Courtney and I used to be next-door neighbors in our small adjoining cottages along the side of the country road. Until she and her boyfriend found a bigger apartment nearby.
Surprised to see her behind the counter in the village convenience store, I’m curious to learn whether she’s still working in the call center up the road, as she was due to start there after she moved out.
“Oh no. I gave up that job. I was fed up with working from home, sitting looking into a computer screen all day, seeing no one,” she says.
It got me thinking. The pandemic forced thousands of us into remote working. And there were pluses, no doubt. Released from the grinding daily commute meant more time at home with friends and family, for those who had them.
Now it’s a thing, full-time and hybrid. How many of us are spending endless days sitting in our kitchens or bedrooms looking into computer screens? Maybe never seeing a human being from one end of the day to the next – especially if we live alone.
Maybe never seeing a human being from one end of the day to the next – especially if we live alone.
For us introverts, it seems fantastic. No need to give out all our energy in noisy, crowded, open plan offices or turbo-charged conferences.
“Connection is why we’re here.
We are hardwired to connect with others,
it’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives,
and without it there is suffering.”
While Teams, Google Meet, and Zoom were undoubted lifelines saving hundreds and thousands from the pain of a total solitary confinement lockdown reality, the truth is, existing primarily in a virtual world is no substitute for IRL, the real deal.
A post-pandemic visit to a university friend in Greater London pops into my head. She’s been working for a local authority for years. Covid-19 lands and she’s working from home, five days a week.
Things open up. For my friend, that means continuing to work from home four days a week and going into the office every Friday, taking her turn manning her team’s public-facing service.
Does her day in the office mean she gets to see the rest of her team? Not a bit. They’re either home working or hot-desking on separate floors.
Visiting a year later, I’m surprised to learn she’s back working from home again, all five days.
A painful knee injury, the result of a momentary biking mishap, and the consequent enforced leg rest means her beloved hiking and yoga are a no-no. She’s not even supposed to walk. Housebound even more.
Her parents are, sadly, dead. Apart from an only sibling a good hour away, she has no extended family in the country. That’s a lot of “alone time.”
Strikes me that this isn’t living. It’s existing. A lot of suffering. Pain.
In 2016, a landmark report commissioned by the British Red Cross and The Co-op found that over 9 million people are affected by loneliness in the UK. That was before we endured the enforced isolation that came with the pandemic.
Are you among them, even some of the time? If so, how does that impact you?
“Over four decades of research has produced robust evidence that lacking social connection – and in particular, scoring high on measures of social isolation – is associated with a significantly increased risk for early death from all causes.”
—2020 Consensus Study, National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine
U.S. Surgeon General’s Report
The same document also advises us that the impact on our body of loneliness is greater than smoking fifteen cigarettes a day and obesity – factors that we know shorten lives. Then what are the mental and emotional costs of our loneliness epidemic?
The evidence is that loneliness due to excessive and prolonged social isolation is affecting our physical, mental, and emotional health, and not in a good way. Without a drag on a cigarette, without drinking a drop, it’s killing us before our time – a very slow death.
Of course, being “alone” is not the same as suffering the deep loneliness that comes when our day-to-day reality involves much more social isolation than we like or need. And gifting ourselves regular periods of self-chosen solitude is a great way to restore and replenish our heart and soul. Sometimes, though, we can have too much of a good thing. “Everything in moderation.”
Loneliness is part of the human condition. Like sadness, grief, joy, anger, happiness, contentment. We all experience it at some point in our lives. And, yes, we can even be lonely in a crowd.
The chronic deep loneliness that causes the suffering Brené Brown talks about is something else. Less obvious than anger or happiness, it may be subtle, a kind of longing. While it might cause sadness, it’s different. Something’s missing. It may be hard to put your finger on it. You feel disconnected. It’s like when the cold seeps into your bones. You barely notice it until you are completely frozen.
Over the past 100 years, especially in the Western world, we’ve created physical environments that disconnect us from people.
Does the place where you live or work help or hinder you in connecting with the people around you?
How well do you know your colleagues and neighbors? Well enough to call in for a coffee and a pick me up chat if you’re having an off day? Or drop in with a bowl of soup when a neighbor who lives alone is unwell?
How walkable is your neighborhood, city center, and workplace?
What’s your preferred way of traveling to and from home? Is your only choice to get from A to B by private car? If so, then it’s likely you aren’t getting many chance chats with near neighbors or colleagues.
Lucky you, if you’re surrounded by close friends and family. Even so, half the time, half the people may be endlessly scrolling on their phones.
Whatever the cause, or causes, of our isolation and the loneliness that may flow from it, take heart. It’s possible to do something about it, even when that seems impossible.
“Every time I enter a room, I enter alone.
And, it becomes my job as a human being to get Connected.”
While we are all capable of connecting meaningfully, it does not happen automatically. We need to take action and create it, together. Generating an intention to be connected is critical. Then, are we up for revealing what really matters to us, sharing our vulnerabilities?
Vitally, becoming deeply curious about others, paying attention to them, is the key that unlocks the door to connection. Asking questions framed to discover who another person really is, and listening to their answers without interrupting or giving advice, helps us become connected very quickly.
When we are genuinely interested in others and make the time, real connection emerges naturally.
Covid-19 has cast a very long shadow on our mental health and emotional well-being. Creating vital spaces where everyone belongs, connecting people and places, helps shorten that shadow.