We are currently facing an epidemic of loneliness and isolation right across the western world. Loneliness hides in plain sight, as they say, and according to a report out by the New Economics Foundation in 2017, it comes at a cost of £32 billion per annum, in the UK alone. The situation is so dire that in the UK we have a minister for loneliness, and social isolation is an official ‘health priority’.
Never have we been more connected, and yet never have we felt more lonely.
Long-term loneliness comes with great risks. It compromises our immune system and leads to a host of ailments and (degenerative) diseases; it leads to anxiety and depression and undermines community cohesion - whether that is a family, an organisation or larger community. It is contagious too, like depression. Our social connectedness after all, is dependent on two people, so if one person withdraws, both people lose out.
However, all is not lost and we can solve widespread loneliness if we put the following practices into action.
The answers are not as obvious as we might think
According to the late Professor John Cacioppo, the world’s leading expert on loneliness, offering people support or teaching them social skills doesn’t work that well. He and his researchers discovered that a better way of getting people out of their isolation was by teaching them about reciprocity - how it is the foundation of belonging - and educating them about the survival brain. The extreme stress that loneliness sets off, fires the ‘fight or flight’ mechanism. As happens with other forms of stress and anxiety or depression, this self-preservation mode leaves us little clear thinking capacity, and we misinterpret other people. We misconstrue their intentions when we fail to accurately read their eyes, tone or posture. No chance of the give and take of sharing then.
Cacioppo and his 4 ways EASE back in
With Cacioppo’s approach lonely people are taught to EASE back into the to-and-fro of real connection:
(1) Extend yourself. Reach out and give to others, even if you don’t feel like it. It is for good reason that so many people enjoy doing voluntary work.
(2) Make an Action Plan. Approaching the process of reconnection can be overwhelming. Plotting out an action plan calms the mind and breaks the process down into small, achievable steps.
(3) Seek collectives. By engaging in activities that come from shared interests, we find a very natural way to bond with others. It gives us an opportunity to share values, be acknowledged for what we enjoy and do well and to respect and learn from others.
(4) Expect the best. In other words, people are reminded that things change and to adapt their expectations accordingly.
In February George Monbiot reported on an innovative project launched in the Somerset town of Frome in 2013 by a GP eager to deal with the debilitating effects of isolation.
In essence, the focus is on building community. The scheme consisted of a variety of ways to get people to work together with others. Health and social ‘connectors’ showed them how to negotiate red tape and bureaucracy, which enabled them to access health services, and social services more easily. Groups were set up, such as ‘Men’s Sheds’ where connection, activity and skill building were facilitated.
During the 3 years of the study, emergency hospital admissions dropped by 17% in Frome, while they rose by 29% in the rest of Somerset.
Distinguishing between fitting in and belonging
In her recent and acclaimed book ‘Braving the Wilderness’, sociologist Brené Brown tackles the vital difference between fitting in and belonging.
She points out that as we have become increasingly homogenised and inclined to associate only with others who think like us, look like us, spend like us, vote like us, are of our age, so too have the loneliness statistics soared. We are creating worlds for ourselves that look more like echo chambers, ‘horribilizing’ anyone other than us, and falsely bound to one another, by our ‘common enemy intimacy’.
This is the world of ‘fitting in’ and our unquestioning behaviour often starts in early childhood with our deeply felt desire to be part of the group we depend on for survival - our family. They may be bookish, while you don’t read. Perhaps they are gregarious and outgoing and you an introvert? If we don’t feel we belong by being a natural part of that bigger whole, we will do anything at all to fit in, and that is how we begin to sacrifice ourselves in the process.
Fitting in is never reciprocal. We are not wanted as we are. Our being part of the clan is conditional and no sustainable nourishment can come from this allegiance. The demands are insatiable and lead to loneliness, in spite of the company we keep.
Belonging as the antidote to loneliness
What then does Brown mean by belonging?
It is when we are wanted for who we are; when we are naturally and unconditionally part of the bigger whole. Paradoxically, it is also the by-product, she says, of being very closely connected to ourselves. This asks of us to stay true to our values are and have the courage to disconnect from individuals when our values are compromised. When we transcend the fear that comes from having to ‘brave the wilderness’ in this way, we enter into the world of ‘belonging’. We become connected to others through our common humanity - those we are standing up for, and all those countless others who have gone before us in finding their courage to do the same. This is how we find our ‘collectives’ as Cacioppo calls them; our soul mates. We may at times be alone in this process, but never lonely.
Using Self-Compassion as a tool to help loneliness
‘Belonging’ viewed in this way, is rooted in love and compassion. Compassion must be applied to oneself as much as to others. In this context, Maya Angelou reminded us of an African saying: never trust a naked person who offers you a shirt. In other words, we cannot give to others what we don’t give to ourselves.
So self-compassion is a tool, but also a practice. This ancient practice was recently developed and incorporated into a programme by Dr Kristin Neff and Dr Chris Germer. Their approach has been the subject of more than 1200 research papers, which all point to the extraordinary long-term effects on wellbeing and connectedness.
People are taught to connect deeply and wholeheartedly with their own suffering, and incline towards it in a kind and compassionate way. The results are staggering. In learning to come home to oneself in this way, we set up a ‘reciprocal’ contract with our higher selves. As far as our brains are concerned self-compassion sets off the same cascade of positive benefits as when we receive compassion from others.
The reciprocity comes from being both giver and recipient; we learn to belong to ourselves.
This process enables us to flip out of the self-preservation mode, and calm down, so that we can attend to putting our better selves out into the world. In so doing we move out of the dangerous state of loneliness and return to the heart of our human community.
We can belong again.
Renée van der Vloodt ( M.A. , FHGI ) is a psychotherapist and coach – and has had a private practice for over 20 years, which is now based in Woodchurch (near Ashford), Kent.
Renée works with children and adults as a coach and therapist to help them overcome life's challenges and emotional difficulties including stress, burnout, anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anger or addictive behaviour.
Renée is a regular contributor to Breathe Magazine and the author of the CD Calm the Chaos of the Creative Mind.