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Sporadic photos and notes from a Psyche-midwife, cheerleader, anthropologist--aka clinical social worker in therapy practice. Photos are usually mine except for those of historical events/famous people. Music relevant to the daily topic is often included in a web video embedded below the blog. Click on highlighted links in the copy to get to source or supplemental material. For contact information, see my website @ janasvoboda.com or click on the button to the right below. Join in the conversation.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Loneliness in the Connected World

Quick-- how many people did you talk to this week outside of your workplace?

And by talk, I mean in the actual presence of  the other person.  Not via bytes.  Maybe actually close enough you could (barring anosmia) smell them.

If you're an average American, that number is likely to be much smaller than it would have been for any previous generation.

Although we may feel more in touch in the digital world with our tweets and links and friends list, our nation is becoming increasingly isolated in the 3D world.  We're less likely to go to church, or for that matter join or belong to any group.  We watch more movies at home, attend fewer plays and concerts, attend fewer picnics.  We have fewer deep friendships-- down a full third in a generation.   (Interestingly, highly educated females in the cited research reported the fewest close confidantes: Brashears, Cornell).  And because our society is more mobile, most of live further away from family of origin.  The people we do know are less likely to have known us through more than one or two developmental phases of our lives.

Some of the original research suggested that in addition to having fewer confidants, we were much more socially isolated.  It seems that isn't necessarily the case.  We know lots of people.  Just not as well.  The connections are shallower.

The average facebook user has about 240 "friends".  Who do you call when you're sick and need some groceries? When your car breaks down and you need a lift?  When you don't know how to program your remote, or make a pie crust?  Before the internet, before the average work week expanded several hours thanks to email and economic competition, we might have asked a friend.  Now we google it.  Or we hire someone.  Maybe we are just worn out by increasing demands on our time and attention.  Or maybe we no longer have as many long-term, mutual, real-time connections.

isolation is for the birds.
For clients in my private practice, loneliness is a common presenting problem.  And it has significant negative effects.  One headline-making study found the health risks of loneliness as dangerous as smoking.  Perhaps DVD players and laptops should carry a warning similar to cigarette packs:  "Socializing with Friends Greatly Reduces Serious Risks to Your Health".

This isn't new information.  Anyone who's taken a psych class has heard about the studies of institutionalized orphans and psychosocial dwarfism, or seen the heartbreaking pictures of Harlowe's baby monkeys clasping their warm, milkless terry-cloth "moms", prefering skin contact over food.  We are social animals.  We are made to love and be loved, to touch and be touched, to nurture and be nurtured.

It's easier for kids to make connections.  (On average.  All of this is on average.  As they say, individual performance will vary.)   Watch them at a playground.  One will go up to another, quick as you please if their parents haven't put too much Stranger Danger in them, and say, "Wanna play?" or even,"Wanna be my friend?"  Adults in school find it still pretty easy to meet others:  here are all these cohorts, stuck in similar situations, often also far away from home.  Familiarity breeds ease, and friends of friends will add to connections.  Adults with young kids may get the advantage of seeing other adults in situations over and over, with nothing much to do but hang while the kids play.  They start talking, and may eventually become friends.

But for lots of adults, whether single , married, working at home, retired or in a small business, childless or no longer parenting, or JUST PLAIN CRAZY BUSY, finding friends isn't nearly as easy.  Especially if you're new(er) to town, transitioning out of a love relationship, etc.  Many of my clients report that even when they reach out, they find others' lives too busy to accommodate the time and interest of a new friendship.

sure, they have company, but they never touch
But mostly they don't reach out much, or don't know how.  We don't just walk into a coffee shop and ask someone to be friends.  Well, most don't.  I tell clients the story about how I met my best friend in Southeast Texas.  I'd had my second kid and stopped working.  I hadn't bothered to develop many real friendships at work because I didn't figure on staying long in Texas.  The one woman I'd connected with had moved.  I was desperately lonely, and started going to La Leche meetings just to see adults.  One week I spied an intelligent looking woman with kids of a similar age. We were the only two women in the meeting that didn't have a diaper bag that coordinated with our nursery theme; we both had backpacks.   I asked her if she wanted to hang out.  She looked at me like I was a stalker.  I was persistent over the next few weeks and she eventually relented.  It was worth it.  We're still confidantes; I just returned from a wonderful vacation with her. (Note to L:  I know you think I make this worse than it was.  And PS I love you).
making and sharing food  together is a great way to connect

I also started a salon back then, which is a fancy-ass word for a potluck with a conversational topic.  I invited everyone I met that seemed even slightly interesting.  We hired a babysitter to corral the chitlins, and shared theme food and good talk.

So that's one way.  And frankly, it's worked for me. It's my job to make strangers known to me, so I have lots of experience and practice.  But not everyone is comfortable chatting up strangers. 

You know the usual ways to meet new people.  Join a group: religious, civic, avocational. Take a class or take up a hobby and look for others who share it.  Read the local paper!  Every day, there are activities in at least this community; go to a lecture, audition for a play, take part in a reading group.  Get out and meet your neighbors.  Host a potluck.  Check out Meetup or other real-time social connection sites. Read the bulletin boards at the library or coop, and try something new every few weeks.
find your tribe
Most importantly, be curious when you meet people.  Worry less about what they think about you and more about who they are.  Ask questions.  Offer or ask for small favors (old psych study-- people who are asked for small favors they can easily provide feel increased positive feelings for the asker).  Take reasonable risks to engage.  Initiate.

And remember, friendships are like gardens and need tending, especially when young.  I hope you have a couple of friends you've known forever, that sort that even if you don't talk or see each other for years at a time, it's all still good.  But remember that those friendships didn't start out with that degree of infrequency.  To get comfortable, to get to know another, takes time and energy.  It's worth it.  You're worth it.

Related posts:  Building and needing community

Recommended reading: 
Bowling Alone, by Robert P Putnam
Loneliness:  Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection, by John Caccioppo

Song of the Day:  Gosh, Sammy, so many choices.  How's this?
Hello in There (John Prine)

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