is an example of a correlation. There is a correlation between people who have close relationships and people having fewer experiences of loneliness in their lives. But feelings of isolation and loneliness cut across generations and are not just felt by those who are single. People feel lonely in their marriages. People feel lonely even when they are with friends. People who are deeply loved feel isolated and alone. Therefore, the correlation between close relationships and less loneliness does not equal a solution.
I am not ignoring that humans are designed for connection. Our brains are wired for relationships. But relationships are not the solution to loneliness. What is the solution is the understanding that the experience of loneliness is a passing state that comes and goes independent of circumstances. I have had clients fight me tooth and nail on this, but with great compassion and empathy, I point out to them that they are fighting for their own limitations.
Being single, being at home alone, even during a pandemic, are not the cause of feelings of loneliness. Some people I speak with are actually loving this time and grateful to not have social engagements. Others are home with their loved ones and feeling incredibly sad, disconsolate, and lonely. If relationships were the solution to loneliness this would not be the case.
Understanding, however, is what offers protection from the debilitating effects the researchers were measuring. Understanding does not offer the kind of protection that means you will never feel lonely in your life. But it does offer the kind of protection that allows you to know you are okay even when loneliness might be part of your experience.
Understanding that loneliness does not mean anything about you or your situation is comforting. It does not mean there is something wrong with you. It is a normal human experience that we all have from time to time. There is nothing to fix or change. Loneliness is a normal experience that comes and goes. Understanding this helps you not to be afraid of it. When you see this you can relax. You don’t need to fight your experience of loneliness or any other negative emotional experience you might be having. Instead, you can allow it and know you are safe. It is temporary, and it is not all of who you are. When you are able to do this, experiences are manageable. They move through you. They don’t become entrenched and you don’t reinforce them with an ongoing narrative that holds the experience in place.
The experience of loneliness does not cause mental health issues and poor physical health. The misunderstanding of what loneliness is is the culprit.
Rather than relationships being the solution to loneliness, understanding is. Being able to be comfortable with your experience of loneliness by understanding that it is normal and temporary is what allows people to suffer less and it actually helps people to have better relationships. Good relationships are the by-product of not being consumed, fixated, and stuck in the experience of loneliness or other negative emotions. If they are the by-product they can’t be the solution.
Fortunately, it is possible to educate people to not be afraid of their experience, even loneliness, even during the stay at home orders during a pandemic. Remember all feelings are normal and healthy. As the poet, Rainer Maria Rilke said in Go to the Limits of Your Longing,
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Not only is no feeling final, but also who you are is not your feelings. Who you are is far greater than the sum of your experience. Understanding this is not just a solution to loneliness. It is the solution to all suffering. Remembering who you are brings the experience of inner safety and wellbeing that allows room for all emotions and experiences. Look in the direction of the truth that lies beyond your thoughts and feelings. That is the direction to look in. Research may not be able to measure this intangible mystery of who we are, but we as humans are part of it and the love that is in our hearts is a reflection of it. Loneliness pales in comparison to the enormity of love that is our true nature. It is there whether we are in a relationship or not, whether we are alone or not, and when we feel this love we can’t help but share it. And the giving of it fills us up even more. This is a relevant solution to loneliness.
Rohini Ross is passionate about helping people wake up to their full potential. She is a transformative coach, leadership consultant, a regular blogger for Thrive Global, and author of the short-read Marriage (The Soul-Centered Series Book 1) available on Amazon. You can get her free eBook Relationships here. Rohini has an international coaching and consulting practice based in Los Angeles helping individuals, couples, and professionals embrace all of who they are so they can experience greater levels of well-being, resiliency, and success. She is also the founder of The Soul-Centered Series: Psychology, Spirituality, and the Teachings of Sydney Banks. You can follow Rohini on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and watch her Vlogs with her husband. To learn more about her work go to her website, rohiniross.com.