Feeling lonely? You’re not alone.
According to the American Psychological Association,
Approximately 42.6 million adults over age 45 in the United States are estimated to be suffering from chronic loneliness, according to AARP’s Loneliness Study. In addition, the most recent U.S. census data shows more than a quarter of the population lives alone, more than half of the population is unmarried and, since the previous census, marriage rates and the number of children per household have declined. “These trends suggest that Americans are becoming less socially connected and experiencing more loneliness,” said Julianne Holt-Lunstad, [PhD, professor of psychology at Brigham Young University.]
In the Western World, we’re living in a time where we have everything we could seemingly possibly want, but so many people are claim to be unhappy. Loneliness is growing more – and more deeper – and in the words of Cheryl Crow, “If it makes you happy, why are you so sad?”
It is crucially important that we experience lasting intimacy with others. As Gretchen Rubin puts it, “To be happy, we need intimate bonds; we need to be able to confide, we need to feel like we belong, we need to be able to get and give support. In fact, strong relationships are key — perhaps the key — to a happy life.
What is loneliness? It’s more than just being alone. Many of us can attest to this when surrounded at a party, we just feel...out of place. There’s lots of people around, but inside something just doesn’t feel right.
In fact, a certain amount of time being alone every day can be healthy, like taking time out to pray and meditate. Loneliness, instead, is an emotion where we feel cut off from others, either physically (no one is around) or emotionally (no one understands or cares for me).
As my wife says, “loneliness is when we want to connect and share with others but are unable to do so.” We were made for communion with others – to be in a common union – and even though this is a universal phenomenon of desire, so many of us are frustrated in the fulfillment of this pursuit.
Why is this? I’d like to dig into this ever-growing phenomenon.
I propose 5 potential causes for this alarming trend:
Let me make clear: technology is a good and the Church teaches that technology is good in itself. We can use this for great good (like the computer or phone you’re using to read this post).
One example of this:
Voice-activated personal assistants — such as Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri — have been reviewed favorable by elderly Americans and people with disabilities. These devices let them control their environment (such as choose music) and partly because it acts as a companion, answering questions. Technology can help people pull themselves out of loneliness, but direct human interaction is still better… Depending on how long the person has been isolated, sometimes baby steps help.
However, when we start to use technology as a substitute for what we really need, that’s when we get ourselves into trouble. There are countless stories of youth spending hours online and on their phones and not being able to communicate to a person in front of them in the flesh. An explosion of cyber-bulling has led others to feel less than human. And because many have never learned how to reach out to connect with a real person, that isolation can be crippling.
As this blog frequently discusses, pornography is a huge problem that isn’t getting any smaller. Countless individuals admit that they have a problem with pornography, and many who begin with a seemingly innocuous attraction find themselves with a full-blown compulsion.
At root, such images can never satisfy, because what is presented is just pixilated images of a real person who is pretending to be interested in the viewer. To quote Lauren Hill, “What people want is fantasy, but what they need is reality.” Because of the profound desire to see and be seen, love and be love – as St. Augustine taught – because no mere image can satiate this, the voyeur is left with a profound sense of loneliness.
This burn does not simply stay with the person: Based on the many clients I’ve worked with, because pornography is usually a solitary-activity, they become closed in on themselves, wanting to hide from everyone. Ironically, the loneliness they discover within themselves is magnified, because of the guilt and shame they are feeling.
The breakdown of the family unit
I’ve said for years that my kids are minorities, and it has nothing to do with the color of their skin. They are growing up in a family where their biological father and mother are united in a lifelong union – a.k.a. marriage. This is rare and sometimes unseen in many segments of our population.
It’s not a stretch to say that everyone knows someone who is divorced or been affected by divorce. As a society, the words “till death do us part” are a trite saying found on Hallmark cards rather than a banner to be lived, no matter what – come hell or high water. The breakdown of marriage directly impacts our lived experience of the family, and as the bedrock of society, has profound social impact. Because fewer people are getting married and establishing solid families, all of civilization will feel consequence of this “irreconcilable difference” for generations to come.
Thus the message we’re sending to our kids and grandkids is that relationships are only a matter of convenience and not for permanence. If something better comes along, I’ll discard my old relationship like last year’s iphone and upgrade to the newer model.
This message has been communicated loud and clear to our current youth generation. They are crying out for a place to belong. The one “place” – their father and mother – has been fractured, and thus the world is viewed as unsafe and untrustworthy.
Couple this with the proliferation of pornography, relationships are not about establishing genuine friendship but instead experiencing eroticized moments. Because human nature is designed for lasting community, if all a person has to hope for is momentary pleasure, the logical outcome is a lifestyle of loneliness, going from one empty pursuit to another, still all the while holding out for hope that “this time” – insert banal activity – will feed my soul.
I’m a big proponent of social media. It’s the way we’re connecting right now, as after this was posted on my blog, I shared it with all my online network, and somehow it found it’s way to you. I believe that if we are sharing ideas that help others to become the best version of themselves, I’m all for it.
Yet there’s a darker and more sinister side to this: social media is often not used in this manner. Instead, comparisons and division between people are made readily known, using heavy marketing to say that the grass really is greener on the other side. If you don’t have this certain product, look, etc., then your life is less than favorable.
Furthermore, because the family has been replaced by corporations, influencing a great deal of our decisions, many of us do not find our identity from those who should know us best, but instead by mass marketing campaigns continually try to form us in their image. We see this vision laid out frequently through social media, that makes us think we need to have the next greatest thing because “this” – insert whatever new fad here – is what will make us happy.
Yet all these comparisons do is steal our joy and increase the angst of our existence.
Jonn Paul Sarte famously said, "Hell is other people." If this were true, Western civilization would be paradise.
Yet this is not the case. The prospect that we don’t need anyone else or belong to anyone (in the best sense of the phrase) is pushed by our advertizing. “What can Brown do for you?” “Your way right away.” The “iphone,” “Ipad.” We’re being programmed to believe that it’s all about me, and that this is the way to happiness. If this is true, then why do so many of us have an ache that another trip to Amazon.com can’t heal?
An example of this is the man who spends his life climbing the corporate ladder by stepping over the dead bodies he’s taken down through illegitimate gain, when he gets to the top he realizes that it’s lonely at the top. He has everything he could want but nothing that he really needs.
We have been trained to be the center of our own universe. In turn, we forget about the humanity of the other and become wrapped up in our own narcissism. And when we actually quiet down for the night, and listen to that small voice inside, the longing for belonging is louder than the telltale heart.
The poverty of being unwanted, unloved, uncared for is the greatest poverty.
- St. Mother Teresa
So how do we overcome this epidemic of loneliness? 5 starting points:
If we feel as though we are lonely, one of the reasons is that we have disconnected from reality. The quickest way to get reconnected is to move from fantasy to reality.
God is THE REAL. He is THE MORE. He wants all of you, even the parts of you – physically, emotionally, mentally, historically – think are unwanted and unloved, or past regrets that won’t leave you alone. He is a good Father Who wants to speak to the deepest recesses of your soul, assuring you that you are not alone nor abandoned. You do belong. You matter.
The way we tap into this Reality is to pray. Prayer is simply conversation with God, speaking with – but more importantly – by listening to Him.
If you have a prayer life, great. Just as any relationship takes work by continually plugging in, your consistency will pay off big time and you will, in the words of Bill Donaghy, begin to “go more up and in,” into intimacy.
But maybe we’re a novice. That’s OK; you have to start somewhere. Keep it simple. Take your cell phone, set an alarm for 15 minutes, and just sit in silence. Crack open the New Testament, start reading about this dude named Jesus and if something strikes you, stop reading and ponder what it means for you personally. Begin to open up your heart to the One who knows you best. This may be uncomfortable at first, due to trying something new (and maybe the silence), but there is Someone who is waiting to get to know you more. And if you do a 30-day challenge of this, you’ll encounter a closeness the world can’t give.
One of the first things I teach my clients is to develop an attitude of gratitude. One of the quickest ways to pull ourselves back into reality is to ingrain this as a habit.
Here’s another 30 day challenge: Create a list of a 100 “things” – person, place, object, event – that you’re thankful for, and everyday, read it out loud – with emotion. You’ll begin forming new neural pathways in your brain, and instead of moving to the modus operandi of our culture – complaining – you’ll start appreciating what you have right now. If you’re single, be grateful that you have free time to go live for others; if you’re married, be grateful for the spouse you have and begin to appreciate her or him everyday for their positive qualities, while in turn learning how to love them for their more difficult aspects.
What’s more, you’ll start to realize that the grass isn’t greener on the other side, but that it’s greener on your knees. Gratitude ultimately opens us up to the Infinite, and you’ll find yourself making this a part of your prayer life, and the whole of your life. And the smile on your face, even in the midst of adversity, will help to bring hope to others who are in desperate need of a sign that life is good and worth living.
If you’re married, date every week
If you want to divorce proof your marriage, follow one simple rule: Never stop dating; just make sure you only date one person – your spouse. Where every marriage gets itself into trouble is when anything else gets in the way of the union – job, kids, sports, entertainment, etc. – and this can lead to wedge being put between you and your significant other. If we’re not careful and we just let things slide, we’ll wake up one day next to a person we “don’t really know anymore.” This is one reason why the phrase “sex dies when you get married” has been given such power.
To prevent this, it means being intentional and having focused time with your spouse – alone. This means if you have kids, find a babysitter, set up time after they’re down for sleep, or plan a get away. Trust me, they’ll survive the 3-4 hours you’re out together. Because you’ll come back from your date recharged, you’re going to be able to love your kids even better, precisely because you’ll have the fuel to love your spouse better. And this is EXACTLY what your kids need most.
If you’re a parent, unplug your kids
Too much of a good thing can be spoiled if we don’t use it appropriately. This is especially true regarding kids and the use of modern means of technology.
Anne Longfield, a children’s commissioner in the U.K. has launched a campaign to encourage parents to better regulate their kids internet use:
[T]ime online should be balanced in the same way that parents regulate their children’s diets. “It’s something that every parent will talk about especially during school holidays – that children are in danger of seeing social media like sweeties, and their online time like junk food,” she said. “None of us as parents would want our children to eat junk food all the time – double cheeseburger, chips, every day, every meal. For those same reasons we shouldn’t want our children to do the same with their online time.
When phones, social media and games make us feel worried, stressed and out of control, it means we haven’t got the balance right. With your diet, you know that, because you don’t feel that good. It’s the same with social media.
We do think there is a role here for parents to step up, to stop waiting for others to come up with the solution, be that government or [social media] companies. We want [children] to feel informed, confident and empowered, and have the confidence to say, ‘no, I’m not going to do that’. That same confidence we want for children, we want for parents, too.
Thus, it’s really smart to be critically aware of the technological habits of our children. If so much of the false education comes from modern media, we need to be hyper vigilant over what they watch. We’re not created to be their friend but to be their father or mother.
As my kids remind me when I don’t let them watch something that they’re not ready for, they cry out, “You’re so mean!” I take this as a badge of honor. My goal is not about raising good kids, but healthy, holy and whole adults – a.k.a. Saints. It’s my duty to discern properly what their receiving into their eyes, mind, and heart, and as they get older, help them to have criteria so they can properly monitor themselves.
This whole discussion about technology begins with a self examination: How am I integrating technology into our home? Am I using it, or is technology in control of me? Do I have to immediately check every notification that comes up on my phone? Am I tuned out during family time? Is my technology use inhibiting genuine intimacy with those who live in my home? If we’re failing to use technology to help build community, our kids certainly are not going to use it well.
We must remember our lives are a blip on the radar. We won’t be remembered for providing the latest-and-greatest gadgets but instead for how we lived in love – or failed to do so. And if we’re a father or mother, we will be held accountable for how well we have helped to raise the next generation. Don’t let your kids be raised by the TV or the Internet. Instead, instill the values that will help them establish genuine friendships with others.
While it’s true that we are all individuals, we were never created to lead individualistic lives. We are made for the other. Simply look at the way our bodies are designed. The male body doesn’t make sense on its own and either does the female. This is certainly the case for marriage, but everyday life as well.
An easy way to alleviate a sense of loneliness is to do something for others that really has nothing to do with you directly. Thus go to a nursing home. Volunteer at a daycare. Go on a mission trip in a foreign country. Better yet, go to your inner city and volunteer regularly at a soup kitchen. (At the time of this writing, there’s a hurricane occurring in our area of the world, so it may be time to step up and help those who can’t help themselves). We don’t need to go around the world to look for someone to serve. We simply need to open our eyes and then act to alleviate the suffering around us.
In the words of St. John the Baptist, “I must decrease; He must increase” (John 3:30). God is calling us to be aware of the needs of others, ultimately living from the perspective that our lives are not our own. In pouring out our lives for others, in humbling ourselves at the service of others, our lives begin to open up to genuine beauty.
What else do you think brings about loneliness in our world? When you’re lonely, how do you handle it? Post your thoughts below.
Steve Pokorny is the Founder of Freedom Coaching, a one-on-one mentoring system designed to break the power of pornified images. His book, Redeemed Vision: Setting the Blind Free from the Pornified Culture, is available through Amazon.