This week, Cigna revealed the results of a study showing that loneliness, especially but not only among young people 18-22, was alarmingly high. In its coverage, USA Today focused on Cigna’s concern – the impact on health, although it also mentioned people using social media to compensate for loneliness. Washington Post didn’t blame smartphones, but chalked it up to people being too busy and working too much. I have another theory.
Lack of community, stemming from placing personal satisfaction above some kind of greater purpose, translates into solitary lives. Plugging into a community and actively cultivating friendships is a way to combat that.
In 2016, JAMA reported on a study of churchgoing women and found that higher attendance correlated with lower mortality rates. My takeaway from that wasn’t that religion and faith held the key necessarily, but community does. We need barnraisings. We need to feel part of something bigger. We need to foster the relationships that grow out of seeing and interacting with people week after week, and from working together towards a shared cause or concern or set of beleifs.
My personal experience is that friends I have made through different loci in my life – such as synagogue and Hadassah – form the basis of my social and caring network. Why? Because we are brought together and from there begin the personal social interactions that cement our “kindredness.” Volunteering and enjoying weekly kiddush lunch after services, spending time training and working together on programming – these are ways to start making friends. That is not to say that one’s network ought to be homogeneous, not at all.
Check out Meetup for a myriad of ways to meet new friends with common interests. I have. And I’ve made friends that way too.
Further, in one of my early blogs, Us vs them, I wrote about the importance of getting past labels and getting to know “others.” It takes more than just group meetings, but building up personal and social interactions. One of my closest friends is a neighbor, who moved in the summer I did 13 years ago and whose children are my kids’ ages and friends with them. Our community is the world of motherhood, even though our race and religion may differ. We are there for each other and each other’s kids. When I lived in Israel, some of my closest friends were mothers who, like me, took their children to the park outside my home after daycare or lived in my building. We bonded and were there for each other.
The community I’ve found in Facebook moms groups works both for and against. When one woman asks for help for someone she knows who is going through a rough time, the moms rally and contribute money, goods, services. While that is truly wonderful, I fear that giving from the perspective of looking safely down on another’s circumstance may actually create distance. When a mom complains about a person she knows or a business she frequents or a public figure who’s done something wrong, the group’s collective condemnation, to be honest, scares me too, in that its one-sided leap to judgement is based on an incomplete picture and a surface understanding. Beyond all this, I still find my connections on social media – both those I had from my past, like high school – and those women I’ve met through these groups, especially when we’ve met in person – to be helpful to me personally. When I need support, they are there. When I want to celebrate something good, they are there. Most importantly, it is a two-way street.
Taking a wholehearted interest in others and trying to find ways to be helpful strengthens bonds. And frankly, it feels good.
On the whole, I do believe Americans have lost that sense of being there for others. As I pointed out in another early blog, We’re all in this together, “When you have a sense of community, you look out for one another, you are concerned with each other’s well-being. And when you have that sense of belonging to something bigger than any single one of us,” you want to help the greater good – something that does not seem to resonate today.
Children raised to place their own happiness and satisfaction above others grow up into adults who aren’t concerned with others’. They don’t feel the obligation to be concerned, nor benefit from the sense of satisfaction that comes from helping. As I touched on regarding what I see in Facebook groups, giving charity or volunteering for a day still maintains that separateness. It’s easy to sit from above and look down on those less well-off and carry out an act of kindness and feel good about oneself. Because (from yet another early blog), There but for the grace of God, go I…
So how do we truly integrate others’ lives and concerns and wants and needs into our own? By doing it. It isn’t easy with our busy lives to always find the time, I know. I often substitute keeping up on my friends’ lives via Facebook to actually reaching out and am the first to admit – and sadly, please believe me – that I do not reach out enough via phone or text. I have no excuse, I know that I could schedule it in. But still and all, it doesn’t mean that I don’t care. Willingness to help others is part of who I am. And love of being social plays into hosting gatherings at my house, inviting friends to events, meeting up over meals. Increased time between interactions doesn’t have to mean that caring and concern are decreased.
Anyway, the best way to reverse the trend Cigna reported on, in my opinion, is two-pronged. Join a community. And develop friendships.
Communities can come from anywhere – look at the people you are already acquainted with – from work, school, neighborhood, the gym, your house of worship, or even from localized Facebook or Nextdoor or Meetup groups – and invite them to go do something together. Break bread…and talk together. Listen. Brainstorm how to do something together that will benefit you all or benefit another. Feel part of something bigger.
Friendships can come from inside and outside of communities. Hold individual conversations with others. Share recommendations and then share hopes, dreams, frustrations. Follow up, reach out, do unto others as you would have them do unto you. We have to build relationships, they don’t just happen. And when we have them, we need to take care of them or they will wither. Search for ways to make your friends’ lives easier, better, more fulfilling. Surprise them once in a while and you will be surprised by how un-lonely you will be.