If you feel like you are lonely, ironically, you are not alone. In fact, 25-46% Americans report being lonely and that number is rising. Seriously, loneliness is affecting almost half the population! As a coworking space owner and mom, learning this wasn’t too surprising to me. And, in our theme of self-care it is an interesting and critical conversation.
Why are American’s lonely and what to do about it? We are quick to blame the “digital area” and our fixation on our phones. But from my observations talking to lonely people and having lonely and friend rich periods in my own life; I don’t think it is quite that simple. I see three factors as the major building blocks to the loneliness epidemic Americans are facing.
With the unemployment at 4.1 % and baby boomers retiring faster than new workers are entering, jobs are forced to become remote. There are not enough employees in driving distance of one physical building to fill the jobs employers need. They need a nationwide or even global pool to get enough candidates, and not just people who can or will relocate.
And happily, virtual work provides a lot of flexibility. And flexibility is what people want and need more than almost anything. So far so good.
But, remote work creates a deficit too. Humans are, at our most basic evolutionary core, social (tribal), migrating animals. This means we have a natural need for belonging and significance. We need the connection with other humans. And virtual work doesn’t necessarily offer that. Result. Loneliness.
Time, Energy & Availability
I’m on a mom’s facebook group with nearly 13,000 local members. There are plenty of posts are from lonely mommas with the courage to talk about it and reach out for friends. And what inevitably comes out of those posts is planning in person meet ups. And once the meets ups are arranged the turn-out is usually almost nothing.
Friendships, true, connected friendships, the kind that make us feel not lonely, involve a serious time investment. And that’s not all. When I reflect on the period of my life where I had the deepest, strongest, most rewarding friendships, what coincides is that I had, not only time and energy to invest in building friendships. It took flexibility and availability.
Being able to meet up regularly without scheduling weeks out, having the time and resources to make a meal for a newly pregnant friend, or being able to stay up late listening when someone was in need. Those are all things in this season of my life as a mom of littles are not realistic options. So, it doesn’t surprise me that lots of moms are lonely. In a life dominated by sleeping schedules (which for babies and young kids are unforgiving), work schedules, preschool pick-ups and other non-negotiable things, the flexibility and availability it takes to find people you click with and cultivate meaningful friendships is a tall order.
Having had kids later in life I can tell you this one is easier without young kids. But, the demands of our life and society as well as mental and physical health conditions can be extremely limiting. And you have to give a lot not to be lonely. In this day and age many don’t have it to give. Result. Loneliness.
We are a wildly emotionally incompetent society. And, forming strong connected friendships takes emotional intelligence. In fact, until very recently fostering emotional competence in ourselves or our children was not done at all meaning, according to John Medina’s book Brain Rules for Baby, most of us were raised by emotionally incompetent parents and in turn become emotionally incompetent parents.
In our society, awareness that emotional competence even existed is fairly recent. So, unless someone happened to naturally have it, many Americans are operating without the necessary emotional skills to form strong bonded meaningful relationships. And without them, you are going to feel lonely no matter how many people are around.
So, living in an increasingly virtual world, lacking the time, energy, and flexibility to invest in friendships and lacking emotional competence it isn’t surprising that American’s are coming up lonely.
So, what can you do?
Of course, a lot of that depends on which of the above constraints you are wrestling with. And, there are no easy answers. If there were, no one would be lonely. But, there are some things we can do to combat loneliness. And the cool thing is, as you are working to reduce your own loneliness, you are by definition reducing someone else’s too! What a wonderful thing to do! Go you!
Commit to Continuous Development of Emotional Competence
Weather you are highly emotionally intelligent or not, there is always room to grow and develop. And it will prime you to give and receive much more from your relationships with others. Result. Connection! Honestly you will just feel like a more whole, well person. See a spiral starting here? If you don’t know where to begin, you can certainly googlize the question.
The best information I have gotten from a single source is in Brain Rules for Baby by John Medina (well worth the read even if you don’t have a baby). In his chapter on Happiness there is a section called “How to Make Friends” and he does a lovely job of breaking down emotional competence into understandable, doable steps. Step 1, if you want to start now, is to start naming your emotions as you experience them. Not necessarily out loud but as emotions pass through you throughout the day just note them. “I’m feeling…” as you go.
In addition to committing to constant emotional growth your options are to find, or create community.
There’s a lot of ways to do this. Here’s a few common ones:
Hobbies or pass times
Discover a pastime, hobby, or passion you enjoy and find a community who does this. This one takes time and money. But if in the budget, it is the way to go!
Dog recreation (ranging from hanging out at dog parks and dog friendly bars to participating in world agility championships), provides a fun activity that builds your bond with “man’s best friend” as well as other humans who love them.
Mom’s running groups often offer schedules for working and stay at home moms of all levels of fitness. And as a bonus, to build your emotional competence you are probably going to have to run or walk more. So, you get it all at once!
Sports, martial arts, music, building model ships in bottles, breastfeeding, and everything in between has clubs and groups. They key is finding something you truly enjoy so you are excited to go and can share that connection with others. If you don’t know which hobby you would be good at or enjoy, start trying things. And ask others around you what they see you enjoying.
This might sound very biased since I am a coworking space owner. But, here me out. Trust me, for us, putting food on the table depends on our ability to reduce people’s loneliness. So, we sure are going to try for you!
Most locally owned coworking spaces number one priority is creating community. It is woven into everything we do from where we situate the coffee to what events we plan. And, many if not the majority, of users are there at least in part to combat loneliness. So, you are in a good pool of people seeking connection.
Skilled community facilitators keep a constant stream of events to build connection and look for connections and relationships to build among members. And, if you don’t have time or money for a hobby (or if you do) coworking gives you a lot of time with people, which is one of the keys to building friendships. And, you get that time without sacrificing work or family and while making money rather than spending it.
For example, in a brain break from writing this blog I went into the common area and happened upon a game of Frisbee. I joined in for a few minutes and had a lot of fun, a few laughs and then we were all back to the grind! It is a good way to go on every level.
Communities of faith
If you are a spiritual person finding a community of faith that aligns with your beliefs and values can be a great community to build connection and meaningful friendships with.
Another option is to look at your current intersections of activity and identity and build a community around that. Industry, gender identity, food, drink, pets, passions, and interests can be good connectors.
This could be anything from “Women who Whisky” to Single Mother’s by Choice or a grilling foodie meet up. Social media such as Meet Up.com or even Facebook can be a good place to start. So, reflect on all intersections of your identity and work (not necessarily career but what occupies your days) and see which ones you might what to connect with others like you. Remember these can start slowly and take some work and time to cultivate. But for me, it is where I have made some of my very best friends.
Tease out the Tension
A lot of thought and self-reflection needs to go into your relationship building. Because we are all works in progress and imperfect humans, part of having and being friends is accepting people wholly, unconditionally, and just as they are right now.
That said, some people you may feel a strong connection with may not be in a place to provide you with a healthy relationship. The flip side of that unconditional acceptance is getting into codependant, toxic, abusive relationships with bad power dynamics. So, while we can accept that absolutely no one is perfect and anyone you meet is going to be quirky and have some short comings, not every person is going to be healthy to have a relationship with right now.
Like all things, this takes time
You have to meet a lot of people to find the few that you click with. So don’t get discouraged if you are trying and not getting fast results. And remember everything is a season in your life.