Without a Friend in the World (Can We Talk About Loneliness?)

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My relationships have always mattered to me a great deal. I’m an INFJ (first sign), and I was the oldest child of a broken family (my parents divorced when I was young, and out of a well-kept secret fear of my siblings being separated, I took on the role of keeping us together).

As I grew older, I figured out that (a) that’s not everyone’s priority (relationships and staying together) and (b) the people and relationships I loved and prioritized didn’t always feel the same toward me or want to prioritize me back.

Friendship, I eventually learned, didn’t mean the same thing for everyone.

Yet, in spite of semantics and definitions, I still saw people behave in ways that alluded to their loneliness, isolation, and desire to be included, if not involved (which, now that I think about it, might be the answer — we’ll come back to that).

To get to the bottom of this loneliness problem, I had to answer a few questions.

First, are we all lonely?

Sad statistics reported by Forbes:

The General Social Survey found that the number of Americans with no close friends has tripled since 1985. ‘Zero’ is the most common number of confidants reported by almost a quarter of those surveyed. Likewise, the average number of people Americans feel they can talk to about ‘important matters’ has fallen from three to two. 1

What does lonely look like?

Just because you’re married or have kids doesn’t mean you’re not lonely. Neither does the fact that you come from a big family. Or have a big following on social networks. Or have a large circle of acquaintances you see regularly. Or live in a big city (or a small one). Or have a busy job interacting with a lot of people every day. Or go to church on Sundays.

Outward appearances are no indicator (or guarantee) of the quality of our connections.

We may feign perfection (or at least that we have it together) on social networks, but there are signs that, as a culture, we may be acting out or compensating for loneliness. A few outward clues, according to Insider 2, include things like:

  • Caring a lot for material possessions,
  • Binge-watching shows on television, or
  • Spending a lot of time on social media.

Lifeline, a crisis support and suicide prevention service in Australia, adds a host of physical, emotional, and mental symptoms 3, including:

  • Aches and pains,
  • Anxiety,
  • Tiredness or lack of energy, and
  • Sleep problems.

Of course, the taboo around admitting that you’re lonely only adds to the problem, but an instinctive drive to belong (and pretending that you do in order to not appear like you don’t) can’t be the only factor.

What’s making us lonely?

There are many reasons we might be getting lonelier as a culture.

#1 – Our modern way of life isolates us from others. 4

“One explanation why Western society might be richer but no happier,” the Mental Health Foundation reports, “is that we’ve been drifting further apart. More of us live alone in small apartments, work at home, and shop and [socialize] online. Or we commute long distances back and forth to work long hours at the office, barely finding time to spend with our families.” On top of that, it goes on to say, “today, [socializing] and investing time in social ties are generally seen as less important than ‘productive’ activities like work.”

#2 – We have “communities,” but no community. 5

We hang out in “groups” online. We listen to podcasts, read books, and follow threads around shared interests. There’s a “community,” in the technical sense of “people with a common interest living together within a larger society”6 (except … without the “together” part).

#3 – The technology that “connects” us also makes us chronically distracted by obsessive scrolling and sharing.

We’ve substituted emails for letters, texts for phone calls, Snapchats for time spent in person. Personal connection has been replaced by devices. No longer are we gathering around a table in conversation and community. Instead, we go to our respective corners and stare at screens.

#4 – We’re losing social skills.

“Social networking sites undermine social skills and the ability to read body language,” says psychologist Dr. Aric Sigman. 7 We’re forgetting how to interact and connect with each other. Many of the community centers are going away (things like post offices, shopping malls, bowling alleys, etc.), and much of the remaining in-person contact we still have with each other is consumed by our gadgets. (Pay attention the next time you’re at an airport or restaurant and see how many people are actually talking to one another instead of looking at devices.)

#5 – We’re no longer available.

“The ‘cult of busyness’ has become a modern badge of [honor],” cites the Mental Health Foundation. “We face so much pressure to be ‘productive’ that we neglect ‘unnecessary’ relationships that are as vital as food and water.”8

Do we have to be lonely?

“Loneliness is not designed to be chronic; instead, it’s very much like physical pain or hunger. It’s an aversive cue that alerts you to pay attention.”9

Our feelings of loneliness and isolation are important mental, emotional, and physical indicators that something is wrong. In fact, research is saying that loneliness is a bigger killer today than obesity 10.

But that’s not news, at least not exactly. Dan Buetter reported several times in his 2008 book, The Blue Zones, that having a sense of social connectedness was an important factor in living longer (if not dying early).

But here’s my big question then.

Is it possible to “make friends,” especially as an adult?

This is probably just an excuse talking, but just because I want to make friends doesn’t mean the rest of society wants to change things anytime soon, right?

(Not-so-random aside, I’ve considered making an eHarmony for friends. Wouldn’t it be great if you could just “match” people by what they were looking for in a friendship? For example, “I’m looking for people who are interested in actually maintaining a friendship.”)

Sure, it’s easy to find people with common interests — the Internet and social networks are pretty much built to do that — but what about doing the work involved in having a relationship? Not everyone is interested in that (in romantic or parent-child relationships, let alone friendships).

(Which is yet another reason for an eHarmony for friends: if the only reason you were on the network was to establish a “serious” friendship and you had to pay to be there — instead of low-investment, low-commitment social networks, just like low-investment, low-commitment dating networks — it’d be far more likely every person you met would be looking for the same quality friendships you were.)

In short, I still don’t have an answer to this question.

So then, what can you do about it?

“Professor Jacqueline Olds says there is one guaranteed way to make a friend: ‘join a group that has a shared purpose and eventually you will make a friend’.”11

Sounds easy enough, but I would argue that the previous dilemma still stands, which brings me around to the possible solution I mentioned at the beginning.

If you want to be included, you have to be involved.

The tools we have at our disposal today certainly make finding people with common interests a lot easier, but you still have to do the work. Relationships (of any kind) are a commitment and require quality (and quantity) time to make them grow and last.

While we can quickly make connections online, we have to take those friendships to a deeper, more meaningful level (either through longer form writing, phone calls, or time spent together in person). In other words, communication tools don’t replace the need for communication, and that takes time and effort and dedication from both parties.

Inclusion, if you really want it, means involvement. There are no shortcuts.

Which is just how a lifelong friendship should be.


Update: After writing this post (and on further exploration on the topic of friendship), I stumbled on Noelle Rhodes and her Friending podcast. I’ve listened to a couple of episodes already and love its style and message. Give it a listen! 🙂

Footnotes

  1. Beaton, Caroline. “Why Millennials Are Lonely.” Forbes, February 2017.
  2. Shaw, Gabbi. “9 Signs of Loneliness.Insider, June 2016.
  3. Loneliness & Isolation,” Lifeline.
  4. Griffin, Jo. “The Lonely Society?Mental Health Foundation, 2010.
  5. Griffin, Jo. “The Lonely Society?Mental Health Foundation, 2010.
  6. Merriam Webster’s definition of ‘community’
  7. Griffin, Jo. “The Lonely Society?Mental Health Foundation, 2010.
  8. Griffin, Jo. “The Lonely Society?Mental Health Foundation, 2010.
  9. Entis, Laura. “Chronic Loneliness Is a Modern-Day Epidemic.” Fortune, June 2016.
  10. Whiteman, Honor. “Loneliness is a Bigger Killer Than Obesity, Say Researchers.Medical New Today, August 2017.
  11. Griffin, Jo. “The Lonely Society?Mental Health Foundation, 2010.

About the author

E.H. Bellefontaine

Evangeline Henry Bellefontaine is the fictional writer behind Maison d'Evangeline (and More Beautiful Good on Medium). She writes mostly on the topics of bibliotherapy (books + therapy), personal growth, and doing the work. Follow by subscribing to Bibliothérapie.

By E.H. Bellefontaine

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