New Year reflections: Loneliness

I wanted to start off this year recognising that there seems to be an epidemic of loneliness. This has real implications for us as a society, and I believe means specific things for those of us who were already on solo journeys before all the craziness of COVID cut off our social networks.

Almost half of all people in the UK report feeling lonely sometimes, and 18% of Americans note that they have only one person – or nobody – that they can rely on. Young people and those over 65 are particularly at risk of feeling lonely, and this has increased with the lockdown restrictions.

And loneliness really matters, not just for mental wellbeing but also for our physical health. Feeling isolated is linked to early mortality, poor cardivascular health, depression and suicide. In fact it is so serious that the negative health impact of loneliness is akin to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Sometimes when I feel lonely I also feel a bit ashamed about it, like I’m the unpopular kid at school standing in a corner whilst the fun and noise goes on around me. But reminders about the impact of feeling like this means it’s important to sometimes look it in the eye.

Wandering lonely as a cloud. Photo by Ihor Malytskyi on Unsplash

In my own social circles I see real evidence of people struggling to feel connected and secure, and it’s something that I have noticed in myself as well.

Being a single parent is a pretty lonely place. Being responsible for all the decisions and actions, being good and bad cop, and being where the buck stops on All. The. Things. can get exhausting. Add into the mix the other things that I’m trying to do, whether in terms of work, family, friendship or interests, and the spinning plates sometimes drop. Then add in trying to follow the road less travelled into FIRE, female senior leadership and mindful living and sometimes I feel like a leaf being blown about in a gale.

I also recognise that not all cultures operate in the same way, so the kinds of family or community that might lean in to support me don’t really exist in Europe. The rise of one-person households; the culture of ‘busyness’; urban planning and how we interact with our neighbours; work culture: all of these things create friction in human interactions which in turn increases the sense of isolation.

Sometimes you’re a leaf in a gale, sometimes you’re pure gold. Photo by GraceHues Photography on Unsplash

In spite of this, recognising that loneliness comes with going down the road less travelled, loosens its negative grip on me. So ok, single parenting is lonley precisely because we are doing it alone. And having a vision outside of the norm – following FIRE, being an entrepreneur or a leader – necessarily means carving your own path. Sometimes that path feels lonely and sometimes it feels liberating.

Amen! Photo by Ian Taylor on Unsplash

So what are the opportunities to mitigate loneliness whilst still creating your own life? The first strategy has to be around building a stronger community. Maybe it’s taking time to speak with your friends – and really speak with them, not just having a laugh down the pub (though that has its mental health benefits too…). Maybe it’s engaging family, or working on some of the more challenging relationships which support your healing. Maybe it’s joining up with, or building a new community, whether in your neighbourhood or online.

My second strategy is around focusing on the calendar. Whilst Judaism has traditions which mark the weeks and phases of the year, the main thing for me is to recognise the seasons and celebrate or act in accordance. This is even more important to me since living in Denmark where the winter can feel depressing and lonely, and taking it gently matters more. Having rituals or activities which mark the passing of the seasons – from new year’s resolutions, to the new school year – makes me feel more like an active participant in something positive.

Finally perhaps it’s about learning to listen, and to be heard. Being prepared to open up, to share what isn’t working and ask when you need something, matters. Listening and being open to hearing difficult things from others, also matters. Building meaningful connections can take time and can be challenging – especially if you are feeling low – but it’s really worth it.

So – what are your ideas for combatting loneliness? Wishing you a happy and nourishing 2022!

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