Bad news, guys. New research (that was recently conducted by a top national health insurer) shows that Americans are, by far, some of the loneliest people on the planet.
Far more than half of the 20,000 people surveyed reported feeling lonely much of the time. They say that the people who are around them don’t necessarily feel like they are “with them”—and that most of the time, they “lack companionship” and don’t feel connected to others.
And while this is certainly sad to hear, the health effects of chronic loneliness are well-documented. Loneliness has been shown to weaken immune systems, exacerbate heart disease, and even slow down the chances people might have for recovering from cancer. This is obviously why a major health conglomerate invested so much time, money, and effort into a study such as this.
The good news is that there are many Buddhist rituals and exercises that can be employed to not only help quell the effects of typical Western world loneliness, but actually eradicate them altogether. These are not some fanciful, “woo-woo” quantum practices, either. The correlation between true empirical and scientific evidence and Buddhist tradition is well-documented by some of our nation’s finest health practitioners.
Some of our best tools for fighting off the pain and quelling loneliness include:
1. Compassion. There is this powerful quote from the Dalai Lama: “If you wish to overcome that feeling of isolation and loneliness, I think that your underlying attitude makes a tremendous difference. And approaching others with the thought of compassion in your mind is the best way to do this.”
In other words, engage with the people you meet in day-to-day life. The real people, like the ones breathing in front of you, instead of the two-dimensional ones in your newsfeed. Something tells me that our inability to look up from our smartphones to show interest and love to other humans is not helping matters one little bit.
2. Meditation. Compassion helps us to feel connected to others; meditation helps us feel connected to ourselves, God, and the universe. When we meditate daily, we are given the opportunity to stop reacting to constant stimulus—and by doing so, we begin to question feelings we are having that do not really serve us.
Just by that one simple step, we can diminish feelings of loneliness a great deal. Not only that, but much has been written lately about the brain changes that take place when one meditates regularly. These changes have been proven to affect what is referred to as “gene expression” and that has vast effects on our physiology. Simply put, meditation is really good for you.
3. Give! Give! Give! I just finished reading an incredible book by author Cami Walker, called The 29 Gifts. Walker begins in a bad place as a 35-year-old newlywed struck down with multiple sclerosis—seemingly out of nowhere—and is not doing a very good job of reconciling her new heartbreaking situation. South African healer, Mbali Creazzo, gives her a very simple prescription: give away 29 things in 29 days.
Many things change for her in the course of that month, but the one thing that stands out the most to me is how much more connected she becomes to the people around her in the process. It had such a profound effect on my outlook that I too began taking that prescription. It doesn’t matter if it’s three dollars to someone who is panhandling, or a few tissues and a little compassion to someone in front of us who is crying. Giving restores our technologically severed ties to the world around us.
4. Shut it off. A lot of us spend much of our time in solitude trying to distract ourselves from the fact that we are alone, and this essentially puts us in a situation where we are getting the worst of both worlds. When we shut our phones off and get away from our computers—even for an hour or two—we can embrace our aloneness for once, without relying on external avenues to save us from being with ourselves. This is, in reality, the most Buddhist aspect I’ve covered thus far.
In a book written several years back, Solitude and Loneliness: A Buddhist View, author Sarvananda explores the themes of solitude and loneliness and how a Buddhist might deal with these emotions. Leaning in toward solitude as opposed to facing it “under protest,” as it were, is the most mindful and Buddhist way to face what we, in this country, refer to as loneliness.
No one expresses this “leaning in” more eloquently than Pema Chödrön:
“When you wake up in the morning and out of nowhere comes the heartache of alienation and loneliness, could you use that as a golden opportunity? Rather than persecuting yourself or feeling that something terribly wrong is happening, right there in the moment of sadness and longing, could you relax and touch the limitless space of the human heart?”
We could, at the very least, try to.