“One of the most beautiful qualities of a good friendship is to understand and to be understood.” –Seneca
One of the most severe forms of punishment in Roman times was exile, isolating one from friends and family. A recent meta-study on loneliness (a study which looked at several hundred individual studies) found that being feeling isolated and lonely puts you at significantly greater health risk than the general population. The study authors contend that the risks of loneliness are greater than the risks of smoking a pack of cigarettes a day or of being greatly overweight. Connection to others is as essential for our wellbeing as good food, sleep, and a healthy environment.
Loneliness can cause or exacerbate many mental health issues. People experiencing anxiety, depression, and other psychological issues may isolate themselves and is so doing make these conditions worse—a negative feedback loop. An essential component of treatment for mental health and health issues is good connection. There are many forms of connection which are good for us, but the research is clear that person to person connection is especially valuable. Connection works when a friend listens with empathy; that is, without trying to fix your issue, offer solutions, dismiss your concerns, or ignoring you.
Most people know that unhealthy connection is not good for them, and seeking to get your connective needs met from someone who has been abusive, dismissive, or condescending can make you feel worse. You do need to be careful, however, that you are not assuming rejection. The following tips can help you meet the essential need for healthy connection.
Six Ways to Increase Your Connection:
- Start Small & Reciprocate: Make small changes to begin with. Try connecting more to your partner, an old friend, a family member, adding in a little of your emotional reality at a time. Also, make sure your connection is reciprocal; just connecting with someone as a listener does not give you the benefit of being on the receiving end of empathy. An easy way to do this is asking about someone else, tracking that conversation for a few minutes, and then, if not asked, adding in your emotional reality: “How are things going for you lately, how are you feeling?” And then adding later, “For me, I am having difficulty with…” A cup of coffee, a walk, an errand are great ways to start.
- Connect Emotionally: When meeting with friends or family make sure you talk about your inner realities, not just the facts of your job or what people in your family are doing. A good relationship is a mutual exchange of personal information, including feelings. The highest form of empathy is to hear and be heard without judging, dismissing, or trying to fix another’s feelings.
- Actively Plan to Connect: If you feel isolated, make plans for birthdays and holidays so that you are connected when you really need to be. Christmas, New Years, birthdays can be difficult times if you are lonely; try to plan in advance.
- Create Healthy Habits: Create healthy habits of self-care and connection to fill in the blanks in your day—a walk after work, some gardening, checking in on an elderly neighbour, learning a sport or skill you have an interest in. Even electronic communication can be helpful—sending a kind text or email to an old acquaintance, family member, or neighbor. Mornings and evenings can be lonely times. Create some routines here: A set of stretches, a hot bath at night while listening to music, breakfast at a local coffee shop on weekends. See if there are ways to invite others into these routines. Our brains run on habits and if you can create a Saturday a morning walk-buddy habit, the patterning will help you to keep that appointment.
- Notice your motivation when you receive an invitation to connect or have an opportunity to do so (such as having a thought to call an old friend), and are tempted to decline. Ask yourself, “Am I choosing to be alone because I need some solitude am I lonely and actually need to connect?”
- Avoid Assumptions about Rejection: Reaching out to a new co-worker or neighbor is a great way to initiate connection. Avoid assuming rejection if someone cancels or change their plans. Plan to rebook, reconnect, or try another coworker or neighbor.
Connection is the opposite of exile. At heart, connection is about giving and receiving empathy, which is nonjudgmental listening, acceptance, and acknowledgment. Connecting with a trusted friend, spouse, or family member for 20 minutes a day may do more for your health than an hour at the gym.
A useful question to ask yourself throughout your day is, “How can I connect today?” It may just be the heathiest thing you do.