“The most terrible poverty is loneliness, and the feeling of being unloved.” —Mother Teresa
Today’s world appears more connected than ever, and yet many people feel lonely and isolated. Everyone keeps their friends up-to-date with Snapchat and Instagram. Smart phones mean communicating with people across the world can happen in an instant. Through technology, people are rarely alone, and yet, loneliness in the age of social media is a well-documented phenomenon.
Being around people is a very different experience than being connected to people.
People often share their pictures or their status, but are they sharing their fears, their happiness, their concerns, or their delight? And are they listening as their loved ones open up about their own experiences and feeling? Even though many people are rarely alone, they are not experiencing these healthy connections. Instead, they often feel isolated.
Loneliness involves a deep sense of isolation and disconnection from others, and it occurs when people feel that they have no one with whom to share the joys and hardships of life. Some have stated that their loneliness feels less like sadness and more like an imprisonment that leaves them despondent toward life (I suppose that is why solitary confinement is such a severe punishment).
Isolation: A Growing Problem
While everyone can benefit from some amount of alone time, a healthy and fulfilling life needs close, interpersonal relationships. Unfortunately, people today feel more isolated that ever. The average family unit is severely fractured; the divorce rate is almost 50 percent; and more people live alone today than ever before in American history.
In my counseling practice (thriveboston.com), more than half of the clients who solicit therapy severely lack interpersonal relationships—no matter what their presenting problem is (depression, addiction, anxiety, sexual issues, et cetera). In direct response to their loneliness, many feel cynical and depressed; they lack confidence, feel rejected, feel alienated, and feel inadequate to build meaningful relationships.
Some time ago, I began asking myself, “why are the majority of my clients—many who are young, attractive, intelligent, even well-to-do—profoundly disconnected from others?” I have identified several reasons. I have also identified a number of practical strategies for overcoming isolation and building those important relationships. My clients and I refer to the process as “refilling the inner circle,” and we have specific criteria (identified at the end of this article) a relationship must meet to be considered part of one’s inner circle.
Let’s begin by looking at why people today are so isolated.
Our Society Is Primed for Isolation
It is easy, even in vogue, to blame society for our problems. And while I am going to go ahead and say that society is a major part of the loneliness problem, I would also like to remind everyone (including myself) that society is not some tyrannous robotic that operates our lives. Our society is each one of us. We are the society we blame.
So how is our society (meaning all of us) affecting the number of relationship-starved clients pouring into Thrive Boston Counseling? Harvard professor Daniel Gilbert points out that people today have to answer three major life-questions that their parents, grandparents, and great grandparents did not: 1) Where to live, 2) What to do, and, 3) Who to do it with.[i]
Less than a century ago, most people were born, raised, lived, and died in one community. They did the job their parents did. They would build friendships in grade school and at church, and then keep those friends for the duration of their lives. They wed early, and had several children in their early 20s. Making new friends and families was not an issue. They lived and died surrounded by their kith and kin.
However, today people normally leave their family and friends behind as they pursue educational and vocational goals. First, many leave for college, where they usually build new friendships. However, those relationships do not last. When undergrad ends they move again—a series of times in their 20s and 30s. Each time they travel alone, leaving old relationships behind (physically). People need to reconnect and establish new relationships at every juncture. All the while, many people are more focused on their education or career than their personal relationships. The task of making friends is always at the bottom of the to-do-list, and nothing at the bottom of the to-do-list ever gets done.
The result: Many of people have no close friends, are unmarried, and live lives that feel (unfortunately and surprisingly) empty and bleak.
Community Is a Dirty Word
Community and family are becoming foreign (even dirty) words. Many people place a low value on community because they do not really understand what community is anymore. Many envision community as a small town with cantankerous old couples walking down the street, sheriffs with big hats, corner stores that close at 6 p.m. (and all day Sunday), and one-dimensional suburban nuclear families. This image of community has little that interests many people, and even less to offer. This antiquated view of community makes many feel all the more disconnected. Thankfully, it is a lie.
Strategy 1: Redefine Community.
Community is what you want it to be. Community means joining a kickball team. Community means being surrounded by friends who love you, whom you respect, and with whom you want to share your life. For many of us, an acceptable community looks more like dorm life than a Norman Rockwell painting. Community may mean having three friends who show up at your place at 8 in the morning, with coffee. Community may mean having those same friends knock on your door as 5 p.m. on a Thursday to pull you away from the computer. In your ideal community, the corner store may be open 24 hours a day, even on Christmas.
Strategy 2: Kill Your TV (It is mocking you).
Here is a short list of hit shows: Grey’s Anatomy, Scrubs, Friends (ok, Friends is a bit old), Lost, Laguna Beach, and The OC.
What do all these shows have in common? Every hit show on this list displays profoundly close relationships that many people do not have in their own lives. The Grey’s Anatomy cast lives together, the Lost cast is lost together, and when three of Dr. Cox’s patients died on Scrubs, his colleagues took shifts sitting with him in his apartment, as he drank himself silly.
I am willing to bet that more than the lavish lifestyle, the beach, the adventure, or the interesting job, what draws people to these shows are the close relationships between the characters. The TV mocks people, because they miss this truth all the time. People may watch Grey’s and think they want to be a doctor. All they really want is to live in a big old house with six close friends.
Kill your TV. Move into a house with six close friends. You will miss two seasons of your favorite show and not even notice.
Strategy 3: Things Are the Red Herring.
In the video game The Sims, the players control the actions of an average person (a “sim”), living a normal life. Players start with a basic house, and help their sim to get a job, build friendships, and buy stuff. Buying stuff is a lot of fun. There are hundreds of items from work out centers to flat screen TVs to modern art that players can buy for their sim, that can make his/her life more enjoyable.
The Sims creator was once questioned about the materialism in the game. The items are a “Red Herring,” he explained. The way to win the game—to have a happy sim—is has nothing to do with the items. A happy sim has strong relationships with the other characters in the game.[ii]
People make the same mistake in their real lives. They work 50-plus hours a week to buy things they think they want or to live in lavish spaces they can hardly afford. All the while, they would be happier sitting on milk crates with a group of close friends. A house full of nice things but without friends is hell.
Here is the secret to personal success: People, not stuff. Community, not career.
Strategy 4: Explore People, Not Places.
Not long ago, I was listening to a lecture by a Stanford professor who explained a research study that investigated people’s priorities: Participants of different ages were shown two different marketing campaigns. One of the campaigns appealed to the person’s desire for learning and adventure; the title read something to the tune of “Explore and learn from far off places.” The second campaign appealed to the person’s desire for relationships’ the title read something similar to “Build relationships with those you care about.” The marketing campaign people preferred varied according to age.
The younger participants chose adventure, and the older participants chose relationships. The older people are wiser, right? Maybe not. When the older participants were first asked to imagine that a drug had hit the market that was guaranteed to extend their lives by several decades, they also chose adventure and learning.
I found this interesting and then saddening. Adventure and learning without relationships are hell. The participants were continually prioritizing something that would ultimately make them less happy. Interestingly, it was only the idea of death that led them to prioritize what was of real value.
A client of mine, let’s call him Doug, is profoundly unhappy (and lonely). His solution is to leave the ivory tower of Harvard and move to Florida. There, he would buy a Jet Ski and a satellite dish. He would build computers and fix four wheelers. “Not bad!” I tell him, “Close your eyes and imagine being there. Imagine being there for two days alone. How happy are you?” As we explore the idea, he begins to see, after only an hour on the Jet Ski he would be bored, wanting to talk to someone.
The idea of the lonely traveler seems romantic. But when you are that traveler, you don’t care so much about the museums after a few days. You watch people on the street. Friends laughing, and lovers holding hands. Soon, you are on your cell phone, making overseas calls to connect to the people you thought you didn’t need.
Here is the secret to personal success: People, not places.
Strategy 5: Pay the Price.
Every choice people make costs a price. The choice to build a support system is no different. It takes an investment of time and resources. People are going to need to put some margin into their schedule if they are going to be successful in building relationships. They might need to work as hard for relationships as they do at their career. Warning: this could slow people’s business, career, and even their money-making potential. It can also increase their life satisfaction exponentially. Consider—what are relationships worth? How much money would it take for you to live a life of solitude? I am hoping there is no sum high enough.
I know someone who recently left a lucrative position to be with friends in another state. Society might scoff at this, but she is happier now than she has been in years. For her, relationship was worth the cost.
Strategy 6: More Confidence, More Skills.
This strategy could be a book.
One reason people remain in solitude is that they have been alone for so long, they begin to think that others will not understand them, others will reject them, or they are not able to build and maintain close relationships.
First, I communicate with my clients at Thrive Boston that they have nothing to lose and the world to gain when they try to build relationships. I also remind them that other people—when it comes to building relationships—might feel as disconnected and worried as they do. I counter the idea that no one will understand them by telling them the truth that I talk to people all day who are feeling and saying the same exact thing they are!
If they say they are not “a person who can just go up to someone and talk to them,” I remind them that there is no such thing as talent[iii] and that practice and experience is the only way to become “a person who can just go up to someone and talk to them.”
Strategy 7: Make Sure They Are in the Inner Circle.
Earlier in this article, I wrote that my clients and I have specific criteria for whether a person should be in their inner circle. There are three criteria any relationship must meet.
- You must interact with the person outside of the venue in which you met them. For example, if you meet someone at the gym/coffee shop/a friend’s house, the person cannot be considered part of your inner circle unless you arrange to meet the person somewhere else.
- You must have spent time with the person for the sole purpose of spending time together. Having friends with whom you play basketball does not count as having inner circle friends—the focus is on having a good game of basketball, not on building relationship. I ask my clients, “Have you gotten together with the person to just hang out? Have you gone to get coffee or a meal with this person? Have you gotten together just to catch up?”
- You must meet with this person one-on-one, and be willing to share both the joys and hardships of life with the person. Does the person go to you with his/her triumphs and problems? Do you do go to him/her with your triumphs and problems? Do you trust the person to keep a confidence? Does he/she trust you to keep confidence?
The isolation epidemic is real. It is treatable, but only with significant lifestyle changes. For many, the cure is not easy, but it is always worthwhile. All the strategies I wrote here can be summarized with this sentence: put more effort into interpersonal connections than you do anything else in your life. This is a radical idea, but it is an idea that can change your life for the better.
Anthony Centore Ph.D. is a counselor, psychotherapist, and life coach serving Cambridge, MA and the greater Boston area. For clients at a distance, Anthony also provides services by telephone and email. Visit thriveboston.com to learn more. To schedule a session, call 617-395-5806 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. This article may be reprinted if it is unaltered, and the author’s contact information remains included.
[i] See Gilbert, D. (2006). Stumbling on Happiness
[ii] See Sex Drugs and Cocoa Puffs
[iii] Se this is your brain on music