Are You Lonely? Science Says You Can Cultivate Intimacy and Joy
This article is a follow up from my previous article, The Opposite of Addiction is Connection, a discussion centered on Johann Hari’s, TED talk: “Everything You Think You Know About Addiction is Wrong.” What Hari believes to be the cause of addiction — be it drug addiction, gambling addiction or even addiction to your mobile device — is a lack of human connection. He says,
“Human beings have a natural and innate need to bond. And when we’re happy and healthy we’ll bond and connect with each other,” Hari explained. “But if you can’t do that — because you’re traumatized or isolated or beaten down by life — you will bond with something that will give you some sense of relief. Now that might be gambling, that might be pornography, that might be cocaine, that might be cannabis, but you will bond and connect with something because that’s our nature, that’s what we want as human beings.”
We Need Love, Not War
Isolation and drug addiction are like the chicken and the egg. We’re not sure which is the originator of the deeply social problem of substance use disorders. The tragedy for millions of disconnected people is that to fix the sense of disconnection, they engage with addictions – substance and behavioural – which only serve to exacerbate the isolation. Further, we have a punitive and shaming response to addicts and addiction in our society.
So, has this ‘war on drugs’ approach been effective?
Approaching the problem of addiction as a behavioural symptom of morally flawed individuals does nothing to stall the damage addiction does to society, the loved ones of addicts, or the addicts themselves.
“For a hundred years now we’ve been singing war songs about addicts,” Hari said. “I think all along we should have been singing love songs to them. Because the opposite of addiction is not sobriety. The opposite of addiction is connection.”
But something that might prove therapeutic to knowledge is that this emotional condition, the precursor to addiction, is not peculiar to defective subset of the community. There is not something inherently defective about the way in which some people are responding to the world.
If you are lonely and in pain you are not necessarily sick, defective, or neurotic – you a part of a growing community of disconnected people.
The Consequences of Loneliness
Loneliness and social isolation is responsible for myriad mental and emotional health problems. Substance misuse may afford temporary relief. However, drug use over time further exacerbates social exclusion. What are some other scientific findings related to loneliness?
- Loneliness is linked to a compromised immune system, high blood pressure and premature death.
- Additionally, loneliness has also been linked to a 30% increase in the risk of having a stroke or coronary disease, two major causes of death and illness in wealthy societies.
- In findings which compared the effects of loneliness with recognised risk factors, such as anxiety and a stressful job, researchers said that their findings underlined the importance of social contacts for health and wellbeing.
Many of us live with sporadic unhappiness, depression even.
The nature of the mind is to chatter. It is not still. When the mind gets stuck in a negative groove, it can be very hard to get any relief. Trying to change the stream of negativity can seem like a mammoth task.
You Can Bounce Back! Getting Resilient
Dr.Barbara Fredrickson, a psychologist at the University of North Carolina, has done ground breaking work on fostering positive emotions like love, connection with others, compassion, joy and gratitude. Fredrickson says that rather than one big shift in to positivity, we get to a place of love and connection with others through accumulating micro-moments of positivity. Through moments of mindful loving connection with those around us, we become more and more equipped to feel positively.
These connections don’t have to be a powerful romantic love. Instead, love can be felt with:
- Even a smile exchanged with the cashier in a supermarket
- We can savour those brief moments of loving connection.
The research that Dr. Fredrickson has done demonstrates that the extent to which we can generate positive emotions from micro moments of every day interactions allows us to build both our capacity to feel joy and love and connection and our capacity for resilience – that is bouncing back in the face of adversity.
We Don’t Need to Block Emotions
That is not to say that we must block out all experience of negative emotions. This is not denial! We will experience times which bring worry, sadness, and grief. The whole panoply of human emotion is normal.
However, it is when we are chronically stuck viewing the world through a negative lens that our thoughts become detrimental to us emotionally, spiritually, relationally, and physically.
How might we then start to take control of how we are feeling? Well, first we need to get over fear. Dr. Richard J. Davidson, a neuroscientist and founder of the Centre for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin, has shown that people in whom the amygdala, the part of the brain activated by fear and anxiety, recovers slowly from a threat are at a greater risk for illness than those in whom it recovers quickly.
Both he and Dr. Fredrickson have demonstrated that the neuroplasticity of the brain can result in healthy patterns of thought and action. Neuroplastisticy theory claims that the brain is capable of forming new cells and of forming new pathways at any time. If the theory is correct, it is possible to cultivate thinking and behavioural patterns that create neural circuitry which foster a sense of positivity and loving connection to others.
In other words, we can become more connected to others by simply thinking we are.
One of the main practices that Dr.Frederickson suggests for increasing your capacity for forming loving connections with others is practicing a meditation focused on compassion and loving kindness, Metta meditation.
Love 2.0 – The Research.
The six-week study Barbara Frederickson conducted concluded that practicing loving kindness meditation resulted in an increase in social connection and an increase in positive emotions. The act of wishing good things for others can result in people “feeling more in tune with other people at the end of the day,” Dr Frederickson reported.
Dr. Davidson’s results concluded that as little as two weeks of compassion and kindness meditation practice generated changes in brain circuitry linked to an increase in positive social behaviours like generosity, behaviours which create better relationships. Dr. Fredrickson said,
“The results suggest that taking time to learn the skills to self-generate positive emotions can help us become healthier, more social, more resilient versions of ourselves.” Dr. Davidson encapsulates this message well when he says; “well-being can be considered a life skill. If you practice, you can actually get better at it.”
In much the same way that going to the gym and exercising our muscles becomes easier, regularly practicing love and positivity make it easier to experience those things, you can become a happier and more connected person.
In her newest book, “Love 2.0,” Dr. Fredrickson discusses the nature of “shared positivity” She says that two people sharing the same emotion, mirroring it in each other, may have a significantly greater impact on health than positivity experienced alone.
“Love is a momentary upwelling of three tightly interwoven events: First, a sharing of one or more positive emotions between you and another; second, a synchrony between your and the other person’s biochemistry and behaviors; and third, a reflected motive to invest in each other’s well-being that brings mutual care” — Barbara Fredrickson
7 Ways to Get More Connected (and Positive)
1. Be kind. By being kind to others we not only enhance their lives we also cultivate our own positive emotions. There are many little kindnesses which we can perform throughout the day.
2. Be Grateful. We don’t need to have lavish lives to be grateful for what we have. We can start with the simple things that we sometimes take for granted. We can be grateful for our bed and for its comfort providing us with a restful night’s sleep. It could be our health, a loved one, or simply food in the cupboard. Dwell on thoughts of gratitude and nurture them.
3. Be a friend. Nurture your relationships. Consciously put time and effort into your relationships. Connection with friends, family, and community will enhance your feelings of self-worth and will lead to a healthier life.
4. Be Part of a Community.“Flourishing is not a solo endeavor,” says Barbara Friedrickson. Finding a support group and working on personal relationships in that context can really help us find like-minded people. For people in recovery, this can afford us a safe community in which to find our way out of chemical reality and connect with others in a genuine way. In grass roots self-help communities, those in recovery can both receive and provide moments of acceptance and love. That is love in the Frederickson sense of the word, a“micro-moment of warmth and connection that you share with another living being.”
Through the fellowship in communities like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, those in recovery can share their experiences, connect, and invest in each other’s well-being. We can be of use to one another and become more adept at cultivating positive relationships.
As Barbara Frederickson says, “Love draws you out of your cocoon of self-absorption to attune to others. Love allows you to really see another person, holistically, with care, concern, and compassion.”
5. Be Resilient. Positive emotions can be experienced even when we are contending with great difficulty. What comes to mind when you think about resilience? Maybe the ability to bounce back or the ability to get through a difficult time and can see the positive aspects of it. When we are facing tough times in life, grief, or financial hardship…resilience is a vital skill for all of us. So instead of dwelling on the negative, shift into thinking what is a viable way to introduce some positive emotions into your experience?
6. Be Mindful. “Love requires you to be physically and emotionally present. It also requires that you slow down.” — Barbara Fredrickson Ruminating on the past or worrying about the future is hard mental work. Let go of things you can’t control and focus on the here-and-now.
7. Be a Meditator –Practice Loving Kindness. Metta meditation begins with developing a loving acceptance of yourself. This will be easier to access on some days and not so on others, but it is something that we can keep practicing and which should become easier over time. We begin by sending loving kindness to ourselves, then our loved ones, then someone we may be having trouble with and then the world at large.
Meditation doesn’t have to be done in a special or spiritual place. You can do it anywhere. There are different phrases and it’s important to choose phrases that you feel comfortable with.
May I be filled with loving-kindness.
May I be safe from inner and outer dangers.
May I be well in body and mind.
May I be at ease and happy
May I walk in peace
It is important to be patient and kind as you develop your ability to access loving kindness. As we become more and more proficient, we can widen our practice to include loved ones…beginning the mantra with ‘May they’ and then extending the practice to a wider circle of friends and, community and finally extending it to wishing well to those we may have some difficulty with in our lives.
Take Small Steps!
Aside from these actionable ideas, there are many small, practical steps that we can integrate in to our daily lives. For example, we can call people instead of messaging. Or, we can make eye contact; we can look at the people we are talking to. Or, we can be mindful ofyour own thinking patterns. When we become aware of the patterns of thinking and behaviour, we start to loosen these barriers to intimacy. And ultimately, over time, we connect!
“Work Out” Your Happiness Through Practice
Working out your happiness builds neurological memory in a similar way that going to the gym builds muscle memory. Thus, happiness and connection becomes something which is easier and more natural for us as time goes on. You can ‘workout’ your ability to be loving, happy, and connected.
To flourish, we will become happy. Beyond this, we will also become valuable and valued members of our world. Moments of positivity and connection open us. Our minds and hearts can open to each other and as they do we become more receptive and more creative.