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Going Beyond Cheering Up the Lonely

July 11th is National Cheer Up The Lonely Day, which encourages us to bring joy and cheer into the lives of those who are struggling with loneliness. According to several articles on the subject, the day was founded by Francis Pesek of Detroit, Michigan as a way to show kindness toward those who were lonely, especially folks who are physically isolated in their homes or in nursing homes. I believe Francis’s intent was kind and compassionate but missed the complexity of causes of loneliness and isolation and who can be lonely - everyone. In addition, I am a bit concerned about a number of articles about this national day that severely oversimplify these complex issues, presenting them through a cheerful pop culture lens that is akin to telling someone with depression to just be happy. As a person who has experienced years of feeling lonely and isolated myself, I can firmly say that people who are chronically lonely don’t need to simply be cheered up. This kind of pop culture response to the epidemic of loneliness around the world only increases social isolation and loneliness as it dismisses the depth and complexity of the experience and has the potential to make people feel less understood and condescended to. Loneliness and isolation are most commonly the result of the much deeper and more complex issue that underlies it all, a persistent lack of connection and sense of belonging. In order to truly reduce and heal social isolation and loneliness, we must learn to meaningfully connect with ourselves internally, as well as with others and our communities. We must work to weave meaningful connections into the fabric of our cultures to help people feel seen, valued, and cared for.

Talking about loneliness and isolation can make us really uncomfortable because they are universally common and intensely painful human conditions that every one of us has experienced to some degree at some point in our lives. (Remember that extreme universal feeling of isolation we all felt in 2020-2021?) Those of us who do not want to experience those uncomfortable and painful feelings tend to cope by ignoring or applying distracting activities that feel good immediately but don’t get at the source. Exercise more, go shopping, drink alcohol, take some drugs, work harder and longer hours so we don’t think about it all, generally covering it up with distractions and addictions, self-isolating, or acting like everything’s okay so we don’t have to think about it. Everything’s fine! Solutions we’re hearing from experts include getting out to volunteer, and finding flow through a passion, taking time in nature, and regular exercise. (Oddly enough, I rarely see therapy on that list unless they’re speaking of dire situations - but why are we waiting until it's all dire folks? Dang fear and shame.) While these expert’s recommendations are most definitely helpful to the healing process and we also recommend them, they don’t ultimately solve the underlying causes of loneliness and so the problem will continue to rear its ugly head. At Social Tinkering we believe this problem requires even more complex work to intentionally grow meaningful human connection on multiple levels.

Social Connection comes highly recommended by experts, but a lot of the time, the way it is framed and explained lacks acknowledgement of the many barriers to getting there. Inequity is a huge barrier to social connection and a huge challenge to tackle in and of itself. Another one of the bigger barriers is that we all have pretty severe social anxiety these days and are terrified of socializing, or just plain hate it. Here at Social Tinkering we believe we must build awareness and collaboratively work to acknowledge and remove the barriers that prevent us from truly connecting with each other. Digging deeper into the complexity of social connection, our team defines 3 different types of connection. If you have attended our events or read other posts, you have probably heard us refer to inner connection, connection with others, and community connection. 

For the individual person, we have found that working on Inner Connection is central to healing and reducing chronic feelings of loneliness and isolation. One major underlying cause of a lack of Inner Connection is relational trauma. “Relational trauma is a term used to describe the aftermath of abuse, neglect, serious maltreatment, or abandonment within a relationship.” (The Common Effects of Complex Relational Trauma, from Psychology Today) In addition, relational trauma can often make us feel helpless and invisible, or disconnected, so it makes sense that it leads to loneliness and isolation. Through our work at Social Tinkering, we work to openly acknowledge and raise awareness of Inner Connection and we are creating opportunities to simply talk about it a little bit and learn more together. We highly recommend that people who are exploring this inner connection work at a deeper level seek out a mental health care professional as we are not clinical mental healthcare providers.

The majority of our work revolves around Interpersonal Connection and Community Connection. Humans ALL crave belonging. It is as deep a basic need as food, water, and shelter, it just usually doesn’t have immediate life threatening effects if we don’t have it. We often don’t have a clear understanding of it and how it impacts us, but it is one of our primary human behavior drivers in all we do. We definitely don’t sit around and ponder things like - I feel like I really belong here and that makes me happy and feel like I’m safe. I’d like to explore why that is. No, we simply know - I feel like I belong here, or I feel safe here, or I feel like I get along with these people and they value me, or the opposite of those statements. At Social Tinkering we try to raise awareness of the “why” and “what” of belonging and create opportunities for meaningful connections with other people. We add the word “compassionate” to belonging because simply feeling belonging can be used negatively too (see terrorist groups and cults), and it can be used to isolate people we aren’t happy with, increasing social isolation. It’s all tied together. When we better understand the power of meaningful connection and belonging and we practice and get good at it with others, then we can intentionally grow it in our own lives. The cool thing is, we tend to foster this with others as well. For over two years we have been hosting a monthly social meetup in Rutland called Gather Together to do just this. July 24th is our next event and you should come hang out with us! (Gather Together)

Community Connection comes into play when we do things as a community - micro or whole city/world - that treat people as human beings, that are inclusive, welcoming, and show people they are genuinely valued and cared for. We see this in human-centered economics where the people are prioritized first and foremost. Check out Kate Raworth’s work on Doughnut Economics. An example of micro community connection is when a company intentionally manages its workplace culture to center the wellbeing of its employees, ultimately helping their employees and the company to sustain and thrive. Community Connection can also be things like working to improve equity in healthcare systems or public transportation systems, and neighborhoods designed for people to be able to meaningfully and safely connect with each other. Community Connection includes having inclusive and welcoming places to gather where folks can connect with others and feel a sense of belonging. 

On July 11th, definitely get out and cheer up the lonely. But do this everyday, for yourself and others. Make eye contact with the grocery checker and say hello! Walk around downtown and say hello to people you pass. Visit some shops and chat with the shopkeeper and other shoppers. Go smell the candles in your local home goods store and encourage the shopper next to you to try it too - get some good laughs in together at the awful smelling ones and their over-dramatic names. I encourage you to mindfully create space in your life every day to cheer up the lonely because we all feel lonely. We’re all in this very human experience together folks, no one is exempt. So let’s get to work practicing meaningfully connecting so we can all begin to heal together too.

“The source of most troubling emotions–as well as most unhealthy behaviors–is not people or circumstances, but a usually unconscious feeling of disconnection.”

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