You can feel pangs of loneliness even when you have strong relationships in your life. Here’s what to do when you feel one coming on.
At our neighbor’s annual Christmas party last month, I stood laughing with a neighbor. But amid the food and drinks, the good friends and merry neighbors, a sense of impending gloom stuck me. A gloom I recognized immediately, because it happens every year. Always at this party. It wasn’t the Christmas blues, or even fatigue from all the holiday prep. It was the realization that this party is the one last chance I will have to chat with my neighbors before we hunker down in warm houses for the colder months. No longer will we stop and chat as we walk our dogs in fall sunshine, or wave hello as I sit on the front porch with a glass of wine and a book in warmer afternoons.
It’s the sense of forthcoming loneliness—that’s the gloom I feel. It hits anew every winter. Though I continue to see family and friends and colleagues, and though I still live with four people, one dog and a fair collection of small animals … the truth is that I get lonely. But how can I be lonely even when I’m surrounded by family members and furry bodies? It’s a feeling that has never made much sense.
|loneliness is akin to hunger: we feel lonely because we need people, just like we feel hungry when we need food.”|
And maybe it never will. But when I read the news about a study that there may be a genetic component to our feelings of loneliness (that is, we may feel lonely—even when we’re not alone—simply because our ancestors did), something the researchers said about loneliness really clicked for me. The authors of the study maintain that loneliness is a feeling akin to hunger: we feel lonely because we need people, just like we feel hungry when we need food. A small signal from our body saying, hey, buddy, your friendship tank is looking a little low. It’s time to go refill.
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So while I may be surrounded by people (sometimes actually feeling cabin feverish while surrounded by people!), when loneliness strikes, my heart, mind, and soul may be trying to tell me something. The more I think about it, the more I find this to be true. When I feel lonely, I should take that as a cue that I’m missing something—or someone—and reach out. If I’m missing the random, casual conversations that ultimately deepen relationships with neighbors, maybe I should go knock on the door next door with a mug of cocoa. If I’m missing fun and adventure of doing activities with people I love, maybe I should call them up and invite them to a movie or a cozy wine and chat date in my living room.
But—and here’s the really great realization—it doesn’t need to be friends I already have. Maybe my loneliness pang can be answered by other people around me who are also lonely—truly alone—whom I could reach out to. So this winter, I’m going to try to listen to my loneliness and respond, trusting that the feeling of loneliness is a real indicator: my body and soul are alerting me to a need. And if I can help ease that loneliness in another person while easing my own? Well, all the better. (Two birds and all that.) And if you’re feeling that little jab of loneliness, I hope you do too.
To get us both going, I researched a few ideas to feed a lonely soul:
I’ve often read the best cure for any kind of Cabin Fever or Winter Blues is to get out in the elements. And though it’s not always fun bundling up to brave those elements, I long winter’s walk can be the perfect response to loneliness. Walk to your local coffee shop. Strike up conversations. Stop to talk with people you see outside. Or, even if you don’t see anyone–if you choose a walk in the woods or if everyone else stays inside—say a quick prayer for the people whose homes you pass. Remember that everyone’s got stuff going on behind those doors. And everyone could use some warm thoughts headed their way.
Seek deep conversations
When we feel lonely even while surrounded by people, a lack of true connection is often the culprit. So, when loneliness strikes, it’s probably time to fight back with conversation. Good conversation. And there’s no better way to do this than start right at your dinner table. Although kids can be hard to talk to at different stages (I’m thinking toddlerhood and teenage-hood), you can use the dinner table as a time to share something you’ve been wondering about—regarding faith or politics or something you read—or to share something that either surprised or delighted you.
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And if your dinner table is sparse, make a point of regularly inviting your friends over for a night of food and conversations. You may not feel like heading out as much during the winter, but having people in, makes hunkering down lots more fun.
A willingness to share something on your heart or mind–and then ask for others to comment–is a great way to fight loneliness, as it affords an opportunity for others to get to know you and you to get to know them.
Reach out to the lonely
Perhaps the best thing our feelings of loneliness can do for us is remind us that there are lonely people all around us. Even ones we’d never guess. So, let your own loneliness lead you to others—people who could really use a friend in the long stretch of winter. Pay attention (without being creepy!) to those in your neighborhood who might not get much company. Notice who shows up to church alone. Don’t ignore the colleague who never has weekend plans. And open your heart to them.
Surprise your lonely neighbor with freshly bake treats (it doesn’t matter who bakes them or what store they are from).
Offer to take a lonely church-goer to brunch.
Ask that colleague to join you and your friends at the movies.
All of these may require you to step out of your comfort zone. But so does any cure to loneliness. Simply start small, think local, and let that little lonely pang guide you to even more friendships.
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