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.”