By Yui Tashima
Whether it’s back to school week or the first day of work, don’t we all get a bit nervous, anxious, or even stressed, despite wanting to feel excited and optimistic? When we are in these types of situations, where we are surrounded by mostly strangers, we often feel the ‘need to belong’, and for many this can easily trigger anxiety.
Being called a “need” it may sound a little desperate, but it’s completely natural to feel this. Many studies have shown that this ‘need to belong’ is instinctual and at the very nature of humans as social beings. And when this instinctual desire to connect with others is not met, we tend to experience psychological discomfort or even emotional pain. Making it worse though is that our societies today are so full of anxiety-triggering situations where we often, if not constantly, feel isolated from others. Many of us live far from old friends and family; we change jobs at unprecedented rates; and we spend so much of our time either working or using tech. Whether we want to admit to ourselves or not, loneliness has become a serious public health problem.
The recent appointment of a minister of loneliness in the U.K. has received a range of different reactions from the public, but it has at least encouraged more public conversations about social isolation. Unawareness of loneliness only makes the problem worse. The scary nature of loneliness is its invisibility, deniability, and distractibility. But, the next step after awareness is to reflect on some of the reasons it’s so prevalent.
Modern technology has brought so much ease and convenience to our lives, and our lives are now filled with unending information and entertainment to make us more distracted than ever. But has the ability to connect globally made us feel more connected to others? Haven’t we somehow become more cynical about humanity and disconnected from offline reality? I think technology itself doesn’t make humans lonely. Loneliness has started to rise because it’s become way too easy for people to distract themselves when they feel lonely or isolated— the delusion of global networking has essentially numbed our senses to the loneliness.
It’s time for us to step back from distractions and cultivate ourselves by being more engaging in everyday lives. Personally, I know I could start paying more attention to what’s going on in my local community and to what people are doing to bring goodness to others and to the planet. It sounds like a total cliché, but I need to keep reminding myself the importance of humility and integrity more often so I don’t get lost in the noise and distractions around me. It’s easier said than done, but by noticing the new form of loneliness in modern society and adopting certain attitudes and courses of action, we can change the way we socialize for the better.
The Power of Acknowledgement
Imagine you are walking down the street and someone says hi to you as they pass by. I always think to myself that this is a really nice gesture. But sadly with the rapid growth of online dating sites and mobile networking apps, more and more people are finding it easier to say hi to someone behind the screen of their computer or smartphone than to say hi to a person they see on the street, in coffee shops, or at bars.
The importance of in-person greetings is more than just to maintain social etiquettes though. They help signify recognition and acknowledgement of one another through which we can generate healthy senses of self and ultimately feel comfortable in our own skin. Sadly, digital distraction has been limiting the ability for our eyes to make contact, and in turn making it more difficult to make this initial engagement.
In an article called “To Be Looked at as Though Air: Civil Attention Matters” published in Psychological Science, it’s discussed that humans are able to detect social cues of inclusion and exclusion because social connections are so crucial for human survival. It talks about how making eye contact with one another can suggest inclusion whereas avoiding eye contact can make one not only feel rejected but also feel invisible.
To make things worse, smartphone owners in U.S. check their phone 47 times a day and 85% of them would use their phone while they are talking to their friends and family (survey conducted by Deloitte in 2017). Needless to say, the more distracted we are by our phone, the less our eyes meet to acknowledge someone, which means more and more people feel ignored, invisible, and lonely.
Without a doubt, making eye contact with people is a critical step toward improving our social well-being and getting to know others. Just as the saying, “The eyes are the windows to the soul,” – eyes can be a very powerful communication tool. Of course we still need to be conscious to use appropriate eye contact depending on the situation (i.e., professional, intimate, or friendly etc.) but it doesn’t hurt to keep in mind that your acknowledgement through eye contact has the power to make someone’s day.
I also should add that I understand that making eye contact with people, and particularly with a kind and pleasant expression, is a skill that doesn’t always come naturally to some people. I know so because I myself feel like it’s impossible to make eye contact with people when I’m blushing from nervousness and trembling from anxiety in certain social settings.
But I want to get better at this and I can only accomplish this by continuously trying.
Adventurous and Unassuming Attitudes
Opposites attract or birds of a feather flock together? In most cases, both of these statements could be true. (I enjoy the moments when I just click with someone and instantly start appreciating each other’s company, but I also love that moment when you discover amazing qualities of someone you didn’t at first think you’d get along with!)
When we feel the need to belong, our first inclination may be to find someone who’s like ourselves —whether that means finding someone who’s working in the same industry, who’s dressed in a similar style, or has the same taste in music. We all know that likeness gives us a certain sense of connectedness. It feels comfortable and makes for quick conversation. However, humans are more complicated than that, (which I personally think is the beauty of humanity, as troublesome as it could be a lot of times). Sometimes when we look deeper in those that we initially see as different we can surprise ourselves.
A good friend of mine who was using a networking app told me that when she saw a woman who introduced herself as “someone who is health conscious and enjoys yoga,” she swiped left to dismiss them. Not being able to relate to the other’s lifestyle, she assumed that this person wouldn’t get along with her. The funny thing is that I would DEFINITELY be that woman who had been dismissed by her if my bio was presented to her!!
Yet, there we were, sipping wine and having a great time together. We may not like the same band; we may not enjoy the same leisure activities; we may not have similar taste in food and drinks; but still I absolutely adore and admire her as a person, especially those qualities make her different from me— her strengths, insightfulness, optimism, and ‘non-blaming’ nature which she’s gained through her own unique life experience.
I guess what I’m trying to say here is that sometimes it’s fun to follow our intuition instead of assumptions and calculations based on common sense and past experiences. We can try being more adventurous in our lifelong journey of meeting people. We can take risks that may bring us wonderful surprises and opportunities that can lead us to more meaningful relationships and personal growth.
Getting Through This Together
When we have this urge to connect with people, we often become self-conscious and feel like we are the only one feeling that way. And everyone else around us seems to be having a perfectly good time with other people.
This pattern of thought can extend to one’s social media platforms as well. When we see other people’s images on social media showcasing their “fulfilling” lives— never-ending parties with interesting people, impressive accomplishments, and luxurious travel experiences—it’s easy to feel like our own life is extremely boring compared to those of others’.
Whether those images are real or exaggerated is not so important to discuss here, but rather the recognition that even people who seem to be socially connected can feel isolated and lonely nowadays.
An article on CNN reported that, according to the research published in the journal International Psychogeriatrics, “A full three-quarters of all study participants reported moderate to high levels of loneliness,”, far exceeding the researchers’ anticipation.
Dr. Dilip Jeste, a senior researcher of the study defined loneliness as “the discrepancy between the social relationships you want and the social relationships you have” and explained that having lots of friends doesn’t necessarily demonstrate one’s levels of loneliness accurately.
Interestingly enough though loneliness doesn’t have to make us alone, but instead can be the bridge between one another. This doesn’t mean that we have to share our loneliness with others, and certainly doesn’t mean we have to connect with someone based on our loneliness, but hopefully knowing how common loneliness is among human race can remind us that there are people out there looking for more meaningful relationships that can contribute to their true sense of happiness and fulfillment.
Loneliness was once more of a personal matter left to the individual to deal with, but now we live in this fascinating time that loneliness is seen as a public issue.
Yes. It’s sad that it exists in the first place and got to this point, but in realizing this epidemic of loneliness, we can start appreciating others more, cherishing the existing connections, and opening our heart to new relationships. If we can try going through this dark tunnel together, at the end of this tunnel, there will be a place where we can feel more connected, more trusting and trusted, and more hopeful about the future of humanity.
Jelato is about improving our social environments and making it easier to connect with those around you. Learn more about the App here!
Writer: Yui Tashima is the cofounder of Jelato and is a coffee fanatic and world traveler.
Header Photo: McKinsey