As a single woman who works from home, one of my biggest challenges is to make sure I get enough people time on a consistent basis. If I’m not careful I could spend a whole day without seeing a live human being while buzzing away on my writing, editing or public relations projects.
There’ve been times when a simple trip to the grocery store ends up with me talking the cashier’s ear off about my day. The poor guy was probably sorry he asked how I was doing.
“Well, since you asked, my cat has an ear infection, my car needs a new timing belt, and I had a strange dream last night.”
I let the words shoot out of my mouth like rapid gunfire…a sign I had kept too much to myself for too long. I realized this couldn’t be healthy so I did some digging on what isolation does to a person’s mind, body and soul. And what I found wasn’t pretty.
Social isolation is a growing epidemic in America especially among the older crowd. Since the 1980’s, the percentage of American Adults who say they are lonely has doubled from 20 percent to 40 percent. With too much alone time we are more likely to experience higher levels of stress, inflammation and disrupted sleep patterns.
Loneliness on a regular basis can cause depression, frustration and even kick in the basic flight or flight survival mechanism — the reptilian brain. In this state we become more concerned about our own self-preservation and grow less compassionate and tolerant of others. This might explain why we have so many more instances of road rage, bullying, aggression, competition and anger today. We are suffering a collective isolation.
Author, Marianne Williamson, writes: Thinking ourselves separate and alone within our isolated lives we lose all sense of responsibility to each other, compassion for each other and forgiveness of each other.
You know that feeling when you smile at someone and they smile back. For an instant you feel pure joy and connection. That’s the essence of being a social animal, which is who we are and it feels natural.
However, in our culture of independence we feel we need an excuse to talk to a stranger or even a neighbor. We don’t want to bother someone who might think we’re desperate, lonely or even worse judge us to be a social outcast, perhaps a feeling left over from high school. So we stay safely tucked away in our little environments. As Henry David Thoreau wrote: “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” And with social media many of us are building virtual relationships that rarely segue into solid face-time. It’s like getting nutrition from cotton candy.
When I was a young child I remember spending long summers with my grandparents. Their friends would drop in without notice and my grandmother was always so pleased to take in whoever was at the door. They would bring out the coffee, tea, cakes and chat for hours about family, ailments and politics. These days we fear the direct one-on-one approach opting to take the more passive attempt at human connection, the text. The text offers a crutch, a convenient way to avoid intimacy.
To avoid falling into the isolation trap I’ve put into place a daily practice not unlike my everyday discipline of going to the gym.
When I go for a hike, to the store or to the gym, I don’t tune out the world by putting in my ear buds. I tune in to the people and the sounds that surround me. I say hi as I pass by people and add bits of conversation if there’s an opportunity. I talk to the people in line, on the trail or stretching out before a yoga class. I now recognize many folks and feel a sense of belonging in my community.
When I do sit down to write for several hours I pack my large floppy, comfortable purse with my computer, a writing journal and books, so I can take my show on the road, hitting up coffee shops, park benches, the library or my personal favorite a comfy spot at my favorite bookstore. When I catch my breath and look around I feel I’m not alone.
That is my daily maintenance and is equal to a good workout. But if you want to ratchet it up a notch you can take these five steps to get super connected.
Call three friends or people you would like to get to know. Yes, a phone call, not a text. Talk to an old friend and make a coffee date or maybe someone you met at a gathering who gave you a business card. I reconnected with a girlfriend who has a wonderful sense of humor and we laughed until those around us were giving us the eye. They wanted what we had.
Go to a workshop, lecture or take a class at your local community college. I’ve been going to regular lectures at the Center for Spiritual Living and attending workshops in person, not online.
Join a meet up group in your area depending on your interests. I now have a group of friends I can hike with during the week or on the weekends.
Volunteer at an animal shelter or get involved in a civic, political or environmental organization. Now is a good time for that. I mentor a teen at the Sonoma County Humane Society and am active in my local Democratic club.
Turn off the television. This alone can make a huge difference in freeing you up to engage in your community and creativity. Since I stopped watching other people living their fake lives, I started participating in my one and only real life.
If you make the decision to connect to your outer world your life will become richer, more fulfilling and meaningful. We are all in this together, a mass of humanity that functions best when we are at our social best.