As the New Year begins, each of us has the “blank page” opportunity to think about how we want to spend our time in 2022. This can feel daunting, but also exciting. For me, I plan to spend as much time as I can connecting with others — and am writing this blog to encourage you to do the same. I will offer thoughts of why this is important for us as individuals as well as for society as whole, as well as guidance for how you may want to approach it.
Why am I hell bent on connecting?
I have never been as isolated as I have been in the days leading up to this new year. On December 22, 2021, I contracted COVID for a second time (you can read about how I navigated the first experience here) and isolated alone through Christmas. Physically, I was alone. Emotionally, I was sad and angry. At moments I was also scared — revisiting COVID symptoms in the first few days I wondered and worried how sick I would get, even though rationally I knew being vaccinated would help (and it did — it was far less severe though still crummy). Yes, despite these emotions and my situation, all my efforts in resilience, gratitude and every other damn source of positivity perched on my shoulder all told me the same thing: stay connected emotionally, do not isolate, do not cut yourself off, do not give up, do not give in.
How do we stop feeling lonely?
This is easier said than done. Loneliness is a powerful force that can create “freeze” in the fight, flight, freeze response. Loneliness invites you to wallow, to stay, to isolate further and longer. Loneliness is not something people like to talk about, probably second only to shame. We don’t like to admit that we feel it, yet we all feel it. Forbes wrote about the loneliness epidemic in 2018, well before COVID, citing. At that time, A recent Cigna survey revealed that nearly half of Americans always or sometimes felt alone (46%) and 54% said they always or sometimes feel that no one knows them well. Global studies showed similar statistics and in Japan, more than half a million people under 40 had not left their homes nor interacted with anyone for at least six months. All of this BEFORE the shut down.
While I retained very little from high school Physics, I do remember well that objects in motion stay in motion, and objects at rest stay at rest. This is what I believe happens when one is isolated — the gravitational force pulls you to stay isolated. The good news is, since the opposite of this force is equally true, we can push ourselves into motion — and therefore out of isolation, if we focus upon it.
If you won’t do it for yourself, do it for others
Think of the people in your world who you know are hurting in some way: loss of job, getting divorced, worried about an aging parent or a teenage child, struggling with mental and/or physical health issues. Your reaching out could be more meaningful than you might realize, even if just for a conversation or asking “how are you?” and really listening to the answer.
Or, do it for society overall
If you need another reason beyond your own well being to initiate more and stronger connections, consider the impact on society as a whole. The University of Chicago published an article recently drawing attention to the advantages of open networks, and disadvantages of closed networks — for us as individuals as well as for society as a whole. An open network means individuals are connecting with others beyond a tight circle, and ideally with others who are in various ways diverse from them (age, economics, geography, etc.) In open networks, people learn to relate more comprehensively and grow their contacts and ultimately find a quality handful of deep relationships that benefit them and those they meet. In closed networks, one stays with their tight clique and closes off from the broader world. As you can imagine, if everyone does this, we ultimately become isolated pods that become isolated individuals and generations evolve. The researchers conclude that this type of connection leaves many behind, both socially and economically, and feeds into tribalism. “If there is no hope, you find solace in people like yourself.”
The idea that human connections are essential to a healthy society is one I hadn’t considered in depth until I read this. How unfortunate it would be to stay “at rest” and miss out on what the broader world has to offer. If we all live in our inner circle, “closed” networks only, how do we challenge our established ways of thinking? How do we encounter people less like us and with varying perspectives to share? How do we forge new friendships, relationships and business colleagues so that we remain fresh and ready to learn from others?
We need to get off the couch and connect. Our future — and each other’s, depends on it.
How do I start?
Make a list of 3 people you would like to reconnect with that you have lost close touch with, 3 people you would like to know better and 3 people you know well, and with whom you are not having the level of connection you would like to have.
Call or text one of them today, one tomorrow, one the next day. Start the outreach by saying “I have been thinking about you and want to connect. How are you doing?” Bear in mind, you will not get perfect responses. Everyone is going through their own journey. I promise you, though, if you make this a practice, you will gain a refreshed or deeper connection at least half the time, which is a heck of a lot more than you would have if you did not put in this effort. This is about quality, not quantity. Be present, listen, empathize, look for ways to be kind and helpful. Focus on giving, not getting — they will benefit, and so will you.
Do not go it alone. Likely your circles have gotten smaller — this is true for most of us. If we want to expand, we need to intentionally set out to do so. It may feel awkward, uncomfortable and exhausting as we are out of practice. On the other side, it can feel enlightening, joyful and with a greater sense of gratitude due to the very nature of its deprivation.
When we are limited in our ability as individuals to connect with others and grow from those experiences, we do then have less to bring to our communities and ultimately our larger society. I am committed to making connections, old and new, this year so that I am at my best — and doing my part to help knit back the fabric of our communal society. As you consider your path forward into 2022, you may want to consider a similar approach and see how it serves you, and those around you. Happy New Year, and may it be a great one for all of us!