At any given time, we can connect to our friends, family and countless other people through social media and all of our devices. But with all this capacity for connection, why is loneliness the #1 reason people seek therapy today? (1)
“Loneliness” is the space between the relationships you want vs. the ones you actually have, which causes emotional pain. (2) And it’s on the rise. In fact, 1 in 4 Americans don’t feel they can find companionship when they want it. (3)
When I feel lonely, I am usually thinking something along these lines: I feel left out; people are around me but not with me, and no one really knows me well. There is no one I can turn to. I can feel withdrawn and pretty unhappy about being so removed.
On the other hand, when I feel connected, I feel warmth and acceptance. I am present and less closed off or in my head. “Connection” can be created through the range of emotions that support harmonious relationships, like gratitude, kindness and compassion. Research has shown that when you feel genuinely connected, you experience greater emotional well-being, better physical health, stronger immunity and faster recovery from disease. (1)
Fortunately, there are simple and accessible exercises that will help to cultivate these qualities and strengthen your feeling of positive social connection. Here are our top three:
ONE. Become a great listener.
When I became interested in buddhist philosophy, my dad would love to tease me (pretty much every single time he saw me) by saying, “Remember, when you are doing the dishes, do the dishes!” He thought that simple instruction was ridiculous. The truth is, it’s really deep and effective! Research shows that 50% of the time our thoughts aren’t related to what we’re doing. This kind of mind wandering has been proven to contribute to our unhappiness.(4) In other words, paying full attention to what you are doing can change your life, and it can do the same for your relationships.
Step 1: Like my Dad would say, “Remember, when you listen, really listen.” It’s harder than it sounds. How often are you checking your phone while you are with someone who is trying to talk to you? Next time you are interacting with someone, turn off the phone, close your laptop and pay full attention to the person you are with. Giving the gift of your attention is a simple act of kindness that costs nothing and will make the other person feel great.
Step 2: Practice Mindful Listening
This takes more time and planning than step 1, but it’s a great practice to do with a partner.
- Person A: Speaks for 5 minutes.
- Person B: Listens without interrupting.
- Person B: Says “This is what I heard you say” and restates what Person A said. Not commenting, just repeating what they heard.
- Person A gets to clarify, add or elaborate on whether B was accurate.
- Then switch.
TWO. Be grateful and kind.
Kindness and appreciation are not personality traits that you either have or you don’t. There are research-backed exercises that will help your grateful, kind light shine. Here are two of my favorites:
Make a gratitude list.
In the evening, before you go to sleep, take 10 minutes to write down five things that you appreciated about the day and why. If one of those things involved another person, tell them if you can!
Kindness with every step.
This Stop, Breathe & Think Kids activity is a wonderful thing to do no matter your age. When you are walking to or from somewhere, every time you take a step silently say a friendly wish, starting with yourself. You can say something like “I want to be happy and strong, I hope I feel peaceful and content.” Then make friendly wishes for people you know and even people you don’t know: “I hope you are happy.” “I want you to be safe, strong and healthy.” “I hope that you have what you need.”
THREE. Be the change you want to see.
Normally, when we wake up in the morning, we jump right onto our devices, checking emails and social media and running through to-do lists. Instead, try the “Welcoming the Day” meditation in the Stop, Breathe & Think app before getting out of bed. Pause for a few moments to notice and feel a sense of warmth and peace in your body. Then, set a “social-connection” intention to carry with you throughout the day. One of the most effective ways to feel that people are there for you is to actually be there for them. Here are some sample intentions:
“I will notice if someone is having a hard time today and will do something kind for them—even if it’s just a smile.”
“I will make a point of learning from someone today and expressing my appreciation.”
“I will acknowledge the effort of someone today with appreciation.”