#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.
I think this blog post really resonates with me, and should resonate with a lot of people, because a lot of our way of socializing in this country is built to keep us in that lonely state.
Perhaps it's my own experiences with the feeling of loneliness that drives my thinking in this era, but I like that you honed in right away on the crafting of relationships as a means of pulling oneself out of a lonely state. Getting enough rest, and adequate nutrition and exercise are contributing factors, sure but health is much more than just your physical body being in good shape; one must guard one's mental health as well.
I think the older I get the worse I feel about all the time wasted pursuing things that did not feed my soul. Looking back upon all of the transient things that I chased and realizing that the best of those things I'd acquired were not even close to the most casual relationships and interactions I've built with acquaintances, friends, family and partners.
In these post-COVID times, I decided to deny my hermit-like nature, and take a gamble on two new relationships -- one of which was a partner who I'd parted ways from and decided to reconnect, and the other was a metamour in my Polycule. Both of those gambles have paid off in dividends I could not even have predicted and it has made a tremendous difference in how connected I feel to others.
Good post! I enjoyed this read too!
I’ve waited to comment on this for so long because I feel lonely so much of the time. I say that while considering myself very fortunate to live with someone I consider my best friend, or at least one of my best friends. That whole “best” thing has always been a concept I have rejected in many ways and have been vocally clumsy about, including a potentially hurtful comment I made to you years ago. In truth, I consider you one of my best friends, but I just don’t like the way the words sound. Relationships are not award ceremonies. There are real connections that are forged through years of interactions, and then there are those that develop in brief moments and may only last for a short time.
Back in 2006, I attended Photoshop World in Miami. I met these two women from Denver and for those few days that I was there, we became the “best” of friends. I don’t think any of us really expected that we would keep in touch afterward (which we did not), but there was real connection.
There are these connections that get made when we share an experience with others, especially when we are learning something together. But there are also connections that get made when we merely share space. I remember, and this was fairly early on in the pandemic, when comedian Jim Gaffigan talked about how the people he really missed were strangers; the people you pass by and overhear as you walk around a city. I could totally relate to that.
After reading your post, I started thinking about how much I used to enjoy creating art alongside others. There is something about being in an art lab alongside other creators. You might never collaborate, but there is still a collective influence. Our local library recently made a lot of structural renovations. Will and I went to look at the new rooms (which aren’t officially open to the public yet) the other day. Much of the new maker space is filled with these nice drawing tables. It reminds me of some art labs on college campuses. There are additional features, such as the 3-D printers and CNC machine, but the drawing tables got me to think about the possibility of creating alongside other artists. Will and I are going to make a recommendation for MerMay, which is something I want to contact our old friend Heidi about as well. I misplaced her mobile phone number (I’m not always good about putting things into my phone), and get a weird signal when I tried calling her landline that sounds like Morse code. I guess I am going to have to mail something. Anyway, drawing, painting, writing... they all seem like solitary activities, and yet they needn’t be.
I think, though, there is always going to be a sort of inherent loneliness that is just a part of who I am. Part of it is due to trauma and how I cope or fail to cope. I am always looking to narrative therapy. I want to have some control of the narrative while preserving the truth. I realize that I am just so broken at times... it is like I am some scared kid trying to find the nerve to ask out a crush when I am just trying to reach out to someone I have known and interacted with for years. My brain creates all these scenarios where maybe I did something completely unforgivable. Then I reflect upon times in my life when what I craved most was just to be left alone; this desire to fade in the background. I am still like that sometimes.
I’m an introvert who, for a significant portion of my adult life, played a rather convincing extrovert.