By Dr. John Delony
Loneliness is poison. It is deadly. Loneliness is literally killing us.
And if you just rolled your eyes, I’m especially talking to you.
Over the past couple of decades, researchers have repeatedly found a direct link between loneliness and a host of physical and psychological problems, like heart disease and mental illness.1 Loneliness slowly dissolves us physically, mentally, and makes it impossible to be spiritually whole. Our culture has sped up and become increasingly frantic and chaotic. It’s tough to find time for new friendships, let alone time to invest in deep, meaningful relationships. We’ve managed to get by on sips of connection from the forced relationships of our kid’s friends’ parents or people at work, and the forced isolation of a global pandemic is highlighting a loneliness and mental health crisis like we haven’t seen in our lifetimes.
But here’s some good news: Regardless of how old you are, how much loss you have experienced, or how overwhelming it feels, you don’t have to live a lonely, isolated life. In fact, you must not life a lonely, isolated life.
Just like learning new ways to handle your money, learning how to connect and manage relationships requires a new set of skills. You have to be intentional, humble, and commit to learning new things. In fact, you can learn to cultivate new, whole, and authentic relationships with people. You can learn to trust and be trusted. You can enjoy depth and connection, but you have to make it a priority and do the work.
Make no mistake: You are worth the work. Your kids, your spouse, your friends, your business, and/or your community are all worth the work.
Here are five tangible and powerful practices that will help you find connection and relationships and live a joyful and whole life.
Be honest about your loneliness
Who would be the first person you would call if you got word that your mom was sick? That you’d just lost your job? That you need help changing a tire in your driveway. If you’re like many Americans, you would have no one to call.
This should sound every personal and cultural alarm that we have. Finding connection first begins with admitting that you are lonely, with no one to call. That you have no one you can tell the good stuff, the bad stuff, and the painful stuff too. That you have no one to lean on.
Or you might have a ton of people to call, but you find yourself lonely in a crowded room. Either way, you’re lonely—and disconnected.
So, inhale deeply and say it out loud: I’m lonely. Then exhale.
Admitting you’re lonely doesn’t mean you’re weak or a loser. It means you’re human. I’ve felt lonely in a crowded room of people who love me, on stage in front of thousands of people, and even when surrounded by family at my own kitchen table.
If we aren’t honest about our loneliness, we run the risk of mislabeling our feelings and experiences. We might blame our feelings on any number of other things, from politics to neighbors, to people who have different beliefs. Instead of blaming or numbing, what you need is people on your team, someone to argue, laugh, eat, watch a game with—or maybe cry with.
Develop a plan to connect with people. Loneliness can quickly turn into a pity party if you’re waiting for others to reach out to you. Telephones, visits, and letter writing work both ways. You can be upset that no one has called or written, or you can begin reaching out.
If you’re in a season of life where you truly have few friends, you’ll have to get serious about coming up with a plan to meet people. Choose to be active in your search for connections. The be bold and go for it.
Additionally, be mindful about exhausting your friends and family with your problems and challenges. Other people don’t exist for you, they exist with you. Always remember: Listen more than you talk. Serve more than you are served.
Schedule in-person time with others
Depending on what studies you read, 70–90% of communication is nonverbal.2 In recent years we’ve outsourced almost all our communication to texting, emails, snapchats and DMs. Hear me clearly: Digital interactions are ways of passing information—not connecting. Relationships are about eye contact, presence, and when appropriate, touch. You can trade information in a digital format, but you cannot connect. Connecting in person (or though FaceTime, if necessary) is critical. Spend time face-to-face with the people you care about most on a regular basis.
Find a group to join, and commit to it
In addition to having a few close friends, consider joining groups in your community. Find people pursuing a common purpose, and commit to it.
Visit different groups and explore, but once you’ve landed on something, commit. Show up and keep showing up. Even if you deem some of the people annoying. Especially if they don’t look like you or you find they are way better at it than you. Stop comparing and competing and instead, say YES! and just keep showing up.
Be intentional about social media choices
They told us social media was going to help us to stay connected with our loved ones, meet new people, and deepen our relationships.
Social media does not help me remain connected, in a meaningful way, to people I love and care about. It gives me information, not connection. These platforms use fine-tuned algorithms that are designed to keep us scrolling – not connecting. In fact, there’s alarming evidence that social media use actually increases feelings of depression and loneliness.3
How many of you have hundreds of “friends” on Facebook, but no one to help you move your couch? If you’re going to use social media, be careful about when you’re on it and how long you access it.
I know COVID-19 brought with it many things we never expected, including lengthy physical separation from family and friends. However, deep, rewarding relationships are still possible. They may take a little more effort and intentionality than before, but they’re worth it. You can become a better friend—and find better friends—if you’re ready and willing to take the next step!
Dr. John Delony is a mental health expert with PhDs in Counselor Education and Supervision and Higher Education Administration from Texas Tech University. Prior to joining Ramsey Solutions in 2020, John worked as a senior leader, professor, and researcher at multiple universities. He also spent time in victim’s services and crisis response, walking with people through severe trauma. As a Ramsey Personality, he teaches on relationships and emotional wellness. Follow John on Twitter, Facebookand YouTubeor online at www.ramseysolutions.com/john-delony.