One of the secrets of retirement happiness is to keep loneliness at bay. Unmet social needs often lead to emotional distress and/or physical health problems.
You might wonder why I think about loneliness when I am fortunate to live happily with my husband. I am also blessed with close relationships with my son, daughter-in-law, and grand-daughter.
I socialize with a network of friends and acquaintances. We spend many hours together sharing the deepest secrets of our lives, eating great meals, and attending various activities.
These relationships are satisfying and fulfilling. However, there are times when I feel lonely. Experiencing loneliness is normal; everyone experiences loneliness from time to time.
What is loneliness?
Wikipedia defines loneliness as a complex and usually unpleasant emotional response to isolation or lack of companionship that is often associated with anxious feelings. The definition notes that loneliness is sometimes described as social pain that can alert one to seek companionship and social connections.
Loneliness is not depression. It may create feelings of sadness but it is not emotionally crippling unless it persists for long periods of time.
Relationships are necessary for happiness. Social connections are essential. We can’t live fully when cut off from other people.
Prevalence of Loneliness
Many retired people are lonely. They live alone and are isolated in their homes. The AARP website tells of a dramatic increase in the number of people living alone — up to 20 % of the population in the United States. I would venture that the numbers are similar in Canada.
Life in the 21st century means that social networks are not as rich as those enjoyed in previous generations. There is more isolation which can precipitate health problems; loneliness is deemed to have negative health effects similar to obesity or to smoking.
Those who are still in the workplace often find themselves feeling lonely especially if they work in de-humanized organizational regimes where profit, production, accountability, and goal achievement rule. Relationships with colleagues become secondary when screens dominate the work environment. Many people work from home, a situation that gives fewer contacts with others.
In our society we tend to live in big houses that give more space for isolation and loneliness. Family members don’t need to be together to watch television as most homes have multiple sets. The screens on smart phones, tablets and portable computers are designed for individual use. Varied schedules mean that meals are infrequently eaten together. Family communication often involves texting one another.
Social media provides an outlet to escape feelings of loneliness through correspondence with online friends. However, social media often exploits envy as others seem to be living lives that are more pleasurable. People live in their own worlds of Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.
You don’t have to ‘be’ isolated or lonely to ‘feel’ isolated or lonely. It’s true that you can be lonely in a crowd. Social relationships need to be meaningful to combat feelings of isolation.
Isolation may also be an indicator of depression, anxiety and stress. Over-thinking and negative thinking often occur when alone which exacerbates these conditions. Socialization distracts and helps to combat these feelings.
Too many responsibilities and commitments may also cause isolation. This often happens to people who are caring for sick or disabled family members. Care-giving responsibilities are all-encompassing; exhaustion leaves no time for socialization.
Social connections and friendships become more precious as we grow older. Life changes. We often lose friends — through death, illness, or long distance moves.
How to keep loneliness at bay
It’s important to recognize the feelings of loneliness and isolation including anxiety and crankiness. These feelings signal a need for companionship and social connection.
To keep loneliness at bay don’t limit yourself in terms of friendships — and don’t expect that everyone you meet will become a close friend. Friends are special but having a diverse group of acquaintances makes life interesting. Social connections aren’t always about the intimacy and strong relationships of close friends.
Tactics to combat loneliness include initiating conversations, joining meet-up groups, volunteering, and enrolling in continuing education classes. You can invite people to participate in various activities with you.
When you meet someone, try to make time for conversation. Be genuine with people when interacting with them. Give them your full attention.
By staying open to new ideas and new experiences you increase the possibilities of connecting with others. By creating opportunities to meet people, you inoculate yourself — and keep loneliness at bay.