Chronic loneliness harms us. It’s characterized by feelings of worthlessness, emptiness, and a lack of control, and it literally makes us susceptible to illness.
A national survey led by health insurer Cigna in 2019 found that 61% of Americans reported feeling lonely. COVID-19 has only made it worse, with increasing numbers of people saying that they feel left out, poorly understood, and lacking companionship. Anxiety and depression were markedly increased in 41% and 37% of people, respectively, according to a joint survey from the AARP and United Health Foundation, who declared us in a “loneliness pandemic.”
I am one of those people, and my feelings of loneliness were most pronounced around this time one year ago. Today, I feel markedly different due to stronger social ties fostered through a deliberate focus on community and connection. I have received some incredible support and learned plenty about myself over the past 12 months. I better understand how critical community and connection are to our well-being, and moving forward, I intend to make that a foundational priority in my life.
By elevating our intention around our well-being, we can mitigate feelings of loneliness and the subsequent suffering that comes with it. Everyone needs to feel like they belong.
Understanding the Isolation Cycle
Maintaining a healthy balance of different types of relationships is essential for our well-being. These can include romantic relationships, friendships, professional colleagues, and casual acquaintances. We often fail to realize just how vital those varied relationships are for our happiness until we find ourselves without them. They are a critical part of how to overcome loneliness.
Ironically, when we feel lonely, there’s a tendency to withdraw even more, creating a vicious cycle that can be extremely difficult to break. However, it’s important to remember that retreating inwards won’t solve the painful feelings of separation. That perceived safety only perpetuates the feelings of isolation. Breaking free of that cycle often requires self-awareness and a bit of conscious effort.
What worked for me was acknowledging my feelings. Journaling and talk therapy proved helpful in raising my self-awareness. Actively deepening some important personal relationships and creating new connections afforded me a stronger sense of community. I have been more intentional in my outreach and taken time to observe how new experiences made me feel. Today, I feel a deeper level of connectedness and community than I did at the beginning of 2020. That is a gift and a valuable lesson.
That awareness reinforced for me the notion that we naturally crave connection, community, belonging and love. We are tribal in nature. Social beings wired for connection. So it’s worth the perceived emotional risk that so many of us experience when trying to connect. We know just how much our overall well-being hinges upon having balance across and depth in our relationships. Understanding this is essential for learning how to overcome loneliness.
Sending 3 Simple Texts
As time marched on and my feelings of connectedness evolved, I considered ways to do some outreach to people that I cared about but had lost contact with over the past year. That’s when our “Text Message Challenge” was born.
The idea is straightforward: Each morning for a week, send three simple text messages:
- The first, to tell someone you love them and why you feel that way.
- The second, to connect with someone you have lost contact with and tell them you had been thinking about them.
- The third, to express gratitude to someone with whom you do business.
There is a natural tendency to assume that other people are simply too busy and that you might burden them by reaching out. Consider this, though: Your outreach might be the connection someone needs to break out of their feelings of separation and isolation. You never know what someone else is going through.
Since the pandemic started, we’ve been told to make check-ins a regular part of our interactions at work and in our personal lives. This is a great habit to start. But it’s often become just a routine, superficial box to check as we go through and complete our daily tasks. Are we really taking those moments to connect in a way that opens us up to our truest, most authentic feelings? There’s an opportunity for vulnerability here that we often miss that will only serve to strengthen our exchange.
Making Meaningful Connections
One small shift I made during this time was that instead of asking someone how they are doing, I made the question more specific: “How have you and your family been coping during this time?”
That question serves as an invitation to a much more meaningful dialogue. That kind of invitation is something that so many people need.
While the pandemic has wreaked havoc on categories of friendship, we can start bringing them back. As you will probably experience yourself by following through with the Text Message Challenge, a few of those text messages I made turned into conversations and even commitments to get together again soon! Having dates on the calendar where I know I will connect with people I love has afforded me plenty of excitement, anticipation and positive feelings even amid the ongoing uncertainty.
If you haven’t made plans to celebrate on the other side of this, plenty of research suggests doing so does provide an emotional lift. My family and friends are doing this, and having my calendar full gives me something to look forward to. We’re better equipped to deal with adversity by focusing on positive moments ahead.
The Real Magic
As we embarked on our experiment around human connection with the Text Message Challenge, I invited readers of my weekly newsletter to join the movement.
People loved it. I received overwhelming feedback and heard some great stories about how this exercise had improved feelings of connection and revived dormant friendships.
I was especially caught off guard that Sunday and Monday when I started receiving text messages from people I love. That’s right. A few people beat me to the punch! I was moved and reminded that simply being appreciated can provide a huge psychological boost and deepen a sense of meaning in our lives. That really matters right now.
Perhaps the most powerful testimony I received from the challenge came from my Mom about her reconnection with our next-door neighbor growing up. She shared:
Wanted to let you know that I received the kindest beautifully written note from Kathy Shankleton taking “Ryan’s advice and reaching out” to “290”… She’s “291”…her across the street address. She wanted to let me know that our family was “an important part of her life for many years.” She mentioned you and Bret having contact and thought, perhaps, since Bret has moved to Texas that his path might cross Chad’s. She filled me in on her life now and said ‘covid fatigue’ has set in. It was great to hear from her. She is a special person and uplifted my day. So you see how your influence has reached others. Your words are powerful Ryan.
As one reader participating in the exercise observed: “The real magic is in telling people why you appreciate them.” He is right, and we certainly don’t need a pandemic or text message experiment to do that. Or perhaps we do? Either way, I think it’s worth taking a moment to let people know how you feel — and why you feel that way.
You both might just experience a moment of human connection that you never forget.
In this video, Lynn and I reflect on our experiences with this experiment.