Take action.

 Strategies to increase social connection (backed by science) and some activities that help.

Take action to beat loneliness and increase social connection.

 It’s important to learn about loneliness and social connection, but it’s equally important not to get stuck there, because learning can be a kind of evasion and procrastination in its own way. It’s important to take action to resolve the challenges that you are facing. The first step is to Get Help if you need it, so check out that page first if you haven’t. The strategies and activities on this page will give you options for how to transform feelings of loneliness into healthy solitude and social connection. 

Plan of action

After we’ve learned about social connection and the different types of loneliness, we need a plan that covers all of these types. This means building ourselves as individuals, building strength in our relationships, and, wherever possible, building healthy social connection into our culture. 

Strengthen your mental health: be your best self

If you’re feeling lonely, it might seem to go against all intuition to say that one of the best things you can do when you are feeling alone is to work on your self. 

You should never think you need to change yourself for others. But think of it this way: wouldn’t you like for all the people you connect with to see a “you” that’s as healthy and happy as you can be? Wouldn’t you like the light you give to the world to be as clear and bright as it can be?

For these reasons and many others, it’s important to work on yourself as an individual as you build strong social connections into your life. Here are a few ways to do that:

You can build and strengthen your social connections over time, but how to handle the lonely moments that happen during that time?

The key is to change your perceptions and thoughts about the time you spend alone. Although at any moment you may not be able to be connected, you can change the way you think about that time using mindfulness. Mindfulness actions allow you to step away, manage, and clear lonely thoughts (and related anxiety you might be feeling) as they happen.

If you've never tried mindfulness activities before, here is a good introduction from mindful.org. There is a lot of useful information at that site. If you're feeling anxiety, they also have a good guide to meditating with anxiety.

Many studies have shown that meditation can help you deal with all kinds of difficult emotions, including loneliness.

It takes some time to get it right, but if you've never done it before, give it a try!

Meditation is only one part of mindfulness. The trick is to build it into your everyday life. So for example, if you go out for a walk, instead of being lost in your thoughts, try to really concentrate on noticing what's around you. If you're deeply lonely (and especially if you are feeling loneliness mixed with anxiety) this is going to be really hard, because one of the ways loneliness influences your brain is that it makes you more likely to get drawn into that internal chatter.

 

One helpful technique for calming the chatter is the RAIN method:

  • Recognize
  • Allow
  • Investigate
  • Non-identification

RAIN involves first recognizing feelings of loneliness, accepting that they are showing up, investigating the thought patterns that have given rise to this emotion, and non-identification with this temporary feeling.

Among many other benefits, being happier will help strengthen the relationships you have and improve the new connections you make.

Note that if you've been alone a long time, you might find it hard to be happy even if you really want to do so, because research shows that loneliness is actually likely to lead you toward a negative mindset. Keeping that in mind, be kind to yourself, and keep at it!

The following strategies have been shown in research studies to increase a person's perceived level of happiness. The list comes from the book, "The How of Happiness," by Sonja Lyubomirsky.

(1) Counting your blessings: Expressing gratitude for what you have (either privately – through contemplation or journaling – or to a close other) or conveying your appreciation to one or more individuals whom you’ve never properly thanked.

(2) Cultivating optimism: Keeping a journal in which you imagine and write about the best possible future for yourself, or practicing to look at the bright side of every situation.

(3) Avoiding overthinking and social comparison: Using strategies (such as distraction) to cut down on how often you dwell on your problems and compare yourself to others.

(4) Practicing acts of kindness: Doing good things for others, whether friends or strangers, either directly or anonymously, either spontaneously or planned.

(5) Nurturing relationships: Picking a relationship in need of strengthening, and investing time and energy in healing, cultivating, affirming, and enjoying it.

(6) Doing more activities that truly engage you: Increasing the number of experiences at home and work in which you “lose” yourself, which are challenging and absorbing.

(7) Replaying and savoring life’s joys: Paying close attention, taking delight, and going over life’s momentary pleasures and wonders – through thinking, writing, drawing, or sharing with another.

(8) Committing to your goals: Picking one, two, or three significant goals that are meaningful to you and devoting time and effort to pursuing them.

(9) Developing strategies for coping: Practicing ways to endure or surmount a recent stress, hardship, or trauma.

(10) Learning to forgive: Keeping a journal or writing a letter in which you work on letting go of anger and resentment towards one or more individuals who have hurt or wronged you.

(11) Practicing religion and spirituality: Becoming more involved in your church, temple, or mosque, or reading and pondering spiritually-themed books.

(12) Taking care of your body: Engaging in physical activity, meditating, and smiling and laughing. 

Here are some additional guides and mental health resources from credible sources:

Activities to create and strengthen social connection

Here are several ideas for creating new connections and strengthening your connections to others.

Several research studies have explored the connections between service to others and improved feelings of social connection, purpose in life, and happiness. A 2019 article from Scientific American provides a good summary and three good reasons to volunteer if you want to increase your sense of connection:

“In a recent survey of over 10,000 people in the U.K., two-thirds reported that volunteering helped them feel less isolated. Similarly, a 2018 study of nearly 6,000 people across the U.S. examined widows who, unsurprisingly, felt lonelier than married adults. After starting to volunteer for two or more hours per week, their average level of loneliness subsided to match that of married adults, even after controlling for demographics, baseline health, personality traits and other social involvement. These benefits may be especially strong the older you are and the more often you volunteer.

Participating in volunteer opportunities may help alleviate loneliness and its related health impact for several reasons:”

“The first and most obvious is that it’s a meaningful way to connect with others and make new friends. I experienced this firsthand when I moved to San Francisco and knew almost no one. After joining a young professionals volunteer group, getting involved with a local nonprofit serving seniors and adults with disabilities, and both organizing and assisting with neighborhood events, I felt my own sense of community and social support increase dramatically.”

Second, volunteering can make up for the loss of meaning that commonly occurs with loneliness. Research using the UCLA Loneliness Scale and Meaning in Life Questionnaire has shown that more loneliness is associated with less meaning. This makes sense, given our deeply rooted need for belonging. By volunteering for social causes that are important to us, we can gain a sense of purpose, which in turn may shield us from negative health outcomes. For example, purpose in life has been linked to a reduced likelihood of stroke and greater psychological well-being.

Third, loneliness and isolation can lead to cognitive decline, such as memory loss. But according to the neuroscientist Lisa Genova, people who regularly engage in mentally stimulating activities build up more neural connections and are subsequently more resilient to symptoms of Alzheimer’s. So, volunteering is one way to stay engaged and stimulated, rather than isolated and lonely, and thereby protect against cognitive decline.

Here are a few ideas, courtesy Meridian Behavioral Health:


  • Video chat with friends and family (FaceTime, Android video chat, Google Hangouts, Zoom, Skype, House party app)
  • Host a “Netflix Party”
  • Have an Online Karaoke party
  • Play charades via Google Hangouts, Zoom, Skype
  • Host an online scavenger hunt (meet via Google Hangouts, Zoom, Skype then give everyone a fun list of items to find in their house and “show off” what they find when time is up!)
  • Host a photo/video scavenger hunt—give them a list of silly things to do and take a photo/video of themselves to share with the group (e.g., headstand, attempt to juggle, eat a hot pepper)
  • Play Pictionary via Zoom using the screen share feature
  • Practice your photography skills and share with friends
  • Make/share TikTok videos
  • Play “Car Pool Karaoke” via Zoom—take turns picking a song and challenge other(s) to sing along. Everyone starts muted, then selectively unmute friends to share their performance with the group.
  • Host an online journal club or book club
  • Watch a movie or show “together” via Zoom, FaceTime Group, Google Hangouts, Skype, Facebook Live or host a movie Tweet-along via Twitter (start your own #hashtag)
  • Do a craft “together” via Zoom, FaceTime Group, or Google Hangouts
  • Write a story together—one person in the group writes a couple sentences, then emails it to the next group member who adds another couple sentences and passes it along. Keep going as many rounds as it remains fun!
  • Play a social online game together (e.g., Words with Friends, Draw Something, Golf Clash)

Engaging in creative work has multiple benefits: it distracts the mind from anxiety or negative thoughts, it stimulates the areas of the brain that make us happy, and it gives us a healthy habit and purpose.

 

From an article by Alison Aubrey for NPR:

Looking for a place to connect with others who use art to express themselves? The UnLonely Project has created a community through its Stuck At Home Together initiative. You can watch a short film, then participate in an online conversation. You can view others' art or share your own. And for motivation to get started, the group has designed creative challenges, like crafting a self-portrait from objects around the house.

The group behind these initiatives includes physicians and researchers who document how the creative processes can help people maintain good health and fend off disease. "When you make art, you are in the moment — you are with [your] thoughts and feelings," says Jeremy Nobel, who founded the program and is also on the faculty at Harvard Medical School.

And by sharing what you create, it's as if you're sharing a "representation of your thoughts and feelings, whether it's a painting, a poem, a baked good, or a garden," Nobel says.

He says loneliness isn't just about lacking companionship. "Often loneliness starts with a sense of estrangement or disconnection from who you are. How do you fit into the world?" Nobel says.

Art can be very powerful for centering and positioning — a way to explore your own identity. "And I actually believe for many people, that's an essential first step to connecting with other people in an authentic way," Nobel says.

Here is a repository of creative arts resources from the University of Florida's Arts in Medicine.

A good introduction to the challenge and the basic idea of a solution is “Small Talk Should Be Banned” by Dan Ariely

“... research has confirmed what most people know but don't practice: surface level small talk does not build relationships and it is not great for our happiness levels.”

 

Small talk is easier: "The sad answer is that we actively seek the lowest common denominator. When left to our own devices, we have the freedom to discuss what we want, but we also feel the pressure to pick a topic that will be socially acceptable and easy for anyone to participate in - the uninteresting hallmarks of small talk" - Berman/Ariely

Here are some of my notes for planning this type of gathering. More to come soon.

 

Structured events with “rules” that enable space for meaningful disclosure and encourage meaningful interaction.

The intro piece by Ariely outlines the really basic guidelines for “no small talk” dinners. Here is a review from a woman who attended one of these dinners.

A related but slightly different solution is Jefferson Dinners. Some different rules here but the same goals.

Author Priya Parker calls these “transformative gatherings” in her TED talk. (Note the examples as well as the points she makes.)

Transformative gatherings need: 

  1. Embrace a specific disputable purpose.
  2. Cause good controversy.
  3. Create a temporary alternative world through the use of pop-up rules.

Key to remember is the most important part of the event is not the food or the setup or anything other than the communication.

Best possible structure for the dinner?

  1. Two structure rules from Ariely/Berman:
    1. Everyone arrives at the same time.
    2. Social risk of conversation.
      “Usually dinner parties involve two social co-ordination problems. The first is arrival times: if everyone arrives at different times, the party always seems to be in flux - "getting going" or "dying down". The second is one of conversation topics: no single person will take the social risk of talking about complex personal issues with mere acquaintances. The alternative is surface chat that makes no lasting impression on anyone.” - Berman / Ariely
    3. Solution to b: “To help coordinate the conversation, we provided big index cards with examples of meaningful conversation starters.” - Ariely/Berman
  2. Variations on “no small talk” structure
    1. No cell phones. Restrictions on technology.
    2. Singles only (no partners or no partners present.)

Initial structure

  1. Wednesday night
  2. No small talk rule
  3. Be ready to be vulnerable.

Other tips from Opatowski:

“If you are interested in hosting your own no small talk dinner, here are some tips to get started:

  1. List the three rules above and make sure everyone attending understands what they are getting themselves into. (The phone is a tough one and never has been 100% successful)
  2. For your first party, smaller groups seem to work better. It makes it more manageable and allows one to two people to ask questions to the whole table to make it less awkward.
  3. Print out questions on the table to facilitate conversation (here are a few sites from which you can print questions).
  4. As the host, make sure the no small talk rule starts the minute someone walks in your house—instead of asking “how are you doing” find a more creative ice breaker. My favorite is, “What was the best part of your week?”
  5. Don’t sweat it if there is some small talk and not all the rules are always followed. It is hard to get out of our usual routines and how we have been programmed.
  6. Make sure there are a few key people in attendance at different tables (if there is more than one table) who have questions prepped or use questions at the table to facilitate the discussion and bring everyone in.”

 

Obviously, spending time on a long video chat with friends where you catch up and talk about everything you're thinking is the best way to keep your social tank full. 

Featured services for social connection

There are many different apps and services to help you increase your sense of connection, and here are a few that I have found recently that were useful. (Note: I didn’t get any sponsorship or compensation for these recommendations. I just tried them and thought they were useful and/or fun.)

This search engine will help you find what’s available to help you connect to your area. (Look about halfway down the page where you see “What would you like help with today?”) Fill in your age, zip code, and couple of other basic questions, and the search engine will provide you with volunteer opportunities, meetup groups, learning opportunities, and more. The site was created by AARP but the form allows you to search by age so it will be helpful to all ages. Connect2Affect.org

“Described simply as a ‘Zoom for meeting new people,’ twine is a group video chat experience where people are encouraged to have meaningful discussions that spark new friendships.

In twine, users are matched with four other partners who they’ll then have 1-to-1 conversations with for eight minutes apiece. The full gathering lasts for a total of 40 minutes, including the virtual guide portion where the ground rules are set.

The overall experience is meant to help people find connections by skipping the small talk and going straight to what matters. But the focus is on friendships, not dating.” — read the review from TechCrunch that tells you more, and then check out the app.

We’re Not Really Strangers is a purpose-driven card game and movement all about empowering meaningful connections. Three carefully crafted levels of questions and wildcards that allow you to deepen your existing relationships and create new ones.”

This one’s more for strengthening the relationships you already have, but could be used as a game played with strangers. It’s similar to the “deep questions” card decks now available from other sources. I thought it was a lot of fun.

Share your story!

It’s May, 2020, as I write this. Now that we have all had a chance to adapt – and before we return to some of our “old ways” – I am collecting stories and ideas about the ways people are experiencing their time of social distance and the activities, actions, and thoughts that help them connect, find healthy solitude, and feel less lonely.

The experiences that people are having are important not just as history. Many of the solutions people are finding now can be useful later to help people who find themselves feeling lonely or to increase their social connections.

Here are a couple of question prompts to get you going.

  1. During this time of social distancing and isolation, have you been lonely? If you have, what situations or thoughts have made you lonely?
  2. Have you spent enjoyable time in solitude during this time? What kinds of activities bring enjoyable solitude for you? What separates these from loneliness?
  3. Are there solutions that always work for you to prevent loneliness or transform it once it starts? If so, what are your ‘go to’ antidotes?
  4. Have you discovered new ways to connect since the pandemic started? What has worked best?

Gather your thoughts in sentences, or a poem, or whatever works … and send them in an email to: hello [at] imitatethesun.org, or just contact me using the form below, and I will get back to you!

What works for you?

Contact us using the form and share your experience and/or something that has worked for you. Please add a few thoughts in the form! (Your message is confidential.)

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