“Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty.” - Mother Teresa
This beautiful quote was said long before the pandemic, or long before the UK government decided to create something called the Ministry of Loneliness. The truth is, our forced social isolation just exacerbated a problem that’s been bubbling under the societal surface for decades. Loneliness is everywhere. I felt this post was well-suited to American Independence Day, given how much we should celebrate our interdependence.
Loneliness has become the cause celebre for the media as evidenced by all these recent articles:
New York Times “How Loneliness is Damaging Our Health”
Wall Street Journal “Moms in Middle Age: Rarely Alone, Often Online and Increasingly Lonely”
Wall Street Journal “How to Find and Keep Friends: A Guide for Middle Age”
Quartz “How to Make New Friends as an Adult—and Keep Them”
New Yorker “Course Syllabus for Making New Friends as an Adult”
Blair Mastbaum’s Substack “The Causes and Symptoms of American Loneliness”
According to a survey of more than 1,000 adults conducted in the spring of 2020 by the Roots of Loneliness Project, the U.S. demographic group that saw the sharpest rise in loneliness was Gen X women (age 41-57). And the increase in social isolation reported by women living with children was also most significant among those from Gen X, according to an unpublished portion of the survey shared with The Wall Street Journal. This fact is interesting as it represents a core portion of our MEA demographic: middle-aged women.
No matter who you are, what are four steps you could take to feel a sense of connection and belonging that you’ve been longing for? Making friends again is like riding a bike after many years of a two-wheeler.
Here are four ideas that might get you started:
1. Ask yourself: Are you socially isolated, or are you lonely? There’s a difference. Many people still prefer social isolation even as the greatest risk of the pandemic is behind us. Some appreciate the solitude it has given them. Being alone is different than being lonely as the former may be a choice, and the latter often feels like a prison sentence. If you’re lonely, make a list of 5 or 10 people in your life who used to be friends. Then, stack rank them in terms of who you most would like to talk with and feel safe in reaching out to. And then, once per week, reach out to one of those people to strike up a conversation and see how they’re doing. Remember that people love talking about themselves, so feel free to engage your curiosity about this former friend. They’ll likely be more open to talking about themselves than serving as your friendship coach (at least as your first step in re-establishing this relationship). And, yes, it’s perfectly fine to do this by Zoom.
2. No more “bowling alone.” When I was visiting my sons and their moms in Houston, we went to Ethan’s Little League game, and I felt that kind of lovely community vibe of parents supporting their kids. There was an older man there, maybe 5-10 years older than me, so I thought he might be a grandpa. I asked him which of the players he was related to, and he said, “All of them. I’ve adopted the Pirates as my team because I live down the street from a couple of the players and their parents. I’m a widower, and when I’d go on walks with my dog, I’d purposefully walk by these kids’ homes, hoping they would be playing in the front yard. They loved my dog, and then their parents became friends and invited me to a Little League game a couple of years ago, and now I show up at all their games. I’m even teaching the whole team how to bowl. I just needed to change my habits and make room for new relationships to show up.”
3. Find your tribe or build your own. Birds of a feather flock together. You’re more likely to create new friendships with people who have common interests, and you can find these tribes in local Meetup or Facebook groups. You can also check out the Bumble BFF or Friended phone apps for ways to connect with like-minded folk. When I was going through a particularly challenging time of my life and wanted deeper spiritual connections, I created a Spiritual Sangha Dinner at my home once a month with a disparate collection of friends and acquaintances who followed quite different spiritual or religious paths. This concept required a little courage and some social alchemy skill, but the magnetic topics we would discuss rounded-out any sharp edges of our personalities and beliefs. Might you consider the same sort of thing—creating a book or film club?
4. Join us at MEA. Stanford’s Dr. Phil Pizzo’s research has shown that the three foundational elements of a great midlife and beyond are Purpose, Wellness, and Community. They are part of our MEA core curriculum pillars and I have to say that I’ve been most surprised by how the last element, Community, is the magnet that attracts so many of our students and alums. We now have 26 Regional Chapters around the world and a whole collection of alumni programs. So, whether you join MEA Online, come to a workshop in Baja, or maybe choose to do a Sabbatical Session this summer with like-minded folks, you become an alum based upon finishing any of those three programs. And, then, you’re part of a global and local community that is built on belonging.