Only the lonely know who they are (and can do something about it)

#hug. Photo courtesy of Dizao Goncalves.

Hey you, lonely person. Don’t look away, I know you’re lonely. No, I haven’t been looking through your things. I just know you’re lonely because it’s in the data. Everyone’s data. And if you follow me, I will walk you through the rest of the data. I can help you get out of these deep dark woods. The first step to beating loneliness is to understand it. This will only take seven minutes. Ready to go?

As we make our way through this fast-changing world of work, we uncover unpleasant emotions. One such emotion is the soul-crushing sense of loneliness. And like other trends, it’s something people are reluctant to talk about. We’re particularly unlikely to discuss loneliness at work, in close quarters with those who are obligated to be in our company.

How Bad is Loneliness? Really Bad

There’s a sobering overview of the loneliness research in AARP.org, the web site for the American Association of Retired Persons. As far back as 2010, correlations emerged between loneliness and adverse health conditions.

“…the percentages of the lonely among those diagnosed with obesity (43 per cent), sleep disorders (45 per cent), chronic pain (47 per cent), and anxiety (56 per cent) were considerably higher than the 35 per cent who are lonely overall. Could loneliness be contributing to these conditions? ‘Studies have shown that people sleep more poorly, exercise less, eat more fats and sugars, and are more anxious when they feel lonely than when they are not…’”

That last quote was from the late John Cacioppo from the University of Chicago, who was a pioneer of loneliness research. Cacioppo cited evidence that loneliness has adverse impacts on diabetes, sleep disorders, weakened immune systems, Alzheimer’s disease, and high levels of the stress hormone cortisol. The Wikipedia article on loneliness notes that higher cortisol levels can cause “anxiety, depression, digestive problems, heart disease, sleep problems [again], and weight gain.” And in a predictable game of fill-in-the-blanks, if loneliness is causing depression it’s also causing… alcoholism. Yeah, I know you knew about that, I’m just spelling it out for the others.

Loneliness kills people one by one, in different ways. In spite of its universal nature, loneliness is not a collective experience. There is no great-big-party in hell where people with similar sins and vices dance and writhe in a place with bad air conditioning. In this hell, you are always misunderstood. Things that are important to you, you cannot convey to others, even when they’re sitting right there.

How is Loneliness Defined?

Back to Wikipedia, loneliness is “a complex and usually unpleasant emotional response to isolation. Loneliness typically includes anxious feelings about a lack of connection or communication with other beings… [and] can be felt when surrounded by other people.”

In addition, it’s a subjective experience, so “if a person thinks they are lonely, they are lonely.” That last comment implies a life-pro tip: you are the boss of defining yourself as lonely. It might not make you look like the boss if you talk about it openly, but if you reflect on what’s going on inside you, you might feel more control by defining yourself in this manner.

What’s special about loneliness is that it’s intangible. For example, isolation is a feature of geography and communications, and as such there are major businesses devoted to real estate, transportation, and telecommunications that help remedy isolation. Depression, although it has taken decades to get here, is now recognized as a medical condition related to biology for which pharmaceutical companies provide a partial remedy, professionals devote their careers, and employers pay for insurance to cover treatment and time away from work.

But stuck in the middle between isolation and depression is this mysterious linchpin, loneliness, for which there is no major entity that makes it their responsibility to offer a remedy.

Except, perhaps, the workplace. Positive workplaces, that is.

How Leaders Can Reduce Loneliness in Their Workplace

If you are in a leadership capacity, you have an opportunity to create a positive environment that mitigates loneliness, for others. Four authors published a paper in January 2011 which covered this quite well. The paper is Effects of Positive Practices on Organizational Effectiveness, by Kim Cameron, Carlos Mora, Trevor Luetscher, and Margaret Calarco from January 2011. In a study of the health care sector, workplace effectiveness improved on a variety of measures when employers:

“…provide compassionate support for employees, emphasize positive and inspiring messages to employees, forgive mistakes, express gratitude to and confidence in employees, clarify the meaningfulness of the work being done, and reinforce an environment characterized by respect and integrity. No one positive practice stands out as the single most important determinant of improvement, but positive practices in combination appear to have the most powerful impact.”

It’s important to realize that each of these positive practices fosters connection and understanding. But it’s the general environment of inclusiveness that makes the difference. And this would make sense, as fostering authentic connections are a general approach to others, with workplace culture mostly coming from the very top.

How Can Individuals Overcome Loneliness?

And what can you do, just for yourself? Loneliness is an area where an accurate self-assessment goes a long way. There is a quick loneliness quiz online that is a shortened version of the full loneliness scale produced in 1996 by Daniel Russel. The assessment is important because you need to differentiate between three items that are easily confused with one another: isolation, loneliness, and depression.

Specifically, isolation often causes loneliness, and loneliness often causes depression. Isolation is the lack of contact between an individual and society. Loneliness is an unpleasant emotional response arising from disconnection. By contrast, depression is a persisting low mood accompanied by additional medical symptoms. You could face any combination of these three challenges, and possibly just one. So assessing yourself then taking charge of your own self-description is the first half of the battle.

An article in TheCut.com by Cari Romm summarizes recommendations from seven therapists on how to overcome loneliness. One of them recommends you engage in small talk with people you encounter throughout your day. Don’t be needy and desperate – not just yet – instead this is a time to build rapport. Most importantly, this small talk can become second nature for when you are at the early stages of developing a more important impression, such as with new in-laws or a new boss.

Two experts think the increase in loneliness is due to our “persistently frantic state of busyness.” Jaqueline Olds and her partner Robert Schwartz teach at Harvard Medical School and are co-authors of the book The Lonely American. When interviewed for the AARP article they note that busy people

“…just need a bit of solitude and downtime at the end of the day, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But if you put socializing at the end of your to-do list, then you won’t see people and you’ll feel more isolated. You will also feel as if everyone else is leaving you out, even though you’re the one who started it all by sending signals that you don’t want company. So what started off as a reasonable wish fed on itself and became destructive.”

This interpretation jives with Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, which ultimately links declining community involvement to longer commuting times. However, it is just too important to give social interaction a low priority in your time-planning. As I discussed in an earlier post, it is tempting to assert that we are “too busy” as a status symbol, but those who have their act together are always working on those things that are most important to them. You need to decide that social interaction is part of who you are as a human. And that you are on this earth to be human.

A sense of connection to something outside ourselves is important: loneliness runs at 27% for religious people but 43% for the non-religious. If you have decided that God isn’t your cup of tea, you need an alternate sense of connection to the universe, and some other way to participate in a community. Loneliness runs at 28% (which is low) for those who donate time to school, hospital, or another non-profit and 26% for those who belong to a book club, garden group, or other social organization.

You may or may not require God’s love, but you fundamentally need community and connection.

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