Loneliness is a negative experience, an absence of something we need and want—a relationship, a sense of belonging. Technology alone can never solve our belongingness need. Belonginess is found in families, friendships and community. We can be engulfed in technology and surrounded by a crowd of people, yet still feel lonely.
Loneliness and social isolation exert a heavy toll on our physical health and psychological wellbeing. People who are lonely are more at risk for high blood pressure, obesity, depression, decreased life satisfaction and other physical and mental illnesses.
While we all experience short-term bouts of loneliness, we should be aware of signs the condition is becoming a serious problem. Symptoms include weight gain, sleep problems, negative feelings of self-worth, trouble concentrating and loss of interest in activities or hobbies we once enjoyed.
Some people respond to loneliness by withdrawing from social situations. Being around people who are enjoying each other’s company reminds them of what they’re missing. This response perpetuates the loneliness problem.
An alternative response seeks to reduce the problem by actively pursuing social interactions and connections. This “reduction approach” works for some people, but not for everyone. When you’re feeling lonely, it’s not always easy to reach out to others. Reaching out puts you at risk of being rejected or ignored. And if you’re feeling lonely, you may also be feeling unworthy or unwanted.
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There are two ways to combat loneliness. As we know, first, you can reach out to help others. But you can also ask someone else to help you. As your circle of concern becomes larger, the field of loneliness for yourself and others will become smaller.
You might think that expanding your circle of friends is the answer to loneliness. Since that can be hard to do, try focusing on expanding your circle of concern versus your circle of friends. Expanding your circle of concern shifts the focus away from self to outside of self.
This approach also draws on the power of empathy, which, by definition is the understanding and sharing the feeling of others, involves some form of connection.
Your empathetic response might take the form of checking in on a neighbour, fostering a shelter dog, or keeping fresh water in a birdbath during the heat of summer. As you expand your circle of concern, you’ll discover the benefits of doing so flow in two directions. You’ll be helping others; but you’ll also find some of the heaviness and isolation you feel when you’re lonely begins to disappear.