Updated: Aug 24, 2019
I don’t mean to alarm anyone, but we are in the midst of a serious epidemic that is devastating the mental and physical well-being of people across the globe, and especially here in the United States. It’s more dangerous than obesity, with a mortality rate on par with smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and decreases resistance to everything from depression and anxiety to heart disease and dementia.
And loneliness, despite what you may have heard, does not discriminate based on age. Though it tends to peak in adolescence and then again in old age, loneliness is on the rise across all age groups. In the United States, the loneliest and least healthy demographic is currently the 18-37 age range.
The mental health community has thrown itself headlong into the battle against loneliness, but the vast majority of their efforts leave out the single most important factor in eliminating loneliness: intimacy.
This betrays a deep-seated cultural misunderstanding around the root cause of loneliness.
Loneliness occurs when people feel misunderstood, shut down by internal or external expectations, rejected for who they are or want to be, or abandoned by people they trust. Loneliness is the feeling that nobody really knows, understands, and accepts us, just as we are.
Lonely people yearn to resolve their pain, often self-medicating, blame-casting, or acting out. But even those who seek out healing are often let down by the inadequacy of the treatment options offered by the healthcare industry.
That’s because loneliness isn’t just “being alone.” You can’t solve the problem of loneliness by foisting community onto the isolated, or with one-sided conversation.
That’s why social media has exacerbated rather than alleviated the crisis of connection: increased numbers of casual connections not only fail to eliminate loneliness, they actually make the experience of loneliness feel even worse. Anyone who has ever lived in a big city like NYC will understand exactly what I mean. The more surrounded you are by people, the more painful it is to feel that disconnect over and over again.
The cure for loneliness isn’t quantity of connection, it’s quality. In other words: intimacy!
Here are three simple ways to create more intimacy in your life and banish loneliness for good.
1. Focus on friendship
A lot of people see the word "intimacy" and automatically assume a sexual context. But friendship can be just as intimate as a romantic partnership, and is often much easier to find.
For tips on making friends, check out my article on the magic (and science) of networking.
For tips on deepening those friendships into intimate relationships and ultimately support systems, read this one, on how I learned after four decades of life that I had been doing friendship completely wrong.
2. Join a movement
One of the best ways to feel a deep and genuine sense of belonging is to become part of something larger than oneself.
Joining a social movement that is aligned to your personal values will not only automatically create a tribe of like-minded people for you to belong to, it will give you an opportunity to make a real difference in the world, which can have a massively positive effect on your self-image. And the more you like and respect yourself, the more you'll be able to enjoy your own company so alone won't feel so lonely.
Remember, though, community organizing is about finding or creating a group that is already in alignment with your belief system, NOT about changing your beliefs to conform to those of a group you wish to join. As Brene Brown puts it:
"Fitting in is the opposite of belonging."
3. Put yourself out there
Being vulnerable and telling the truth about who we really are is scary. I know. If you've read my personal blog, then you know that I keep doing it any way, despite all the myriad reasons life has given me not to over the years. I encourage you to follow suit.
I don't mean you should start a blog, although that's certainly one way to put yourself out there. I mean that the best way to find your tribe, the people who will really get you and appreciate you as you are, is to be yourself, loudly and proudly, in all aspects of your life. Yes, you might lose some relationships at first. But if you do, that means those relationships weren't truly intimate, and were likely exacerbating your feelings of loneliness.
Once you start living out loud as the version of you that YOU like best, I promise you will start attracting people who will adore you, just as you are.
Loneliness is Curable
We already have the tools to fight the loneliness epidemic:
Becoming intimate with ourselves and our own way of being.Becoming intimate with a project we believe in by investing ourselves, our values, and in others who share those values.Cultivating friendships that allow for and celebrate who we are and what we believe in.
All we have to do is be bravely vulnerable enough to make use of them.