Column: Aspire Unplugged, by Cheryl Patterson
“Negative emotions like loneliness, envy, and guilt have an important role to play in a happy life; they’re big, flashing signs that something needs to change.” – Gretchen Rubin
Many of us have experienced loneliness. Whether it’s feeling alone in your life, without anyone to talk to or spend time with, or dreading that special occasion with nobody to spend it with… It can feel awful. Yet, in our guise of strength and independence we suffer silently, no matter the cost.
Researchers have likened loneliness to hunger, thirst or pain, in addition to associating it with health problems, such as diminished immunity, cardiovascular risk, the progression of Alzheimer’s, obesity, alcoholism and depression. Personal characteristics can be linked as well.
A 2009 study, in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, looked at the characteristics of loneliness and found that people who reported high levels of loneliness had some common characteristics, such as:
- lived alone
- had few interactions with family and friends
- had poor quality relationships
- were unhappy with their lives
- experienced chronic stress and ill health
Personally, when I look back at times I felt the loneliest, it was because of a lack of close connections (i.e. close friends moving away, not being in a relationship or loss of family members – a big one for me), especially during holidays with family members no longer there to spend them with or to just have there to talk to otherwise.
The good news is that we have control over these areas, especially our connections with others, which simultaneously impacts all of the above – counters loneliness, reduces stress, supports good health and happiness.
In a study by J. T. Cacioppo of the University of Chicago, satisfying connections with others was found to be the strongest link to long-term subjective well being.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates, “Studies have demonstrated an association between increased levels of social support [feeling cared for, valued and a sense of belonging] and reduced risk for physical disease, mental illness, and mortality.” They add, “Social support can promote health by providing persons with positive experiences, socially rewarding roles, or improved ability to cope with stressful events.”
So, it makes sense to curb loneliness by nurturing our relationships with friends and loved ones, or build new ones, by participating in things like community events or other activities and interests, or helping others (being needed by others, boosts self-esteem, confidence and overall positive mental health). Small changes such as these can go a long way towards greater fulfillment.
You don’t have to go it alone. Let loneliness be your sign for change – your reminder to reconnect, or as Martha Beck eloquently puts it, “Loneliness is proof that your innate search for connections is in tact.”