Just Say Hello: The Powerful New Way to Combat Loneliness
What's changed? "No one picks up the phone anymore," says Frances Reimers, a 34-year-old marketing executive in Alexandria, Virginia. "Sure, I have friends who like or comment on something I've posted on social media, but that's not really friendship." Indeed, while social media has given us more ways to communicate, many experts believe it may also leave us more alienated. It's the deteriorating quality of our relationships that concerns researchers like Harry Reis, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Rochester. "We need to interact with other people on a fairly deep level, and that's what many of us are missing," says Reis. Are texting, tweeting, posting, and liking solely to blame? Of course not, but for those who tend to hide behind screens instead of going out and socializing, online networks provide an illusion of interaction that is a poor substitute for real connection.
It also doesn't help that as a society, we continue to wall ourselves off from family and friends largely by choice. "I live far from my family, but I don't complain about how isolating that feels, because I've told myself it's just part of being independent," says Tiffany Congilosi, 25, whose husband is in the military. In fact, these days living alone or separated from our extended families is seen as a marker of maturity and financial success. When we do find ourselves surrounded by others, we often look for ways to keep our distance: In one Pew poll, 13 percent of cell phone owners admitted to pretending to use their phones to avoid interacting with those around them. And with the rise in automation—self-checkout kiosks, online banking, Siri—it's now easier to avoid communicating with whole swaths of people in ways we simply couldn't have imagined only a few generations ago. A certain solitariness has gradually become the norm. "I know there are people who love me, but it seems as though no one really wants to take time to reach out to talk and just be together anymore," says Kim Wood, 53, who spends her days caring for her elderly mother.
Despite how common loneliness is, it seems destined to be one of the last great emotional taboos. "I see patients who say they're depressed, but when they explain what's really bothering them, in many cases they're not depressed at all," says psychiatrist Richard Schwartz, MD, coauthor of The Lonely American: Drifting Apart in the Twenty-First Century. "They're lonely, but haven't labeled it that way. We've destigmatized depression to a point where people are more comfortable saying 'I'm depressed' than 'I'm lonely.'" It's as if "lonely" were synonymous with "loser." "My girlfriends asked why on earth I would admit in a national magazine to being lonely," Reimers says. "But it's important to be honest. Generally, my life is A-plus, but 15 percent of the time it's not, and I need a little help. It's not always easy to articulate to friends that you need them to step up."
To be sure, there's nothing loserish or even unique about feeling lonely. But experts warned me that it's impossible to paint a portrait of a lonely person with broad strokes. Loneliness doesn't discriminate—it can affect the single and the attached, the city dweller and the suburbanite. And what's missing can be different for everyone. For Rebecca Staples, a 46-year-old single mother of three, it's the lack of a romantic partner and a sense of fulfillment that brings on overwhelming emptiness each night. Emily White, on the other hand, says her feelings of isolation first stemmed from not having a like-minded community when she was in law school. "I didn't share the goals of the people around me, so it was hard to fit in," says White, who chronicled her experience in Lonely: Learning to Live with Solitude. "I knew I didn't want to practice law, but I stuck it out for a few years. There's this notion that someone successful or attractive can't be lonely. But it's not your looks that matter. If you feel like no one sees you for who you really are, you're going to feel alone."
At the heart of all of this is a basic need to be acknowledged. In fact, a Purdue University study found that people who made eye contact with strangers reported feeling less disconnected than those who felt as if people looked right through them. Reaching out, even in the smallest ways, can inch us closer to more meaningful relationships, which research shows can prevent much of the damage social isolation causes. People with larger social networks are less likely to get sick, and their memories are sharper. Social support can even reduce physical pain. In a study coauthored by Eisenberger, when women in long-term romantic relationships were asked to rate the pain from heat applied to their arms, they reported lower levels of discomfort when looking at pictures of their partners.
Perhaps most shockingly, research has found that friends may be an essential key to longevity: Over a given period, people who have strong ties to family, friends, or coworkers have a 50 percent greater chance of outliving those with fewer social connections. If our relationships can have such an effect on our overall health, why don't we prioritize spending time with the people around us as much as we do exercising and eating right? We may assume everyone else is either too uninterested or busy for conversation, but what if, as a society, we began to challenge that assumption? What if we made the first move, setting off the potential for a deeper connection? All it takes is a willingness to reach out. And it begins with a simple hello.
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