Though billed as a time of gatherings and gratitude, the holidays can shine a spotlight on the loneliness many of us are already feeling. In fact, for the past several years, researchers have found evidence that America is experiencing a “loneliness epidemic”. Levels of loneliness have doubled in the last half century. One recent study from the University of California at San Diego found that three-quarters of Americans—of all ages—experience moderate to high levels of loneliness.
When you combine loneliness with the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 holidays are shaping up to be as challenging as the year that preceded them.
Feeling sad or alienated or alone right now is an understandable response to this time of year and this year specifically. And humans are social animals, so loneliness is a natural emotion we all feel from time to time. But if you find yourself feeling stuck in it this season, there are steps you can take to connect to others and deepen your connection with yourself.
1. Feel your feelings. Early in the pandemic, an article went viral with the headline: That Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief. It was an interview with the famous grief researcher David Kessler (one of the authors who popularized the idea of the stages of grief), and it struck a chord with people. Kessler had given us a name—and a way to understand—a whole host of emotions we’ve been having in response to the pandemic. This last year has been filled with losses—from loved ones to jobs, normal schooling, social plans, and, now, we are looking ahead to a holiday season unlike any we have had before. Kessler calls that “anticipatory grief” for a loss you have yet to experience but expect may be coming. Experts like Kessler will tell you that rather than trying to suppress or fight the way you are feeling, one of the best ways to manage these big emotions is to let yourself feel them. “If we allow the feelings to happen,” says Kessler. “They’ll happen in an orderly way, and it empowers us.”
How to do it:
- Name your feelings. Whatever you are feeling—grief, anger, rage, sadness, loneliness—research shows that simply naming it will help the emotions feel a little less intense.
- Recognize that you are not your feelings. Rather than saying, “I’m lonely,” try saying “I am feeling loneliness.” Instead of “I am anxious,” try, “I am feeling anxiety.” Understanding that you are not the same as your emotions can help you get some space from them.
- Watch your feelings come and go. Emotions are not permanent. They are temporary states that wax and wane over time. Understanding that you will not always feel the intense emotions you are having at any given moment will help them feel more tolerable.
2. Try mindfulness. One of the most effective ways of learning that feelings come and go is by practicing mindfulness, which trains your mind to find itself in the present moment. A study in 2019 found that practicing mindfulness is an effective way to lessen loneliness and feelings of isolation.
The researchers assigned people to complete one of three two-week based smartphone programs. One of the programs taught the participants “monitor and acceptance” training, a therapeutic mindfulness approach in which you watch your emotions and let yourself feel them. What they found was that participants who utilized the program not only had a reduction in their feelings of loneliness, but they increased the number of social interactions they had each day—Win! Win!
How to do it: Try the introductory courses offered on apps such as Insight Timer, Headspace, and Ten Percent Happier. Or, sign up for a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course in your area. It is the most heavily researched approach to mindfulness and offers you the bonus of creating a new community through an in-person or virtual class. If you’re an Amazon employee, check out the various mental health benefits here. Navigate to the ‘free’ section for mindfulness resources.
3. Welcome wisdom. One of the country’s leading loneliness researchers, Dilip V. Jeste, MD, Senior Associate Dean for the Center of Healthy Aging at the UC San Diego School of Medicine and author of the San Diego study on loneliness mentioned above, has made a surprising discovery in his research. One possible antidote to loneliness is wisdom.
In a small study at a senior living center, Jeste found that participants who approached life with what Jeste collectively calls “wisdom” experienced lower levels of loneliness. One participant shared that whenever they were feeling lonely, they went out and did something for someone else. Others said that accepting the aging process and seeing life as a transition was helpful. One resident told Jeste, “I may feel alone, but that doesn’t mean I’m lonely.”
“These findings suggest we need to think about loneliness differently,” says Jeste. “It’s not about social isolation. A person can be alone and not feel lonely, while a person can be in a crowd and feel alone. We need to find solutions and interventions that help connect people that help them to become wiser. A wiser society would be a happier, more connected, and less lonely society.”
How to do it. See steps 2, 4, and 6
4. Practice self-compassion. Self-compassion is the practice of treating yourself with the same understanding and kindness you would use with a friend. There are three main pillars of self compassion—being kind to yourself, recognizing the common humanity we all share, and mindfulness. Research conducted by one of the leading proponents of self compassion Kristin Neff has found that self compassion practices can help reduce anxiety, depression and loneliness.
How to do it. Neff offers several introductions to the practice on her website.
5. Seek new acquaintances. Having positive interactions with strangers was shown to increase happiness in one of the first studies to ever look at so-called “weak ties.” Up until 2013, almost all studies on social interaction and happiness had focused on “strong ties,” i.e. friends and family.
But, British researcher Gillian Sandstrom, wanted to see whether weak ties—the ones we have with the dry cleaner, the grocery clerk, our local barista—can influence our happiness. What she found was that people with more weak ties were happier than those with fewer and that the more interactions they had with those weak ties, the happier they were.
In one study, Sandstrom and her team stood outside a Starbucks and recruited people to participate in a study where they were randomized to have a “have a genuine interaction with the cashier – smile, make eye contact to establish a connection, and have a brief conversation” or to have an “efficient” interaction focused on the transaction of money and coffee. They found that those in the connection group experienced greater happiness and a feeling of belonging after their interaction.
How to do it: Say hi to a (socially distanced!) neighbor or dog walker in your community or ask the Starbucks barista how their shift is going when you go through the drive thru. “There is initial evidence that these interactions, and not only interactions with our close friends and family, are associated with our happiness,” writes Sandstrom.
6. Help others. A growing number of studies suggest that volunteering has a number of significant benefits and one is lessening social isolation and feelings of loneliness. A 2019 survey of 10,000 people in Britain found that 90% of people who volunteered to help others said it increased their social connections and three-quarters said it improved their emotional well-being. Here are a few great ways to support others this holiday season.
How to do it: Check out one of these local groups that connects you to volunteer opportunities both in-person and virtual.
- SeattleWorks will connect you to volunteer opportunities that align with your interests and are still happening safely during COVID-19.
- Habitat for Humanity, which builds homes for those who need them, offers you the opportunity to help others, get out of the house and move your body and get to know a new community.
- VolunteerMatch offers a searchable database of events by date and interest areas.
- United Way can connect you to volunteer opportunities around Washington State, some of them specific to helping people in crisis due to the COVID-19 pandemic.