#002 What To Do If You're Lonely
It's Gonna Be Ok
I’m listening to The Happiness Lab, a podcast by Laurie Santos, Ph.D., where she talks about scientifically proven practices that boost happiness over time, and smugly note that I’m already pretty good at most of the things she mentions.
I meditate, exercise, eat well, feel my feelings, and journal about gratitude. According to her, I should be ecstatic every day, but I’m not. I’m good at these things because I’ve struggled with melancholy and unhappiness for most of my life.
Then, she brings on her first guest, Robert Waldinger, who is the keeper of the longest study on happiness. He says that the most important determinant of happiness is the quality of our relationships.
Oh. This, I’m not so good at.
It seemed like I was born afraid of people. At preschool age, I was so shy that I couldn’t bring myself to speak to strangers. I did ok in elementary school, up until 5th and 6th grades. I’d started at new schools both of those years, and my 6th grade year was in a new state.
Junior high was a disaster. In high school, I stuck with a small group of people and remained terrified of everyone else. I had friends in college, but when it came to maintaining any really deep connections, I isolated myself and mostly made friends online; even though it was the mid-1990’s and almost no one was doing that, then.
By the time I was a young adult, I had codependency of one of those birds that eats parasites off of rhinos. I was in my late 20s before I understood that I just hadn’t been properly socialized. No one taught me how to be around other people, so I either kept people at arms-length or became their bug-eating bird, whether they liked it or not.
I could go on about all of the ways I’ve failed socially (with hundreds of examples because I’ve got the kind of memory that’s out for my blood), but I think it’s better to focus on how I can improve.
By far, the most important thing I’ve done is to stop poo-pooing social connection as an inconsequential hassle and to simply make an effort.
I’ve been in Japan for six years now, and when I review my happiness levels during my time here, I felt the best during my first few months in Tokyo.
My ward offered free Japanese classes to new foreigners, so every Tuesday and Thursday morning I’d squish myself onto a rush-hour train to go.
The station attendants literally pushed the commuters onto the cars to pack us in, sometimes leaving bits of bags and coats sticking out through the doors. I couldn’t fully expand my lungs and at least one person would treat me like her vertical futon.
When I got to my station, I’d have to say loudly in Japanese, “Excuse me! This is my stop! Excuse me!” and push my way to the door until the crowd spat me onto the platform like a watermelon seed.
The class was designed for people starting at zero, and as bad as my Japanese was, I was well beyond zero, so at least I had that. I usually sat next to the one person who got there before me—an elderly Chinese man. He always snagged the seat we both wanted (front and center because neither of us wanted to miss a thing).
Around noon, I’d ride home on a nearly empty train, contentedly drained, feeling accomplished, and like part of the community.
To get to that feeling, I’d wake up anxious and dreaded the whole morning. I didn’t want to get dressed. I didn’t want to do the insane commute. I was afraid that I did the wrong homework (even though I always triple-checked), or that I wouldn’t perform well in class. I worried that the other students wouldn’t like me, so I worked hard at not being that obnoxious person who knew all the answers (I totally did).
Every social interaction is like that for me on some level. Well, not the train part and definitely not that part about knowing all the answers, but the discomfort part and the worry part are always there.
On the last day of class, the elderly Chinese man and I both received an award for perfect attendance and for completing all of the homework. He had started out at zero, but by the end, we conversed comfortably in simple Japanese, neither of us knowing a word of the other person’s native language.
As he sat there telling me about the new belt his granddaughter gave him as a gift, I thought to myself, “this is it.” I wasn’t even sure what “it” was. It was the experience of meaningfulness that I described last week. It was the “good relationship” that Robert Waldinger mentioned in his study.
In other words, it was the thing that made all the effort worth it.
When have you put in some effort be social and found it to be totally worth it? Let me know in the comments.
Links and Shout-outs
The Happiness Lab Podcast with Dr. Laurie Santos.
Robert Waldinger’s Ted Talk on the longest study on happiness.
I subscribe to Maybe Baby, a Substack newsletter written by Haley Nahman, and I recently enjoyed her knitting vlog, where she and a friend are adorable hipstery, New Yorky, 30-somethings in a way that makes me miss the east coast.