Recently, I read an article in the newspaper about the global epidemic of loneliness and its wide-ranging impact on quality of life, polarization, and the demise of democracy. It is tempting to think of loneliness as an isolated reality, the result of poor social skills perhaps, or as something that is about others and not about us. We may expect loneliness among our seniors, and while loneliness is higher in this age cohort than in some others, in 2019 a study of Canadian post-secondary students found that 69% of university students described themselves as “very lonely” . We can only imagine that the number is higher today than it was then, prior to the pandemic. Unfortunately, loneliness appears to function like a spiral. Loneliness makes reaching out harder which increases our loneliness which increases the difficulty of reaching out to others. Our cultural norms do not help us here: The mantra to “be yourself” has been coupled with a disinclination to belong to any group in more than a fleeting fashion, lest the group to which we belong limit our ability to be ourselves. As valuable as it is to be ourselves, our species was not designed to live in isolation from one another. We are social beings – the absence of true community is killing us.
Loneliness – which is akin to feeling abandoned by the world, feeling alone when everyone belongs but us – has far-reaching consequences. Despots and charlatans prey on the lonely, offering belonging in exchange for the purchase of harmful ideas that risk violating the common good. Said more simply: polarization does not happen nearly as readily between those who belong to a community of people who are as interconnected to one another as they are uniquely different from one another. Belonging is good for the body and the soul. When we belong, we are both physically and emotionally healthier; workplaces are more robust; we give of ourselves for the common good, donate more, volunteer more, and look out for our neighbours. Except, of course, when our belonging is premised on hatred or disregard for another: When this type of belonging happens, something within us begins to die. As is often said, hanging onto resentment is like drinking poison but expecting the other person to die. Belonging rooted in otherizing creates (or is created by?) an internal loneliness – we may belong to those who think like us but if we are honest with ourselves, we are forced to admit that in our hatred and disregard we do not belong to ourselves. Facing this truth is profoundly difficult. To do so risks driving us deeper into loneliness.
It is tempting to think of the invitation to combat loneliness as a feel-good exercise of the heart. What is being asked of us, however, is not simply to offer salve to the occasional wounded soul. Transforming the “deficit of connection” brings healing and hope to the people with whom we interact. For businesses, acting to transform loneliness is good for the bottom line: People perform better when they belong. The goal of the task ahead, however, is much larger and far-reaching: It impacts everything from polarization to our ability to act on climate change to reversing the damage being done to democracy.
Much as we may wish otherwise, we cannot look to governments and big business to lead the way on reversing the loneliness trend. We must each work to transform the current deficit of connection. What is being asked of us? How do our workplaces and our communities build connection among our staff, our members, or the people we serve? Where do we start?
To begin, we must look at our own connection profile and consider what we can do to strengthen our own sense of belonging. For example: Are you lonely? Do you use being busy as a cover for an internal loneliness? Have you found yourself resisting connection? A second article I read on loneliness offered that transforming loneliness and building connection, doesn’t just happen, it requires intention – and risk. Start small, reach out to one person per month and build from there, join a group, attend a class. Hang around when it is over and speak to at least one person. Speak to the clerk at the grocery store. Laugh at the antics of a child on the subway. Small connections add up, building our sense of belonging to the communities in which we live.
The caveat is this: Transforming our personal loneliness goes deeper than reaching out to others. Undoing the deficit of connection involves reconnecting with ourselves, allowing for the practice of intentional solitude that deepens our self-compassion and by extension opens our hearts to greater compassion for others. Whether we imbue our solitude with meditation, mindfulness, connection with nature, or by simply sitting in silence – nurturing our capacity to be alone with ourselves deepens our capacity to connect to one another. Like a cascade, the circle of belonging moves from intrapersonal to interpersonal to communal.
If you are in a leadership position, you are being asked to do some heavy lifting on the theme of addressing loneliness: Community, including at work, is not formed by happenstance. How you show up influences whether the places you lead become true places of community. How grounded are you when you come into the workplace? When you arrive in the morning, do you go directly to your desk or do you walk around the office first, personally greeting and engaging each person in the office? If your workplace is virtual, do you structure connection into the rhythm of your work week? How do you celebrate the people you lead? Does the place where you lead allow for laughter and a lightness of being? Are people invited to bring their full selves to the table – including their wins, failures, joys, and even the “boring bits” of their lives? How do you model listening to one another? Do you make space for water cooler conversations that are more about connection and less about the bottom line? When challenging conversations need to happen, how do you govern yourself? Do you balance honesty with a generous kindness?
These ideas are only a beginning. To transform loneliness, we must all be innovators: taking risks, learning (or relearning) what it means to knit ourselves to one another again. The mental health of our young adults (and our own mental health) depends on it. So does the health of our societies. So does the life of our planet.
Sherry Turkle talks about listening to the boring bits of one another’s lives in her Ted Talk, “Connected by Alone” https://www.ted.com/talks/sherry_turkle_connected_but_alone?language=en