What do obesity, substance abuse, and poor access to health care all have in common?
Yep, you guessed it; they’re all about as likely to kill us as loneliness.
According to this meta analysis, being lonely hikes your likelihood of bucket-kicking by about 26%. If you’re socially isolated, you’ve got a 29% higher tendency to die. And living alone is an extra special bummer for mortality, with your chances of carking it up 32% relative to partnered peers or mates with roomies.
This wouldn’t be such an issue if only a few folk made it onto the ‘lonesome’ list. But according to a recent Australian survey conducted by Lifeline, an epic 60% of respondents reported often feeling lonely.
The stats, while sad, are hardly surprising.
As a society, we’ve traded close-knit communal living for aptly-named apartment living.
Most of us never encounter (much less interact with) our neighbours, with whom we’re close in proximity alone. Few of us have dependable help within hollering distance. Child rearing has become an almost hermitical task (hello post-natal depression).
Outside the home, we travel on trains and train at gyms with eyes cast down and headphones in. Social time has largely become social media time, where our networks are massive, but also massively devoid of meaningful connection.
This is not groundbreaking information. Most of us are already uncomfortably aware of our increasing isolation.
Perhaps more pertinent is the question of how to bust down the walls we’ve inadvertently erected. In an age of alone-ness, how do we re-connect with our fellow man?
Connection suggestion #1: CommUnity
It’s no accident that community is 1/4 comm and 3/4 unity. Associating with others with whom we’re proximally located conveys a sense of cohesion. Oneness.
Yet many of us actively avoid getting too buddy-buddy with our neighbouroonies.
Perhaps we’re worried that if we chum up with one who winds up being a deranged psychopath, we’ll have a difficult time detaching. Once they know where we live and all.
Caution around not befriending the local community crackpot is valid. But unfortunately, it’s hard to erect a selective wall that only allows the nice, normal neighbours through. Preemptively suiting up in protective armour keeps the crazies out, but it keeps everyone else out as well.
Fortunately however, connection doesn’t have to be an all or nothing game. We can dip a toe or two in without having to socially submerge.
I rarely see or speak to my next door neighbour. Our schedules just don’t often cross. But most Wednesdays, the day after Tuesday trash night, he gets home before me and brings in my wheelie bin.
It’s a relatively small act. But somehow it makes me feel less alone. Just knowing that someone nearby is willing to go out of their way to make my life a little bit better.
Perhaps best of all, commUnity is contagious.
Since he first brought in mine, I began bringing in my other neighbour’s bin. For all I know, she may be bringing in her neighbour’s bin. And so the sense of sharing and caring proliferates and perpetuates up the street ad finitum.
If you’re not a bin-bringing-in kind of human, don’t despair. The same effect can be replicated in any number of ways.
Dropping a few freshly-baked bickies on next door’s doorstep. Taking the time to water their visually dehydrated daffodils. Offering to feed their feline while they’re away on holiday.
When you start looking, you find almost endless opportunities for community and connection.
Connection suggestion #2: The third place
Most us don’t feel lonely 100% of the time. But many of us have lonely moments.
Enter the need for the third place.
The third place is a concept originally pioneered by sociologist Ray Oldenberg back in 1989. It alludes to a place that is neither work nor home where humanity — both familiar and foreign — can congregate and meet.
Importantly, a third place shouldn’t take too much time to get to. It shouldn’t cost much (if anything) to be at or in. And when we rock up there, we should have a good chance of encountering a familiar face or five.
For some, the third place may be a local watering hole or couch-studded cafe to which friends flock after work and the bar tender knows each regular’s regular order. For others, it might be a community centre. An after-work art class. A town square. A public pool.
My third place is my tiny local gym. I consciously aim to arrive at the same times each week, knowing I’ll recognise the regulars and get the opportunity to chat with my accumulating array of sweaty gym chums.
The social side of this local gym scene has been oddly effective as a way to maintain my motivation to exercise. But more than that, I find it imbues a strong sense of comfort.
Since finding my third place, I know that if I’m feeling lonesome on any given day, I have a way to access my fellow man. Where I can chat if I want to chat, or simply be amongst other humans. Somewhere I can go to feel less alone.
In an age of growing social networks but shrinking social cohesion, the third place is a cogent notion.
So are you lonely?
You know what to do.