FOR THE LOVE OF RELATIONSHIPS – Exploring the cure for disconnection

Loneliness and isolation are a huge social challenge especially after dealing with the Covid epidemic. Although mental health has many complexities, remedies may be within our grasp. Loneliness does not only affect our minds but also our overall health and well-being. Lack of social connection is a predictor and risk factor for strokes, heart disease, obesity, early Alzheimer’s, and even premature death. Loneliness and isolation are an antecedent to substance abuse and addiction. Research suggests loneliness causes serious pain acting on the same parts of the brain as physical pain. The cycle of loneliness, isolation, trauma, and pain is the starting point of many social challenges including homelessness. 

When researching loneliness,  focus groups were utilized among cross cultural groups of individuals, a surprising discovery was that many who described themselves as lonely were married and had relatively large networks of friends or family. It was the feeling of loneliness that was explored. One can be in a crowd and still feel lonely. Individuals and love songs have described that the loneliest place to be is in an unconnected relationship.  Loneliness depends more on the quality of a person’s relationships than on their sheer number.

Many of us crave solitude, which feels renewing and peaceful when desired. When solitude is not a choice, the pain of isolation in a family or group may make us more likely to lash out at the people from which we feel alienated. This becomes a negative feedback loop that is hard to escape. According to neuroscientists, the cure for this is to recognize and articulate the need for closeness and connection. Sharing one’s fears, passions, gifts, talents, life experiences, vulnerabilities, life challenges, hopes and dreams is the beginning of knitting hearts together. Being authentic with one another and assisting one another with empathy, kindness and compassion is the beginning of closeness. Acceptance, emotional safety, and respect are essential if one is to become connected. Belonging to a group that shares life goals and values is a key element to combatting loneliness and isolation. 

Researchers, searching for an answer to this age-old question of quality of life and longevity discovered a remote village in the heart of Sardinia, Italy where more people live to be 100 than anywhere in the world. Sardinians live in a social fabric that is tightly knit together. The Sardinian town square is the hub of the community. One must go through it to get to the market, post office, church, or pharmacy. This “Piazza” is the glue that makes it easy to interact and know your neighbors.  Developers are creating this “Piazza” type town which started with the 55 and older community design. Clubhouses, community centers, parks, and town squares are a trademark of these communities making it easier to connect. 

Other strategies to cultivate connection are to join community groups, learn social and emotional skills to be able to share your vulnerabilities and life struggles, ask one another questions and appreciate individuals’ life stories, get to know neighbors by scheduling a community event, have meals together, limit screen time in favor of face time, be intentional and slow down long enough to listen with our heart. These strategies will increase connection, happiness, and health and decrease loneliness and isolation.