One Is The Loneliest Number
"If you understand where that feeling comes from," says Cacioppo, "and what its determinants are—that some are in your head, some are from unrealistic expectations, some are a result of how you've interacted with people—then you can make a change." Some of the grief, obviously, also comes from events outside a person's control (a relocation to a new city, the death of a spouse, etc.), but Cacioppo is saying that the lonely do play a part in the equation. The last thing socially isolated people want to hear is that their loneliness might be self-inflicted; yet if their despair is in some way their own doing, then it is within their means to reduce it.
The experts all say getting out of the house is a good first step, if only to stop the self-hating marination that so often takes place at home. Human contact—even a pleasant exchange with a store clerk—can soften the harsh pitch of an uninterrupted day. Since self-esteem tends to be lower for the lonely, anything that will boost self-image is worth a shot (a trainer, a personal shopper, speech lessons, purple contact lenses). Cacioppo suggests getting involved with a charity. Although lonely people can't simply will themselves to see the world as a hospitable place, they can make adjustments based on the awareness of their faulty, tending-to-negative vision. If they know, for instance, that their brains are wired to come up with the worst possible interpretation of cocktail party interactions, then maybe they decide never to go to a social function without a friend to provide a reality check, a home base, a mid-party buck-up.
Before lonely people even attempt to launch themselves into a social gathering, Russell advises lining up their expectations to see what exactly they're hoping for. Are they looking for a partner? Are they married but feeling alone in the community? Are they new mothers with a million single friends but no one who can tell them what a nasal syringe is for?
To meet new people to fill some of these slots, Jacqueline Olds, MD, recommends joining organized groups. She insists the group must revolve around a project—not a passive event, like a lecture series—because having work in common gives participants something to do and talk about. People need to pick something they are interested in, says Olds, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, because they'll need enthusiasm for the subject to carry them through the awkward early times. And there will be awkward early times—many more of them than you'd imagine.
"People often expect a connection to be made quicker than it can be," says Olds, who cowrote Overcoming Loneliness in Everyday Life with her husband, Richard Schwartz, MD, and Harriet Webster. "But you have to give it six months at the minimum." She's not saying that overextended men and women have to add something else to their schedules; in fact, she thinks part of the problem of loneliness in the 21st-century can be traced to the 19th. "Basically, our society emphasizes rugged individualism," says Olds. "On the frontier, people had to be enormously self-sufficient, but now we've taken that a little too far. We try not to lean on people. We go through a lot of trouble to hire someone to do our own little chores." We solve the problem but not our lack of connection. We don't ask for help with our trash barrels, and we don't borrow the cup of sugar from the house next door because we don't want to be in someone's debt. By not asking the favor, Olds says, we lose the opportunity to meet someone new—and it's in the colliding with many someone-news that a person eventually finds the sustaining and fulfilling connections that she was missing.
Olds acknowledges that knocking on a new neighbor's door or getting involved in a group can be difficult for some people. "They're so depleted by their loneliness that they're not the least bit welcoming in conversation or their facial expressions," she says. "One client looked standoffish because she was trying not to come off as weak or desperate." But it's okay to be weak, Olds says. We all need help with the trash barrels, the copy machine, or the ever perilous warrior III pose in yoga class. Olds encourages clients to ask for aid when they need it and also to offer it: to run a neighbor's errand, shake the toner cartridge, or help that poor klutzy yogi on the next mat. Olds reminds clients that while they're doing all this, they also need to be aware of body language—essentially to muster as many optimistic and hopeful gestures as possible to avoid Weiss's stigmata of the lonely: the nervousness, the crossed arms, the worried frown, the impulse to withdraw. The lonely can't force people to like them, but they can at least be aware of the habits that cause others to avoid or overlook them.
Take the person who sits quietly through the PTA meeting and volunteers to address envelopes at home. She could turn the task into a group project by joining a committee that meets weekly or inviting other volunteers to come over to address the envelopes each month. She may not find a soul mate, but the regular, counted-on envelope meetings will eventually create a conversational thread she can pick up every month. She can then turn to other regular encounters, no matter how small, using them as opportunities to throw out other skeins. She could become a regular at a coffee shop, ask the local librarian for recommendations, or strike up a conversation with fellow gym members. Many lonely people discount the effect of being greeted by name in several different environments. Feeling untethered, they hope to find one solid rope to cling to: If they're single, they search for a spouse; if they're new to a neighborhood, a best friend. But those companions are exceedingly hard to find. In their absence, a lonely person might have to anchor herself to the planet one little thread at a time.