During a recent conversation with Dr. Fall (Dad), he asked me if I was okay. He must have sensed something was off. I was honest when I told him I really wasn’t. For the last 3.5 years or more, I have been alone for the vast majority of the time. After separating from my spouse of little more than two years, I took a job with a health I.T. firm, which required nearly 95% travel. The only downtime I had was used playing with my little girl and doing laundry in preparation for the next engagement somewhere across the country. When I left the consulting gig to begin writing How to Get Your Son Back, I spent long hours writing and editing. After the book was released, dad and I began developing the related consulting business. While I love my career and find it meaningful, it has been created almost entirely in isolation, with the exception of my father.
I have been strong, self-sustaining, and productive during much of this time, but being alone has had an overall negative effect on me. Not having anyone my age (at least geographically close) in my life to share anything with other than family has led me to become depressed. Of course, I am active on social media and spend time talking on the phone, but it isn’t the same as eye-to-eye contact. And yes, we do need hugs! Unfortunately for me, my three-year-old little girl is too busy for snuggle time, so even that has been reduced.
When I say depressed, I am talking moderately depressed. Not suicidal or anything. But this void of human connection, interaction, and engagement has made my world a much darker place than when I was regularly communicating with friends in person. I have lost interest in activities other than work, find little joy other than when I am with my daughter, and at times I find myself getting irritated when there is really no cause.
So, what is the big deal with loneliness?
Over the last couple of decades, loneliness has received lots of research attention. Evolutionary psychologists suggest loneliness is a painful prompt that causes individuals to join a pack to better ensure their survival. Living in a pack provided more hands to gather food and more defenders should the pack come under attack – luxuries one living alone could not afford.
Fast-forward 10,000 or so years. We still receive the bio-psycho-prompts to join a group. Even though technology now allows us to “connect” globally, I can tell you first hand, technology does not fill the loneliness void.
There is much research supporting the negative effects of loneliness that come in the form of severe and detrimental psychological and physiological symptoms that can, yes, end our lives early. Of course, the co-author of a book who touts his comeback should be tough and beyond the needs of an ordinary man. Right? The other day on Facebook, I saw a meme depicting a lone wolf that said something about the toughness it takes to be alone. That “toughness” comes at an emotional expense that likely outweighs the benefit.
As dad and I continued to talk, he said he understood my situation, then he opened up to me. “Both of us drive ourselves hard and live lopsided lives – too much work and not enough connection. I am going to begin further developing my friend circle. Self-care is something I do very poorly and I want to change that.”
According to a 2016 Harris Poll, dad and I are not the only ones who experience loneliness. This survey found nearly 75% of Americans report feeling lonely. Apparently social media is not a substitute for human connection. At least it is not curing my loneliness.
How can I help parents reconnect with their teens or inspire young adults to overcome obstacles that are preventing them from living their best life if I am not willing to face my own problems? Yes, I have done a lot of work, but that is in the past and my own loneliness is about the present. Am I cheating myself out of living better?
If there was one thing the highly touted 75-year Harvard Study of Adult Development has taught us, it is this: after everything is said and done, it is our relationships that give our lives meaning, purpose, and joy. The quality of our relationships is the single biggest contributor to our sense of well-being. And back to me and the other 75% of Americans, it is relationships that that will rid us of this pervasive darkness called loneliness.
So as someone who presents himself as a mental health consultant, I guess I have some work to do, but as you may have read I am not afraid of hard work. When it comes to developing relationships, I still have some resistance. For example, I find myself listening to music and checking web analytics instead of making connections, which are forms of resistance. I could go on to provide countless examples of this type of procrastination…
This is a challenge to myself and those of you who may be experiencing loneliness: Set a goal of making at least two connections with people in person each day. It doesn’t have to be big. Hold the door for someone and ask them how they’re doing. We live in a world of lonely people. If all of us put forth just a litte bit of effort, we could easily change that. Let me know how it goes!