Staving off the loneliness epidemic
We can be better listeners, and read between the lines for those who cannot admit how they're feeling
An accommodation-booking website is offering weary voters suffering 'political fatigue' in the US the opportunity to live under a rock (literally) for the duration of election week in November - after they've cast their ballots, of course.
Hotels.com is offering the well-furnished man-made cave - situated 50 feet below the ground in New Mexico - for just $5 a night for anyone looking to escape the negativity of the news cycle. The website's vice-president explained, "We're transforming an age-old idiom into a bookable experience, so individuals can relax, recharge, and recover... because who knows what else 2020 has in store for us."
It's a winning argument - and the throwaway prices are sure to help. But, with World Mental Health Day just gone past, it also got me thinking: about isolation.
Voluntary physical isolation is one thing (it's better known as solitude, and it's a short-term escape that experts and the spiritually inclined highly recommend). But not everyone has the luxury of 'choosing' isolation. If there's one thing the pandemic has highlighted, it's that loneliness is the unhappy reality of millions around the world - not just old spinster women living with cats - and it's a full-blown epidemic.
It's a problem that not many are willing to talk about for at least two reasons, both of which have to do with stigma. The first is the disgrace of social failure. Loneliness is often equated with feelings of being unwanted or unloved - and few can handle the acute pain of such an admission. The second has to do with modern society's obsession with individualism. It's becoming a rather stunning paradox that we can glorify Western ideals of independence and self-reliance to the degree we do today and yet, reserve the right to bemoan a lonely society.
Reams have been written about how technology that was meant to bring us closer has only served to make us drift further apart. But we ought not to lay the blame solely at the door of social media. As a society, we increasingly value work over building relationships as a more productive use of our time. The latter is actually an indispensable pursuit, but one that we're regularly failing to appreciate over more instantly gratifying transactional relationships.
Not all societies are so far gone. During a recent trip to Tbilisi, I remember being amazed at how the entire old quarter would, more or less, power down after 6pm every day - on the work front, that is. The rest of the evening would see folks thronging the streets, walking about public spaces, relaxing with friends at outdoor dining spaces, or sitting atop the sulphur bath domes enjoying cultural shows. Community building is a big part of the local culture - and it seems to be a great way to stem the tide of desolation that's sweeping our societies.
Even in the absence of such exercises though, we do have resources to reach out to the forlorn. We can be more thoughtful and check in on people - irrespective of whether they live alone (for, as everyone knows, one can be in a room full of people, and still feel alone). We can be better listeners, and read between the lines for those who cannot admit how they're feeling. And we can help people feel less isolated by being more honest about our own experiences.
Loneliness essentially grieves the lack of fulfilling connections - and those begin with conversations. Which is why Harvard University professor Jacqueline Olds is right on the money when she says: to some extent, all conversations with other people are mental health interventions.
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