I hate Valentine’s Day. Yep, I wrote that. It’s a made-up ‘Hallmark holiday’ by retailers after the holiday slump trying to get us to buy more stuff we don’t need, especially candy. Besides the negative impact on our physical health, Valentine’s Day is often very upsetting for lonely people or those in difficult or unhappy relationships. I have written before about loneliness being extremely widespread and that it has more of an impact on physical health than smoking or obesity. The research on it is worth repeating.
The U.S. Senate Commission on Aging has convened meetings to discuss elevating loneliness to a public health priority on the same level as smoking and obesity. Other research has shown if someone has less than three confidants, they are more than twice as likely to die from heart disease and twice as likely to die from all other causes than those with more confidants. Loneliness is also correlated with cognitive decline, dementia and mental health problems.
It’s not just a problem for older people. Veterans are more likely to commit suicide because of loneliness and the loss of the ‘brotherhood’ that they had in the service, than from war related trauma. The pain centers in the brain light up the same way in people experiencing loneliness or perceived rejection as actual pain. It DOES hurt. Lonely people also get sick more easily and feel worse when they do than non-lonely people.
Young people 16-24 years old, in a recent British survey, reported being the loneliest among all age groups, even though they are the ones with typically better health and easy access to large peer groups. This has held true in studies of American youth too. They report being more lonely and isolated than any other group or in past research. In another study of adults, over half of those married reported feeling chronic loneliness.
I want to challenge each one of us to reach out to someone who appears to be alone. Even if it seems they are fine, reach out and say ‘hello,’ ask the how they are doing, ask them a simple question or two about themselves, LISTEN and do it regularly. Refrain from talking about yourself immediately unless asked directly. I’ve noticed far too many people have few social skills and talk endlessly about themselves without making any real connection to the one they think is listening—and they aren’t after about the first few minutes.
Making a difference to ONE person can change a life for the better. We are programmed biologically to be connected to each other, much like the dolphins and whales who must live in close community or they will die. It is up to us to change this isolation we all live in.
It’s not just about reaching out to elders who may live alone or not have much family but also to children and teens so they know there are safe adults who they can turn to. People really don’t expect that much. A little kindness, taking an interest in what they are interested in, speaking to them regularly, letting them know about you and that you are safe—and then BE that safe person. Ask before giving hugs, don’t tell or agree to keep ‘secrets’, go meet their family members as you pass by, walk with them, bring them healthy treats with parent/guardian permission first and above all, play and laugh with them-even in the simplest ways like throwing a ball or asking them to show you how they do something. Anything can be meaningful and will be appreciated in the long run. Remember that connected kids become safe teens and safe adults. We need more of them.
For other age groups, it is much the same. Being more than the neighbor that just waves and goes inside used to be the norm. Let’s bring that back. Being outside is good for you anyway so it can easily segue to a conversation or an invitation for coffee when you see them. Sharing the excess fruit, herbs or veggies from the yard is a great way to connect. Better yet make them some food in a dish that has to be returned and see what happens. Time tested ways still work. Don’t give up if initially your efforts are met with apprehension. We have become so isolated in general that we don’t know what to do when someone reaches out for no ‘reason.’ Keep trying.
You never know when someone who appears to be part of a couple or family could be the loneliest person on your street. Sometimes this is the most isolating of all kinds of loneliness because difficult close relationships can be the most painful of all, especially because they are ‘supposed’ to be the opposite. Rarely will people experiencing this disclose or even realize it. Not making assumptions and reaching out anyway can be the beginning of turning the tide for someone. What a powerful initiator of change we can all be just by being committed to reaching out!
Funny thing is, when we reach out in a non-judgmental effort to help someone else, it makes our own lives richer through greater compassion for others and ourselves. So whether or not you are lonely, it will help YOU to reach out. Love and caring should be expressed 365 days a year in a thousand ways, not just acknowledged on one made-up day.
Going outside to play in the yard or taking a walk down the street and setting an intention to talk to everyone you meet are just some ways to start changing your OWN life for the better and changing our world so that there are no more lonely hearts.