It seems a hype, a trend, a cool topic and it seems people are proud to be able to go about life, alone. Like it’s something you achieve and can wear it like a medal of achievement.
“You have to learn to be alone.”
“You have to be self-sufficient, independent.”
“You should be able to … by yourself.”
“You just need to love yourself more.”
Loneliness is at the root of so many mental health– and wellbeing issues, especially since recent quarantine lock-ups. Yet, the importance of connection and love seems to be so under-valued and ignored. In a world that’s meant to be so connected and a species so depended upon one another, do we really need to focus more on being alone?
More and more people (and “influencers”) are preaching that you have to be able to spend time by yourself and ‘love it’. I love the idea of that! But with an untrained mind, and often with an attention-span shorter than that of a goldfish, I don’t know how realistic it really is.
I know loneliness is a tricky topic to tackle, which might be the whole reason why we should bring it to the surface a bit more often.
My personal experience
I’m 27 year old, and since I’m 21 years old I’ve travelled around the world a few times, most of it by myself. And no, this isn’t my application to earn some of your respect. Because, though I love to travel alone — and to have the freedom to make my own choices — I find being alone for extended periods boring and shallow for a majority of the time, and often even purposeless (unless done with the intention to go inward). The biggest reason why I love to travel alone is because I love to meet people. People inspire me, people give me a sense of meaning, people fascinate me.
I’ve struggled with the idea that I felt lonely at times. Like, I travelled so much by myself, shouldn’t I just be content by myself?
When I was living by myself in Rotterdam the feeling of loneliness would regularly rush over me at dinner times, because I love dinner chats. Also during travelling without meeting people I truly connected with I’d experience loneliness. Even for extended periods (of sometimes months) in often new places that I would sense some feelings of loneliness even when being surrounded by plenty of people. Though I wouldn’t want to label loneliness as a bad feeling, I don’t think it’s putting me in a state I like to find myself in.
The moments in which I spend time alone I’m actually learning how valuable my meaningful relationships are, how much joy they give me, how much I light up in the presence of a passionate human being — or dog — and someone I love. This doesn’t mean I’m in a constant need for attention, with people to constantly satisfy my needs and distraction with small-talk bs. It means that the transaction of love, joy, playful events, work(-outs) and acknowledgement with other human beings gives a sense of meaning.
The nuances of alone-time
Now, I think it’s important to remember that, just as with everything, there’s a nuance to this. It’s not just as simple as labelling alone-time as “good” or “bad”. At times it’s much needed, and at other times it’s not.
Are you surrounded by self-absorbed people or feeling drained? You’re better off spending some time alone.
Did your grandma die? Some support world be helpful.
Want to quit drugs? Clean friends would be helpful, but drug-users wouldn’t.
Want to pursue your biggest dreams? You better surround yourself with open-minded people. Much rather that than nay-sayers and at times also even better than listening to the narratives of doubt and fear in your own mind. You can deal with those narratives during mindfulness or meditation — where your dreams, or life, isn’t at risk.
The hype of individuality and independence
Metaphorically speaking, some people are preaching that we have to accept the weeds in our garden. To learn to embrace them. I think that’s a great idea! And I don’t know about you, but I personally rather do some weeding first and then meditate in a garden that’s organised and full of light and love. In my opinion many weeds block the sunlight out and suffocate some other beautiful plants that can’t flourish because of it.
I did a Vipassana retreat in Thailand once. This is a 1-week silent retreat with 8 hours of daily meditation. But, at night, the elephants from the sanctuary next to us would produce the loudest, most disturbing sounds. It sounded like they were in so much agony and pain. At some point I couldn’t take it anymore and asked a monk what was going on. “It’s not the focus right now.Focus on going inward and just notice what is happening.” He told me. Ok, thanks fuckwitt. I might as well not care about anything in the world and just waste my life by selfishly sitting on a pillow and accept all my emotions that, apparently, are irrelevant.
Point of the story? Some things just suck. Like, really suck. And the idea of having to accept things that suck can trigger emotions that suck even the more.
Emotions have a function
I don’t want to go crazy on this topic here, because I think the complexity of this topic deserves at least a whole article. But it’s important to understand that emotions aren’t just here to bother us. Neither do emotions just exist next to our rational mind. We might think that we function rationally, but we’re completely driven by our emotions. Think about it, everything we do is to pursue a certain set of emotions such as joy, gratitude, awe, inspiration, pride, serenity, etc.
So, emotions also have a function. They are guidelines to navigate our internal world to match our external world and vice versa. If your internal expectations, values and beliefs are healthy, most likely your emotions will guide you in a constructive way.
If your internal and external world don’t match you may experience negative emotions, and if they do match you may experience positive emotions.
Certainly, the function of an emotion is not to feel bad about feeling bad. Like, “I feel lonely and I’ve read I shouldn’t be feeling that way. I read, somewhere online, I should actually love to be alone. Now, fuck, I don’t actually love it. Ahhh, I don’t love being alone and I might be damaged. Hang on, I’m damaged? Omg, I’m totally broken. I need to fix myself! I need to love myself! I hate that I need to love myself. Fuck it, I’ll eat some chocolate instead as I scroll through my feed to watch other people living their least lonely lives. Oh, you ____ (insert strong word of choice), why is my life such a meaningless mess!?“
I don’t believe feeling lonely at times means that you are “broken”. To be honest, I believe it’s completely normal. Needing human connection is an innate part of being human!
As humans we have 6 basic human needs. One of the 6 basic human needs is experiencing love, connection and belonging. Psychologically speaking, we’re social animals. Most of the meaning and purpose we derive from life is related to the relationships we have with individuals and the (perceived) role we play in our community and in society at large.
If emotions are guidelines to get our needs met, then loneliness would serve us by stimulating us to bond and build more meaningful relationships. But if the emotion is, and stays unacknowledged, you might find yourself looking for salvation in distractions, destructive behaviours, addictions or even numbing substances. Leaving you in a deeper sense of loneliness, meaninglessness and emptiness.
Emotions are powerful. Ignoring your emotions will backfire massively.
The destructive side of loneliness
Unfortunately loneliness has a very destructive side, not only on a phycological level, but also physically. Loneliness triggers the immune-system to release cytokines. The release of cytokines causes (low-grade) inflammation in the body. And the birthing ground for pretty much every disease starts with (low-grade) inflammation. Think of heart disease, high blood pressure, neurodegenerative diseases, immune disfunction, etc. It also has major effect psychologically, think of anxiety and depression for example.
If you think about our evolution it starts to make a lot of sense. Imagine you’re still a hunter-gatherer (to which our genes are still programmed) and you’d be cast-out from your tribe. Do you think you’re going to survive alone out there? Probably not for long. The logic response being an activated fight-or-flight mode, which in turn activates the immune system.
I used to believe people became radical, join cults and get involved in extreme religions or political movements when they’re scared. But it turns out that the main motive to involve in extremism is because it abides the sense of loneliness. And as it plays out, most of our ability to form (functional) beliefs about ourselves and the world are tied to our relationships.
Think of the destructive cycle of repetitive negative thoughts. Once you’ve echo-chambered your destructive thoughts for long enough it will become a believe and will influence your perception of the world.
Perhaps this could be a key factor to why the world is at such chaos. We’re lonelier than ever in a world that’s meant to be more connected.
How to overcome loneliness
It’s surprising how little we actually know about loneliness on a scientific level. But some common-sense approach to loneliness might does some of the work.
Here’s a list of some things that I reckon are helpful in times of loneliness:
1. Recognise your loneliness
Recognise the feeling of loneliness and share it with people that are close to you and truly listen. Some people talk about the importance of vulnerability. It’s quite a trendy topic. Even-though I think vulnerability to the world is a tricky choice (because it’s quite a mental place), I think it can be helpful to be vulnerable with people you trust and feel safe with.
2. Stop judging others
If you show respect to others, and try not to judge others, you’ll feel much less worried about other people judging you and disrespecting you.
3. Get active
It’s very uncommon for people to do a workout and feel upset after. Especially if the workout involves playful activity and/or group activities. Think of dancing, martial arts, gymnastics, ball-games, etc. All these sports stimulate dopamine and serotonin production as well. The feelings may be a momentary solution, but building relationships with people to do sports with may perhaps be a great long-term solution.
4. Get some good rest
Giving yourself a break or getting some deep rest. Is a great way to reboot and reset your emotional system. Think of deep sleep and/or improving your circadian rhythm — which is HUGE when it comes to physical, mental and emotional health! At least you’ll feel more energised to meet new people, or invest in your existing relationships.
5. Create a community
Often we think we can somehow find our community. But what I’ve experienced, especially with travelling, is that you usually have to create a community yourself. It does cost short-term energy, but the investment has always been worth it to me, big time.
6. Asses your existing relationships
Assessing relationships is a confronting, but very profound. Who are you surrounded by? Do you feel valued, seen and supported? Do you have people that believe in your ideas, lift you up, and remind you that life can be playful and joyful just by their actions?
7. Get into action
You have an idea? Execute. Get out of your mind and into your body. Again, move if it helps. It really does for me. Don’t try to wait for the perfect moment or make the end product perfect. It might never be. Self-doubt kills your spirit. It separated you from the world. When I overthink something I never get ANYTHING done. I’ve written 100 unpublished articles in the past. I quit because I got in my head, thinking it wasn’t perfect enough. Then it starts playing with my head that I’m not doing good enough either. Leaving me feel separated.
Reminding myself that it might never be perfect, but good enough, helps me to follow through. Because that, in turn, reminds me that an unpublished article will never be better than a published article with room for improvement.
Recognise self-doubt. Stamp it out with execution. Don’t wait.
8. Cut back on Social Media
Slow down on social media consumption. Stop scrolling. This is major. It’s just the same mechanism of self-judgement and self-doubt as I wrote about above. Scrolling also whacks your dopamine-system. Be careful with it. I notice major improved moods and focus in morning without my phone. Social media is an illusion for real connection and definitely not a substitute.
9. Do something meaningful
Do something meaningful, to you. You might not need anyone to do something you love doing, feel inspired to do or feel connected to a certain project or activity you love. It could be anything you enjoy doing, are passionate about or that inspires you. Perhaps self-growth. Meaningful really doesn’t have to mean saving the world! Often it’s tied to something that feels like a part of you and you get to share it with others at some point down the line. Like working on a piece of art, studying something, writing, etc. You create your own meaning.
10. Give without wanting to receive
If you look at other people to think what it can give you, your whole foundation of the relationship will be unauthentic, and so will your relationship.. “How can this person improve me?” and “What can this other person give me?”. People sense your intention and see through you as this bleeds through your behaviour. Your selfish intentions will eventually backfire.
Reframe your mindset and consider how you can help them or how you can make someone feel better. Be it your time, a smile or some undivided attention. Often, this leads to much more happiness and connection than diving into a relationship purely for your own good.
11. Improve your social skills
If you struggle with social interaction, know that you can learn about anything. Our brain and body is highly adaptive. The positive side of today’s day and age is that you can learn about anything on the internet. The tools are all there. This goes for social skills as well. Do some research and get yourself out there and try it. It can be highly rewarding to even just talk to strangers and receive a smile.
And abole all:
12. Invest in your relationships
Above all, invest in your closest and dearest relationships. Because perhaps this is the most selfish and yet most selfless thing you can do in a world where we’re less connected than ever before. If you beat loneliness by building a meaningful relationship or creating a strong community, you might also beat someone else’s loneliness.
Connect. You might safe the/someones world with it.