Loneliness and Friendship (you don't have to be lonely)

By Dr. Batya L. Ludman, Psy.D., FT · Published August 11, 2023

As human beings, we are deeply wired from birth for social connection. We smile, coo in a higher pitched voice, and even nurse our young from a perfect focal length for optimal mother - infant bonding. With time and as we age however, we have become increasingly more isolated and disconnected. This is especially true in our post-COVID world, and the concomitant and excessive use of social media has unfortunately only increased our sense of isolation and loneliness.

It is therefore somewhat less shocking to hear that the Office of the U.S. Surgeon General has described loneliness as being more widespread than other major health issues and sees loneliness and isolation as a major public health concern. Yes, loneliness is more than just a bad feeling and as individuals, a community and a country, we all need to sit up and take notice. Sadly, I am not even referring to the current state of our nation which in being so divided has only helped to greatly amplify our sense of loneliness and isolation.

It is important to distinguish between "loneliness" and "alone". Loneliness can be defined as a subjective feeling of sadness because of our perceived lack of social connection – you can be solitary and have no friends or companionship, or the social network that you do have does not meet your expectations. Alone, on the other hand means having no one else present. While it can lead to feelings of isolation, you do not have to feel this way, and this is the very situation that needs to be addressed. While you can feel lonely even when you're not alone, you can also be alone but not feel lonely. This indeed is a goal for preventing social isolation.

It is a known fact that when people are socially disconnected, they are at higher risk for anxiety and depression, heart disease, stroke and dementia as well as substance abuse, premature death and a host of other issues. Add to this the possibility of pre-existing issues around poor health such as chronic pain, losses such as the death of a loved one, loss of a job, retirement and other life transitions and we see the issue is not only a concern among the aging population but is a serious issue with teens and young adults alike who are struggling with friends on social media but difficulty in "real" life.

On the flip side, and this is truly key, we know that good social connectedness has a significant impact on our health and well-being. This leads to decreased stress, better physical and mental health, decreased mortality, increased happiness, greater resilience and so much more.

We know too that our level of pain during a medical procedure is greatly reduced when someone does something as simple as holding our hand. Touch is very important and yet so many people are feeling deprived of touch and physical connection along with social isolation.

How can we work to achieve social connectedness?

It is so easy for all of us to neglect our friendships for other things that "seem" more important. How often have you said that you were too busy to make a call or reach out because of work, scrolling on social media, or feeling that you had no time, but if you were being honest with yourself, you were not really doing anything important? It is more vital than ever to prioritize relationships and invest in one another as both individuals and as a community. This may require finding ways to nurture relationships that may feel a bit worn from lack of energy or interest post Covid. As such, this requires not only reaching out to others but making yourself available to invest the time and effort to revitalize a relationship that has just faded over time. We can have a huge impact on the health and well-being of our friends and our loved ones.

It is critical that we internalize that in order to have a friend, we also need to BE a friend. It is not enough to be physically present. We need to be emotionally present and available as well. We can feel lonely even when surrounded by others or within a marriage itself that from the outside "looks good." You too may know of or be living with someone with dementia or other issues that may mean that while physically present, they are emotionally absent. In this situation you or someone else may desperately want nothing more than for someone to reach out.

A goal of great importance is to not just become a good listener, but to work at becoming a great listener. As I say in the office, we are given two eyes and two ears, but only one mouth for a reason.

We need to find and make the time to reach out and be there for someone in a consistent way. This may mean writing in your calender to call or send someone a birthday messge, or better still invite someone for coffee. It doesn't have to be a birthday, but an "I was just thinking of you" call. If you haven't seen someone in a while, reaching out shows you noticed their absence and care. Last week, someone knew that I was awy and picked up a few groceries while another surprised me with a meal in my refrigerator. Can you imagine how these amazing these acts of kindness felt after travelling for 24 hours?

Ask yourself, when was the last time someone reached out to you or more importantly when did you do something special for someone else and what small gesture can you do for someone today? It can be as easy as offering to pick something up for someone if they don't have a car, or better still take someone with you. You can ask the bus driver or store attendant how they are and really listen. You can offer the neighborhood street sweeper or a repair person if you could get them something to drink. Likewise, a simple thank you can feel amazing.

Volunteering is a great antidote for loneliness. One of the best ways to feel good is to do something for someone else. It does not have to be something big or with more commitment than you are able to give. You can be a befriender to someone who is shut in, be a cuddler in the nursery, glean fields, work in a library or tutor someone in English. The possibilities are endless. Giving to someone younger than you enables you to transmit intergenerational values and be a treasured role model. Studies where presechoolers and octogenarians interact have shown a life changing impact on anxiety, depression and overall well being. Helping someone older, enables them to hand over important life lessons and experiences to you. It is a win-win situation for everyone.

Be present. Nurture the relationships that you do have by investing your time and effort. Find a way to increase quality time with someone that is free from distraction. Make eye contact and put down your phone. Excessive social media can actually increase isolation. A screen won't substitute for human connectedness whereas getting outside in nature can heighten your senses, and feel both calming and invigorating. Add to this asking someone to join you in a walk, and in this warm weather if you can't go in the early morning, remember you can always walk inside.

Develop an attitude of gratitude and appreciation.Reset your expectations and notice the small positives. They are definitely there. By finding positive in others, you will discover that you feel better about yourself. Do acts of kindness and ask yourself on a daily basis, “What nice thing did I do for someone today? What can I do that would be helpful for someone else? How can I reach out?”

Connect with people that may hve different life experiences than yo. You may be surprised by how much you learn by listening to their stories. This may push you beyond your comfort zone but that can be a good thing. It may be through an exercise or art class, or even learning with a partner.

Think of forming a coffee meet up friend support group or a group with others that share a common interest. As I have noted previously, my father in law was a founder of his ROMEO branch- Retired old men eating out. They met once a week for lunch and socialized. Perhaps you want to play bridge or mahjong, take up pottery or art, join a knitting circle, cinema club, dog walking group or become a baby cuddler. The list is endless and definitely beats sitting home in isolation. If you can not go out, have other visit you, or join a zoom. You don't have to be lonely or alone.

Finally, if you are struggling or find social situations difficult or scary, please seek help. Talk to a mental health professional, your rabbi, or anyone else who may be able to help. You don’t have to do it alone.

A version of this article suitable for printing is available here.