In a recent New York Times piece, health writer Nicholas Bakalar wrote: “Loneliness may make you sick.” He was speaking, specifically, about a recent meta-study that found that loneliness and social isolation increased a person’s risk of having a heart attack, angina or death from heart disease by 29 percent. This, along with extensive research on how loneliness affects our emotional and mental health, is reason to take our social lives seriously. While help for serious cases of social isolation is best left to mental health experts, all of us from time to time experience loneliness—particularly in our increasingly device-connected world, where Facebook statuses, tweets and TV binge watching too often take the place of real, face-to-face, heart-to-heart interactions.
The good news is that it’s a lot more simple than you think to stay truly connected with the people in our lives—and to make new, authentic connections as well. And, no, you don’t have to be an extrovert. (Trust me, I’m the one who’d usually rather curl up in bed with a good book than go out and actually talk to people.) But after years of dealing with self-imposed solitude, despite having a supportive network of friends and family, I finally started taking baby steps to ensure that I wouldn’t slip back into my old, insular ways (though I’ll never give up reading in bed on a rainy day). These tips aren’t designed to suddenly alleviate every bit of loneliness you experience, or win you a whole crowd of friends. Rather, they aim to help you solidify your important relationships and simply increase your daily interaction with people, including strangers. You may be surprised at how natural they feel, and how responsive people are to you when you use them. Try one, try them all; whatever feels do-able and most comfortable to you, though remember that moving out of your comfort zone a tiny bit is sometimes a necessary requirement.
Meet Your Neighbors
How well do you really know the people who eat, sleep and breathe within feet of you? Whether you live in an apartment building in the city or a house in the suburbs, I bet that the answer is not very well, if at all. Yet considering the close proximity of these people day in and day out, it makes no sense to not take the time to see what they’re all about. Sure, there’s always a chance you’ll have nothing in common, but considering you chose the same place to live, I’m betting that you do. So, where do you start? Easy! Think back to your childhood, and remember how, perhaps, your grandmother would pop in next door with a homemade cake or pie. It was a no-brainer to my nanny and she’d be so perplexed if she were still alive to see how disconnected we are now from our neighbors. Go ahead and channel your old-fashioned heritage and knock on a nearby door. You don’t have to make a cake though! Fresh clippings of flowers from your garden or a bouquet of daffodils from Trader Joe, extra tomatoes or peas from your summer’s bumper crop, or some easy-bake chocolate chip cookies will all do the trick. If your neighbor looks rattled when you say hi and present your offerings, don’t worry. They are probably just as disconnected as you and are trying to find their words. When they do finally realize the gesture you’ve made, chances are they’ll be sincerely grateful—and you’ve now opened the door—literally—to conversation. Who knows if you’ll become friends or not, but the odds are certainly better than if you did nothing at all.
Put it on the Calendar!
Ok, I am notoriously bad at this. Be it with friends or people I’ve recently met and like, I’ll end a phone call or lunch date with an open-ended, totally vague, “Let’s get together again soon!” How often do you do that too, or hear it from someone? Not following up usually has nothing to do with not wanting to see that person again. It comes down to sheer laziness or perhaps my introverted tendency to fear having to leave my comfy bed and book. Whatever the reason, it’s one of the easiest fixes when it comes to staying connected. Before you hang up the phone or say your final goodbye at the cafe, take the time to ask how the other person’s schedule looks in, say, a month and—right then and there—put another date on the books. After all, one of the upsides to our tech-savvy culture is that we have instant access to our digital calendars on our smartphones. Just like that, you’ll have plans set for the future and the chances of keeping an old or budding friendship alive.
Workout—with a Buddy
Do you go to yoga or Crossfit, run races, or even just take long walks around your neighborhood? Whatever your brand of fitness, it almost always can be done with a partner. When I was younger (pre-kids and living in New York City), I regularly met my best friend on our lunch break at a gym that was equidistance between our offices. We’d take some kind of ridiculously difficult class together, sweating and shaking it out and, afterwards, chat about our day as we showered and readied ourselves to go back to the grind. Not only did it make me stick to my routine better, but it gave my day an instant boost of fun and kept our friendship tight despite our harried lives. (We also used to walk home through Central Park together). I don’t go to a gym anymore, and I have a kid–but these days I meet up with a neighbor (see Tip #1!) who’s also a busy mom and go to a weekly hot yoga class with her in the morning. Afterwards, we usually grab a cup of coffee or a juice at a nearby spot we both enjoy. Just like in my younger years, I’m less likely to skip out on yoga if I have a standing date, and the social interaction is sometimes one of the few I’ll get during a hectic work week as an isolated freelance writer. Even just asking a friend or neighbor to join you on a walk once a week can give you a great boost—and walking affords you more time to actually talk and get to know someone.
Chat Up Your Fellow Diners
This one may take some getting used to, but I swear it’s worthwhile. I eat out a lot (I’m a restaurant critic), and this stemmed from my quest to find out what other diners’ experiences were (Had they tried the trout and found it to be lacking in salt as well? Was their server as delightful as ours?). You get the picture. But in the course of doing my job, my partner and I discovered that we really enjoyed talking to other people who loved food as much as we did. Our conversations often veered to topics such as the recipes we loved, places we’d traveled, or even just what was new and interesting in the city we all lived in. At the very least, we almost always leave with a tip to try out a restaurant we’ve never been to before. It’s not like we get these folks’ numbers and make a dinner date, but during that one-to-two hour window we’ve engaged with our fellow Seattleites, had a laugh, and made our world a little bigger.
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