15 Beautiful Ways Real People Make Sure They Never Feel Lonely
Mother Teresa called loneliness "the most terrible poverty," and yet it's increasingly the scourge of our otherwise wealthy nation. The more we plug in, the more we tune out the world around us. And loneliness doesn't just make us sad. A growing body of research suggests that loneliness, like chronic stress, causes inflammation and taxes the immune system, leading to high blood pressure and even earlier death. Here's how people are changing their lives to make sure they're never lonely.
The Babayagas’ House
Living with roommates is required for college co-eds, yet as we get older living alone is seen as a sign of success and independence. But is it, really? One of the biggest risks to health as people age is loneliness, as it increases the risk of many health issues including mental illness, dementia, injury, and heart disease among others. So instead of encouraging older adults to live alone, an innovative group of French women decided to encourage independence and community by building their own type of “dorms” called the Babayagas’ House. “To live long is a good thing but to age well is better,” says 85-year-old Thérèse Clerc of her brainchild. “Growing old is not an illness. We want to change the way people see old age and that means learning to live differently.” These other science backed tips will also help you from feeling lonely.
The Buddy Bench
It’s not just elders that find themselves feeling lonely; young children often find themselves feeling like they’re on the outside looking in. But one lowly piece of furniture is providing elementary schools with a simple and creative approach to solving this age-old problem. The “buddy bench” was designed by a creative first grader who was worried about making friends after a big move. “Any student who is feeling lonely can go sit on the bench as a signal that they’d like a friend to play with,” explains Charlae Callejas, LCSW, a social worker at Meiklejohn Elementary. She says the Colorado school that has seen great results from the bench. “All the kids have been told that if they see someone on the buddy bench to go over and invite them to play—and they really do!” she adds. “There is a boy in my class who has autism and sometimes has a hard time making friends,” says Lorraine, a first grader at Meiklejohn. “So when I saw him sit on the buddy bench I sat next to him and asked if he wanted to play. Now he is our friend and plays house with us every day.” Sometimes the simplest solutions are the best—now if only there were buddy benches for adults! Feeling lonely yourself? Here are 17 little ways to connect with others.
The risk of depression increases as people get older but fortunately there’s a program that provides seniors with two of the most potent antidepressants we have: friendship and exercise. SilverSneakers is a nationwide program found in gyms and community centers that provides fitness classes and group activities geared towards people in their golden years. The program is low-cost or even free for many elders (check here to see if you qualify). According to the company’s mission statement, “Members of the SilverSneakers community celebrate, support, and motivate each other. The community includes retired plumbers, school teachers, mechanics, stock brokers, and, well, you name it. Everyone is welcome.” And it’s working. The group reports that 74 percent of their millions of active members say they have friends in the program or have made new friends as result of their participation. Getting old doesn’t mean you’re doomed to loneliness. Check out these other debunked myths about aging.
Bring Back the Coffee Klatch
After losing both his partner and sister, 90-year-old Derek Taylor found himself feeling incredibly alone. But instead of wallowing in his misery, the senior citizen decided to make an anti-loneliness plan to help him get back out and into society. “The older you get, the less people seem to contact you…and I thought what can I do to stop being lonely?” he told the BBC. His first idea? Start up a local coffee club. Members show up at a designated place and time, bring their favorite beverage, and get to know other members of their neighborhood. It was a simple idea to fill a need in his community and the idea has taken off. The best part is that it can be done anytime, anywhere, and requires no special skills or equipment (except perhaps a coffee pot). Want more ideas? Try one of these 10 random acts of kindness today.
Get a canine companion
More and more people are choosing to live alone these days with nearly one-third of U.S. households consisting of just one person. If you’re lonely living by yourself and not up to having a human roommate, a canine one might be the perfect solution. Not only do pets provide unconditional love and companionship, but there are many great health benefits of pet ownership including less depression and better heart health. Timothy A Pychyl, a psychologist and professor at Carleton University in Canada, has made this his life’s passion. At work, he supervises research into how dogs can benefit humans. And he loves dogs so much that at home he lives with 11 huskies as part of his “other life” as a dog musher. Based on both his professional and personal experience he says, “It may be that, for individuals living alone, the companionship provided by their pet is advantageous for their psychological health by, for example, reducing their loneliness levels.”
Take yourself out
There’s a big difference between being alone and being lonely, according to writer Val Monroe. You can be in the midst of a large crowd and still feel lonely or you can be totally alone yet feel satisfied with just your own company. So one evening when she was feeling lonely she decided to resist diving into social media or calling a friend and instead took herself out for a treat. She went to a favorite restaurant, sat at the bar, and ordered two plates of delicious oysters—which she enjoyed all by herself. At first it was awkward being the only singleton in a crowd of couples and groups but soon she says she realized what a gift it was to be able to just be with herself for a moment. “I was completely happy,” she told Oprah. “Why had I felt a need to judge or label myself? (Middle-aged woman eating and drinking alone, no friends, crazy lady.) I’ve been running away from being alone all my life, even though I often enjoy it.” Her advice? Instead of worrying about how to never, ever feel lonely, learn how to be comfortable being alone. And also: Try the oysters!
Treasure House, an ingenious program in Ireland, aims to fight loneliness and connect people with their cultural heritage. Acting as a gathering place for the thousands of elderly who live alone, they provide workshops once a month that showcase traditional music, teach handicrafts, sample local cuisine, and other fun activities. “I haven’t been lonely since I moved here. I’m very happy here. I don’t have that feeling of loneliness anymore,” Joyce McMullen, an 87-year-old who recently lost her son and husband, told the Belfast Telegraph. “Treasure House has been fantastic. I used to draw when I was younger and haven’t done it for years. I’ve started drawing again, mostly animals and swans and I really love it. I’m not as good at it as I used to be, but the girls tell me I am. It is nice to find pleasure in it again.” Here’s what coloring in an adult coloring book can do for your psyche.
An attitude adjustment
Guy Winch is a licensed psychologist who’s made dealing with uncomfortable emotions, including loneliness, his life’s work. Most of us try to avoid feeling angry, sad, lonely, or scared because they are so uncomfortable but avoiding those feelings doesn’t make them go away—it makes them fester. So instead of hiding from discomfort, it’s time to reframe it as a positive thing in our lives, he explained in a recent TED Talk. How can something that feels as awful as loneliness possibly lead to good things? He shared how one tiny attitude adjustment can make a big difference. “When contacting the people, try to put yourself into a positive mindset,” he says. “Avoid accusations (“You haven’t called me in months!”) or statements of disconnect (“I know it must be weird to hear from me…”). Instead, express positive sentiment (“Was thinking about you!” or “Miss you!”), an invitation (“Let’s grab coffee,” or “I’d love to get dinner and a catch-up,”) and be specific in terms of time frame (“How’s next week looking?” or What’s a good day this month?”).” Changing your tone of communications from negative to positive will help you feel happier and more confident about reaching out and will make others excited to hear from you. Not a natural optimist? Don’t despair! Try these simple steps to becoming a positive thinker.
Snap a selfie with a stranger
Gemma Donhou was on her way home from work one day when she noticed an elderly woman at her bus stop. The 28-year-old Australian struck up a conversation and discovered that the woman was just going into town as something to do as her husband of 55 years had just passed away and she was desperately lonely. Instead of returning to her phone or asking about the weather, the younger woman saw an opportunity to make a new friend and got Edna’s number. Eventually they met up for tea. Donhou posted an endearing picture on Facebook of the meet-up. “This is my new mate Edna,” she wrote. “She’s 91 and just took her first selfie!” So the next time you’re at a public place, put down the phone and offer a friendly word to a stranger. You never know, you may find a new best friend!
Gone are the days when you regularly saw your neighbors because the whole town went to the same church, store, and county fair. Thanks to online shopping, long commutes and Netflix, these days you can go days without ever leaving your house and months without even seeing a neighbor, much less talking to them. So how do you find like-minded friends? If you’re Amanda Blaine, you start a website. Girlfriend Social, Blaine’s brainchild, is the biggest female friendship-only social site, attracting thousands of women looking to make friendships with other women near them. Similar to dating sites, they have chat rooms, online matching services and real-life events. “I wanted a place where women of all ages and backgrounds can come to talk, share and bond with new female friends,” she said. Not a gal? Not4Dating and FriendMatch are two friend-making sites that work for any gender. Not tech-minded? Try these nearly effortless ways to make friends as an adult.
Say these six magic words
After losing a high-status job and going through a divorce, Mary Jaksch says she found herself very lonely as many of the people she thought were her friends abandoned her. “Suddenly, I had no social standing, and all the people who I thought were my friends disappeared overnight. It was a dark time,” she writes. Facing the prospect of starting her friend group over from scratch, she was forced to take a hard look at what makes a good friend and how she could be one to others. She realized that true friendship had nothing to do with social standing and everything to do with how you make each other feel. A true friend will be a “positive mirror” reflecting back happiness to you. And if you’re looking to be such a friend and attract those types of people to you, she says she discovered the “six magic words that make friendships happen.” “These six words are: ‘What can I do for you?’,” she explains. “Yes, they are magic words. Because they not only touch the heart of others, they also transform our own heart. We begin to let go of an ego-centric view of the world where the main words are I, me, and mine. Instead, we start to appreciate the needs, wants, and hopes of others.” Here are other little ways you can be a true friend.
Hospital Companion Volunteers
Julia Torrano volunteers twice a week at the UCLA Medical Center in Santa Monica. The aspiring doctor isn’t working as a candy striper or doing any type of specific medical errands. Rather she’s there just to talk and listen to people, especially elderly patients. As a “hospital companion” Torrano is providing a valuable service to people who are already feeling sick and vulnerable by helping them not to feel lonely. In fact, she might even be saving their lives just as if she were providing medical care. A large body of prior research has linked loneliness in old people with poorer health, memory loss, depression, and even earlier death. Helping the elderly feel less lonely—a task as simple as listening to their life stories, Torrano says—can improve their overall health and may even lengthen their lives. “You might suspect that being more engaged, more energized … might promote a speedier recovery,” David Reuben, MD, chief of geriatrics at the Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, told NPR in an interview about the new program. Psst… Here are 50 other secrets hospitals won’t tell you.
Octopuses for preemies
It can be hard to tell if an infant is feeling lonely. They have one form of communication—crying—and it can mean everything from “I miss my mom” to “I just pooped.” But it doesn’t take a research dissertation to know that babies love to be close to their caregivers and miss them when they’re gone. Unfortunately, infants born prematurely often have to be separated from their mothers for medical reasons. How to give a fragile, incubator-bound infant company? Enter The Octo Project. Started in Denmark, the Octo Project uses octopuses hand-crocheted by volunteers to soothe preemies. The coiled tentacles remind the babies of being in their mother’s womb, according to a mother of premature twins. “When they are asleep they hold onto the tentacles tightly,” mom Kat Smith told the Bournemouth Daily Echo. “Normally they would be in the womb and would play with the umbilical cord so the octopuses make them feel grounded and safe.” And we’re guessing that crocheting adorable octopuses friends for beautiful babies probably helps the volunteers feel less lonely and more connected as well. (Read up on the instructions on how to crochet your own octopus and where to donate it.)
No One Eats Alone Day
Lili Smith was born with a cranial facial syndrome and because of that was ostracized by her peers. She died at the age of 15 due to medical complications from her syndrome and in the aftermath, her parents shared her feelings of isolation and loneliness. A group of kids from Lili’s school said they had not realized that they had been leaving her out all those years and were determined that no one in their community would suffer the same way again. The teens, along with Lili’s parents, came up with the idea for National No One Eats Alone Day. The concept is simple: One day a year each student is encouraged to look around the lunch room for kids who are lonely and make sure they have someone to sit with. The day is celebrated with balloons and treats. The program has since spread to schools around the country.
Study other lonely people
“Being lonely is like being hungry when everyone around you is readying for a feast,” writes author Olivia Laing in her book The Lonely City. She was inspired to write the book when she moved from Britain to New York several years ago and found herself overwhelmed by how lonely she could feel even while in one of the most densely populated cities. “I felt like I was in danger of vanishing.” But instead of wallowing in feeling apart she decided to study what other famously lonely New Yorkers had done. Laing used the experiences of Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, David Wojnarowicz, and Henry Darger, among others, to help her understand her own complicated feelings of being alone in the big city. And ultimately her book helped her find the connection to others she was seeking.