In the old days there was the Lonely Hearts Club, which I learned about, probably on TV, when I was a child. I remember the people were timid and desperate enough that, through the club, instead of meeting someone to love, they met their murderer. It was oh, so tragic and sad, and for sure, no one ever aspired to belong.
Decades later, people are still looking for love and belonging, with partial success, I think, and less stigma, at online dating sites. I’m unsure about the level of risk. I, myself, spent countless years fruitlessly searching there, and only ended up with some funny/sad stories of terrible dates so awful or mis-matched they made my single-hood look appealing by comparison.
“Hooking up” is more challenging than ever because in addition to our fractured society, a lot of people (esp. women) are looking for emotional intelligence, partnership, equality, and collaboration, rather than simply the fulfillment of traditional roles. As well, as, ahhhh! chemistry!
In any case, the reality is there are more single people and more people living alone than ever, and definitely more lonely people than ever. That last bit is hard to assess because, I swear to god, people hate to admit loneliness. They’ll admit to all other dire states of being. Depression (esp. after Robin Williams and other celebrities took their lives a few years ago) and/or being survivors of abuse or life-threatening illnesses. Lots of things. But no one wants to confess loneliness.
Still, there is an epidemic of it. For decades, health authorities have studied it, written about it, and warn people away from it, but there’s no pill for it.
Health studies have long shown that loneliness is a chief predictor of morbidity (illness) and early mortality (death). More so than many other well-known health risks, including smoking, drinking, bad diet, lack of exercise, etc. With other risk factors, there is something to do — stop smoking, stop drinking or cut back, eat better, get exercise, etc. With loneliness there are also things to do. To meet people (and potentially a mate, I’m told), you can volunteer or take classes. Pets are beneficial for their own sake, and you might meet some other pet-owning humans, esp. if you get a dog, and walk it. Also, try being a better friend to the friends you have. And generally be open to meeting and engaging with new people. You can work hard at this, and you can make a dent in loneliness, even if you don’t hit the jackpot of true love or a healthy community.
I know this, because I’ve done all this, and more (except the dog, but I have had cats).
So it was unsettling when I turned on my computer one Tuesday morning a couple of weeks ago and there was Marie Forleo, a cyber-space life coach I respect, showing up in my email box with these words. Ever Feel Lonely, Gayle Markow? Omg. How did she know? Followed by: “Hey Gayle Markow, Be honest: are you wearing cozy pants right now? Sweats or PJs or something…”
Busted, I thought. Marie knows. But when I read further, she was mostly addressing her main demographic — young, female, entrepreneurs working from home. As their coach, Marie was rightfully concerned about their sense of being AND feeling isolated and…yes, lonely. So, yeah, I’m not the only person to have these feelings.
Still, I had them. And they were mine to deal with, not someone else’s. I realized I am in it. The feeling. The storyline. The experiencer of these feelings, and even worse the accompanying negative narrative I despairingly re-play in my mind. (My narrative is NO friend of mine; that doesn’t stop it from running.) I needed to talk about it, but whenever I did, I sensed people’s discomfort. I imagine they were afraid I was blaming them, or felt I wanted them to fix my situation. Or it just made them sad and uncomfortable to know I was not ok. Not happy. Not coping very well. They advised pets. They recommended volunteering (or a new volunteer gig to replace my current one). They suggested I get out more. I began understanding why people don’t want to tell anyone.
Look. Unsolicited advice isn’t what I need. I am the best advice-giver I know. There is pretty much nothing I haven’t advised myself and tried, excluding alcohol, drugs, and other addictions. (Though I admit to occasional binges of so-called British cozies).
I insist on being here for my life. Even if there’s physical and emotional pain along the way. I’ve made a pact with myself about this, to show up. Still, that doesn’t mean I don’t want to talk about my feelings, mull them over with a friend. So I tell. Then wish I hadn’t.
I decided I would look into this… this loneliness business, why it’s so sticky. The world offered me some interesting stuff. First, Oliver Sacks, who, in fact, was quite a lonely person and didn’t have his first real relationship until he was 75. Serendipitously for me, he showed up online. I found and listened to interviews, read books, and found myself enjoying his depth and breadth, his curiosity and kindness. Hanging out with him gave me joy. I love his vulnerability and tenderness.
And don’t miss this long, but fabulous celebration of Oliver Sacks’s life!
At the same time, my friend Lisa, posted an interesting article on Facebook about loneliness in the UK.
Don’t get me wrong. Alone is good. Solitude is good. I need alone time. Just not as much as I have. I don’t want to fill my time up with this and thats. I want face-to-face time (in person), casually and in depth. I want daily connections. It’s no mistake that though my back yard garden needs more work than my front, nine times out of ten, I’ll work in the front. In the back, there’s virtually no chance I’ll see anyone. In front, sometimes I’m rewarded by a neighbor or friendly stranger out walking their dog, who will actually stop what they’re doing for a couple of minutes to more than glance my way. But this is rare too. I always feel disappointed when my street is deserted when I’m working in my garden.
My friend, Allison posted an excerpt of the TED talk (below) on Facebook. Though I’m not particularly interested in increasing longevity, I also don’t want a premature death. I went in search of the whole talk. Happily, it handed me the key to a deeper understanding. Yes, individuals can make choices that might beneficially affect their situation, ie, exercise, good food, friends and activities, but a more impactful reality, the greater contributor to long life is what psychologist Susan Pinker calls Social Integration. Social Integration is an obvious concept for any one looking, but we tend, when we look at loneliness, to look at the individual, rather than society. And we tend to blame the individual and try to fix them.
Social Integration has to do with how many people we encounter in an average day, including light and more meaningful encounters. It has to do with being seen, connected, known, and cared about — daily. It has to do with the nature of our communities (or lack thereof).
I contemplated moving to Sardinia, (the population looked at in this TED talk), a blue zone where they rank high on social integration and you don’t need to schedule dates to see people). But it probably wouldn’t help; I would be an outsider there. Instead, my best bet is to keep doing the work that is mine to do, here, to help create community. I have friends, hobbies, interests, volunteer activities, etc. Alas, it doesn’t add up to Social Integration. So, we’ll see how things go.
Partly, I write this — my truth — because I have a need to. But also I write it because I know I am not alone in this, and I’m thinking that maybe my story and this video will be helpful to someone else. I hope so.
Yesterday, my neighbor Karen stopped by for an impromptu visit. We ended up sitting in the front garden. I was delighted with the visit. It was a gorgeously sunny, mild San Francisco day, and we talked about all kinds of stuff, including what’s been on my mind. Karen reminded me how well my 97 year old mom thrives in her independent living apartment complex, isn’t lonely, stays active. It’s true. Since my dad died about 9 years ago, mom’s made all kinds of new friends. Every afternoon at 4pm, she meets the same group of five women and two men for dinner in the dining hall. Later I recalled mom’s year of living alone after my father died. She, at 89 then, wanted to continue living in the home they’d shared. She had a few friendly neighbors who occasionally checked in on her, and she was still driving, but she quickly became more and more isolated, and though she would never use the word, yes, lonely, and going down hill. Even an extremely socially skillful and outgoing person like my mom couldn’t deal with the lack of Social Integration she, as an older woman, experienced living alone.
The other day, after explaining these thoughts and feelings to my acupuncturist, Oliver, he gave me two questions to contemplate. First, What can I DO NOW? (which serves to break the repetitive and self-defeating internal narrative, and 2) What is Social Integration? I’m curious. It’s hard for me to feel bad when my curiosity is peaked about a subject so close to home.
And now I’m curious. What do you think? How are you doing with the lack of Social Integration in our society? How are you anticipating growing older in the circumstances of your life? Any tips?