by guest blogger Pam Peeke, MD, MPH, FACP, best-selling author and expert on health, fitness, and nutrition
Loneliness hurts. We don’t need a slew of science studies to convince us that living without meaningful connection to others is painful. To be clear, I’m not talking about dedicated alone time for introspection, journaling, prayer, a quiet walk, or meditation. Instead, I’m addressing a subjective feeling of isolation and disconnectedness from others.
Many people live alone and do not feel lonely. It’s the perception of being alone and disconnected that results in loneliness. Most of us have experienced loneliness somewhere during our life journey, and some may be there right now. For that matter, surveys now show that more than a third of the population feels lonely, men more than women.
Loneliness is a complex emotion rooted in our development as a human being. Deliberate solitude and individualism are valuable and essential states that we need in order to develop a sense of self. Loneliness, on the other hand, rears its head when we feel marginalized or separated from others as a result of situational and developmental factors (accidents, disasters, sociocultural challenges, disabilities), or just our own experience of low self-esteem, loss of control in one’s life, lack of intimate connection with another person, or feelings of lack of meaning in one’s life.
Recently, scientists have turned their attention to this state of being, querying whether loneliness is actually a disease. For example, loneliness is common among the elderly and, more often than not, can lead to a significant decline in well-being, often resulting in hospitalization and placement in assisted-care facilities. Studies have shown an association between loneliness and suicide, inflammation, dementia, heart disease, and immune suppression.
Interestingly, lonely people aren’t necessarily depressed. Instead, the longer they’ve lived in a lonely state, the more they feel fear of other people. It appears that loneliness can spiral into a vicious cycle of pushing people away, which worsens the isolation, which leads to pushing people away even more. Using sensors that track the brain’s electrical activity, neuroscientists discovered that self-described lonely people were very hyper-vigilant to negative cues in their surroundings, showing more distrust, fear, and caution in considering a social interaction, which they may perceive as a threat.
A while back, after reviewing the medical literature, I decided to take my beloved German shepherd for a walk, mentally marinating over all of this data. As we entered the park, I noticed an older man on a bench, watching children play on the swings, and dogs frolicking on the grass. He was always alone, and seemed withdrawn. “Oh, what the heck?” I said to myself, and sauntered over. Plopping down on the bench, he cautiously looked at me. I smiled, greeted him and introduced him to my canine pal. Uncertain, he reached out and petted him, and gradually began to talk about the dog he lost several years ago. Widowed, with children living far away, his days seemed empty and meaningless. I let him talk and finally encouraged him to visit the YMCA close by. “You can walk to it from here. They have plenty of cool classes and groups to connect with.” He replied, “I’ll think about it.” As I left, we waved to each other. He actually cracked a small smile, a tiny triumph. Each time I came to the park, he opened up a little bit more, but still no change in his routine.
A couple of months later, I was jogging near the Y, and who do I see coming out of the community center but my park guy, deep in discussion with a woman who appeared to be his age. “Hah!” I said to myself. I stood there, and he caught my eye. Grinning, he signaled me with a thumb’s up. As I resumed my run, I thought to myself, I don’t know who feels better.
Thus was birthed my random acts of compassionate connection campaign.
I decided to post this on my Facebook page, encouraging people to practice at least one random act of compassionate connection every single day. It was an instant success.
One reply was from Dawn, who said on connecting with strangers that it’s “one of the missing links of well-being today. People are very cautious and often dismiss others as they step through their day. The power of just looking someone in the eye and saying good morning, good evening, a salutation of some sort allows, for that person to be acknowledged and stimulates their endorphins. It is amazing what unfolds when you extend a warm interaction with another human being instead of going through life with our heads down, looking at our phones, not holding a door, bumping into someone as you pass by them…dismissiveness is just as impactful as acknowledgement.”
And Lisa, “I am inherently empathetic and know that when I connect with a ‘stranger’—a smile a, conversation, a compliment—I can feel something change in both of us. Pretty amazing stuff!”
Practicing random acts of compassionate connection is a royal win-win strategy. Here are some tips for ditching loneliness and connecting with others:
- Dump the devices. We have got to stop burying our heads in our screens and being so oblivious to others. We’re not looking people in the eye anymore. We need a balance here. When you’re walking along, buying your groceries, or strolling in your neighborhood, show other people a smile and gift them with a greeting. Even if they just blow past you, hey, you tried. I’ll put money on it that most will indeed return the favor, and then you’ll both feel terrific. You connected, not with a screen, but with a genuine human being. It changes both of you for the better.
- Pay attention to the lonely. We can often spot someone who might be lonely. When you do, that’s the time to reach out and simply offer a greeting or simple chat. You never know when you’ve just made someone’s day, and even increased his or her well-being. Look around you. Be aware of the people in your life. Pay attention and be mindful. The rewards for doing so are priceless.
- Reach out if you’re lonely. When you are feeling disconnected, put aside your fears as best you can and courageously reach out to connect with someone else. I’m a huge fan of volunteering, and there are countless opportunities to do so in our communities. Giving of yourself, being of service to others, can be a great first step to creating connections as well as meaning in your life.
Start today to practice a random act of compassionate connection.
Pamela Peeke, MD, MPH, FACP, is a Pew Scholar in nutrition and metabolism, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Maryland, fellow of the American College of Physicians, and an expert in integrative and preventive medicine. A Senior Olympic triathlete, Dr. Peeke is known as “the doc who walks the talk,” and is a medical expert and commentator for the national news networks. Dr. Peeke is the best-selling author of many books, including Fight Fat after Forty and Body-for-Life for Women. Her newest book is the New York Times bestseller The Hunger Fix.