Loneliness is something that most of us experience from time to time.
Divorce, bereavement, illness, disability, discrimination and unemployment are common causes of loneliness. And although moving to a new area, getting a new job or having a baby can be exciting and positive; people often find that new experiences can leave them feeling lonely.
For some people, feelings of loneliness are constant and appear unrelated to external events like divorce, bereavement or becoming a parent. And it might be a cliché, but it can also be true: it is possible to feel lonely in a crowd. Whatever the circumstances, the common theme here is a feeling of being disconnected.
While the circumstances that can cause loneliness may be different, the result is usually the same; you feel sad, alone, and that no one understands. Is being alone the same as being lonely?
There’s a difference between being alone and being lonely. To be alone simply means to be separate, to be on your own. But with loneliness, your mind has turned aloneness – a physical state – into loneliness, an emotional state.
Loneliness is an unhappy feeling of feeling detached, isolated and unconnected. If you are lonely, you are probably feeling you are without friendly, meaningful companionship and support. You may well feel that no one understands you or that they misunderstand you.
Typically, when you’re lonely, your mind shifts to ruminative cycles of the past and future that lend themselves to disconnection, leading to more loneliness. But it is possible to manage loneliness; mindfulness can help you to see that a sense of connection is always available to you, regardless of your outside circumstances or internal thoughts.
Learning to be alone
In his book, Solitude, psychiatrist Dr Anthony Storr challenges the idea that successful personal relationships are the only key to happiness and feeling connected. He suggests that a person’s hobbies and creative interests can also be an important source of stability and contentment.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi suggests that the mind “with nothing to do, begins to follow random patterns, usually stopping to consider something painful or disturbing”. However, a mind engaged in flow activities leaves no room for undesirable thoughts. As you focus on what’s happening and what you’re doing, you lose your sense of self. You can reduce feelings of isolation, and loneliness by creating opportunities for flow; where merging activity and thoughts keep you fully absorbed in the moment.
Don’t let yourself wallow. Instead of dwelling on feelings of loneliness, do something!
Explore activities and hobbies
Don’t be afraid to try new things. New experiences give you something to talk about, which will interest and connect you to other people. Activities like gardening, reading, drawing, painting and writing, exercise such as yoga, swimming and cycling, can help you to relax and accept a calmer sense of yourself.
They are activities where you experience flow; they will help you feel engaged and connected. Whatever the activity you choose, focus on the pleasure it gives you and the fact that periods of time spent alone can be rewarding.
If you have a hobby or passion that you can “lose yourself” in, you will find yourself actually searching out moments when you can be by yourself in order to write, paint, bake, garden, cycle etc. You will also be able to reach out to others with less of a need and more of an ability to give. You will find you have more interest in them and the world around you, which they will respond to.
Make the most of opportunities for social contact
Connect with others through a shared interest. Consider what you most enjoy doing, whether it’s walking in the country, playing chess or singing. Maybe it’s an activity like football, tennis or rock climbing.
Learn something new that you can do with other people. Are there new skills or interests you would like to develop? Singing? Playing the ukulele? Joining an evening class at beginners’ level will put you on the same footing as everyone else. Don’t go with the sole idea of making friends or meeting people. Try to go with no expectations; just see what happens.
Make a contribution
Recently, on the radio I heard a 103 year old woman being asked what her tip was for a happy life.She replied “Give more than you receive. Always do good where you can.” Although, when faced with loneliness, you can feel overwhelmed with your own concerns, if you can help other people, in the process you help yourself.
Experience the good feelings that come from connecting with – and helping – other people. Even helping just one person is a start. If you’re feeling lonely, reach out. Volunteering for a cause or other people will automatically take the focus off you. Volunteering is a good way to not only make yourself feel better about the world but also to help you meet people, other passionate people, with whom you can make a genuine connection.
If you have some spare time, think about whether you could spend a few hours working as a volunteer. It could be a cause you feel strongly about or a group of people whose interests you feel are particularly worth fighting for.
Most organizations, clubs and societies also have a website, so search the internet for groups in your area.
Try to find an activity that offers:
• A role relevant to your interests. It might be to do with the environment and conservation, arts and music, or perhaps families and children.
• An opportunity to use the skills you already have, or will commit you to training yourself.
• Personal contact with the person you help, or at least an emotional connection, such as by phone on a phone hotline. Personal contact increases your understanding and sympathy for the situation of others. Meet the people you help, see their lives and connect with them.
• The opportunity for regular helping. Aim for a couple of hours a week. Frequency of helping is important, because it enables you to build support and empathy for others.
This is an edited extract from Mindfulness: Be Mindful. Live in the Moment. by Gill Hasson