All of us, from time to time, have experienced the ache of loneliness, whether we’re actually by ourselves or among others. And, of course, it never feels good.
But, curiously, this “social pain” is actually adaptive. According to John T. Cacioppo and William Patrick in their book, Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection:
Keep in mind, too, that feeling the pain of isolation is not an unalloyed negative. The sensations associated with loneliness evolved because they contributed to our survival as a species. “To be isolated from your band,” wrote John Bowlby, the developmental psychologist who pioneered attachment theory, “and, especially when young, to be isolated from your particular caretaker is fraught with the greatest danger. Can we wonder then that each animal is equipped with an instinctive disposition to avoid isolation and to maintain proximity?”
Physical pain protects the individual from physical dangers. Social pain, also known as loneliness, evolved for a similar reason: because it protected the individual from the danger of remaining isolated. Our forebears depended on social bonds for safety and for the successful replication of their genes in the form of offspring who themselves survived long enough to reproduce. Feelings of loneliness told them when those protective bonds were endangered or deficient. In the same way that physical pain serves as a prompt to change behavior—the pain of burning skin tells you to pull your finger away from the frying pan—loneliness developed as a stimulus to get humans to pay more attention to their social connections, and to reach out toward others, to renew frayed or broken bonds. But here was a pain that prompted us to behave in ways that did not always serve our immediate, individual self-interest. Here was a pain that got us outside ourselves, widening our frame of reference beyond the moment.
Even though loneliness is an evolutionary gift, it doesn’t mean it’s good for us. Recent research has shown that loneliness is a significant predictor of depression. (In fact, reducing loneliness can help to reduce depressive symptoms.) It’s also a risk factor for physical aliments such as high blood pressure, sleep problems and a weakened immune system.
But while some of us are more inclined to feelings of loneliness, everyone can still take action to reconnect. In their book True Belonging: Mindful Practices to Help You Overcome Loneliness, Connect with Others & Cultivate Happiness, authors Jeffrey Brantley, M.D., and Wendy Millstine, NC, share a variety of mindful strategies to help readers overcome loneliness and connect with others.
According to the authors, “…mindfulness can have an enormous positive impact upon your capacity to see clearly, connect more fully, and respond more deeply and compassionately in any situation or moment, whether that situation or moment be a challenging or an enjoyable one.”
The book consists of three parts: connecting with yourself, connecting with others and connecting with the world. Here, you’ll find a mindful practice for each part.
Connecting with Yourself
A helpful way to reconnect with yourself is to identify your values and notice whether you’re living these values. The authors suggest starting off by focusing on your breathing, and asking yourself about your values. (By the way, if other thoughts pop up, no problem! Without judging yourself, just keep coming back to your breathing.) They write:
Ask yourself: What do I value most of all? Make a mental or written list. Start with your relationship with yourself. What might your values reflect if you focused on you? You might answer: I value myself. I value my body. I value my health. I value my intelligence. I value my self-sufficiency. Take a moment to sit and meditate on the values that come to mind. These values give meaning and significance to your life every day. Continue to be mindful of your breathing.
Then do the same by considering your values that focus on connection. You might say that you value respect, love or peace.
The next step is to consider how you’re going to act on your values, and then do these behaviors. For example, if you value love, Brantley and Millstine suggest telling one person that you love them either by sending them a letter, text or email or calling them. When you act on your values, you “…feel more connected to yourself and the world around you.”
Connecting with Others
The key to connection is being present. It’s truly paying attention to the other person and your interaction as it unfolds. But how often have you been with someone who’s fiddling with their phone (or been that person yourself)? Or felt like the person you’re talking to is really somewhere else? Or been lost in your own mind chatter?
Brantley and Millstine suggest readers “Set an intention to practice being more present in your relationships,” and use curiosity as a tool to learn more. “It could help to approach this practice with curiosity, without judging yourself, perhaps asking, What would it be like to pay more attention and to be more present, for another person and for myself, moment by moment — even a little more often than usual?”
During your interaction, also breathe mindfully and focus on the sensations of your breathing. If your mind wanders, just gently refocus on the present. (I love what they say about wandering minds in another section: “When your mind wanders, remember: you don’t have to fight or control your thoughts, and you do not have to follow or feed them either. You have not made a mistake when your mind wanders; it is what your mind does!”)
Whenever you feel disconnected, consider how you’re feeling disconnected and why (“without making it a problem or someone’s fault”). Notice your own thoughts and emotions and then let them pass, returning to your breath. Then try to restore the connection.
Connecting with the World
I’ve written before on Weightless about the sorry state of eating in our society. Many delicious foods are forbidden, and enjoying mealtime is either a forgotten art or a frowned-upon act (unless of course you’re eating a low-cal meal manufactured by a weight-loss company). Too many of us eat on the go or get distracted by devices, giving our meals little, if any, thought. (Me included!)
So it might surprise you to learn that a bond can be found in bites of food: “Imagine seeing your connection to others in a bowl of rice,” Brantley and Millstine write. In fact, they believe that “every meal is an opportunity for cultivating a spiritual relationship with the food you eat.”
Before eating, the authors suggest taking a few breaths and observing your foods’ textures, color palate and perfumes. Pick one of the foods on your plate, and ask yourself the following questions: “Where did it come from? How was it grown? Who grew it? Who packaged it? How did it get to my grocery store?”
As you take your first bite, relish in your food’s flavors and textures, and realize just how much energy and labor went into your meal. “In a single bite, you can begin to perceive the hard work of generations of family farmers who may be connected to your meal. You are eating with the sun and the rain and the farmer and the bumblebee. They are all joining you for this meal.”
If you have any insight on overcoming loneliness, please share in the comments!
We’d love to hear how you cope with loneliness.
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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 30 Sep 2011
Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.
Tartakovsky, M. (2011). 3 Ways to Lift Loneliness. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 7, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2011/09/30/3-ways-to-lift-loneliness/