Being alone: how much is enough?

I can highly recommend an article in the December/January issue of AARP magazine entitled: “Is there a cure for LONELINESS?” Positive human connections are a part of being human. I have been studying this topic up-close-and-personal for most of my life. The main theme of this excellent AARP article is that social isolation can have measurable medical causes and remedies.

Did you know that genome researchers can now see signs of social isolation in your white blood cells? The blood cells of very lonely people “appear to be in high alert, responding the way they would to a bacterial infection.”

Another social connectedness researcher recognized our “human need to be embedded, connected and integrated in a social network…When that network is missing the consequences are very real in terms of mental and physical health.”

These researchers were not studying those who are natural introverts who love to be alone. They are studying those do not wish to feel so alone in the world and may go days without talking to anybody who knows or cares about them.

Did you know there is a 32% increased risk of early death for those living alone, according to a study of 3.4 million people? Social isolation can be a killer, and not just figuratively. Loneliness may actually cause premature death by damaging the heart. Research suggests that feeling loneliness may double a person’s risk of dying of cardiovascular disease. Older Americans are at the greatest risk for social isolation, which can lead to physical illness, depression and even dementia.

My place of meditation & serious contemplation at age 49

This was foremost on my mind when I did a major life review in my late 40s. After I got divorced and then lost my job/career at age 49, I sat for a few months in my self-created sunroom and thought about my highest priorities for the years I had left before me. What did I need most to survive my future? I had been an introvert and a loner my whole life and dealt with this issue a number of times in counseling. Did I want to be alone forever?

That is when I decided that I would put all of my energy into finding the best partner for me. I didn’t want to face forever alone. I figured I couldn’t be alone in my loneliness. There must be at least one person I can truly enjoy spending lots of time with. Once I became totally focused on this goal, I met Mike. He lived ten miles away, but I never would have met him without Match.com We spoke for over ten hours the first time we met!

Now, fifteen years later, I cannot imagine where or even who I would be without Mike. So loyal, loving and like me. We are both introverted and loners to some extent, but we also actively choose not to live alone. We love each others’ company and also know when we need to spend some time alone. We give each other LOTS OF SPACE. We have become the guardians of each others’ solitude. This works well for us.

I have decided now, at almost 65, that we all need a witness to our lives; people to look after and those who look after us. Our survival and well-being depend on not only ourselves, but also loving, supportive others. Yes, I could have lived alone forever, but did I really want to?

My book “How to Believe in Love Again” explains the process I went through to change my attitudes about living without love…

Do you have four really good friends?

Laura standing at build site before slab 2014

The topic of the lead story on today’s CBS Sunday Morning, “Going It Alone”, is one of my favorite life-long lines of research: loneliness. There we meet a man who, at age 27, chose to not speak to a single human being for 17 years! He eventually concluded, at age 72, that if you have four really good friends, who understand and appreciate your authentic self, you are truly lucky.

According to a recent Cigna study, loneliness is at epidemic levels in our country.

Their 2018 survey of more than 20,000 U.S. adults revealed some alarming findings:

  • Nearly half of Americans report sometimes or always feeling alone (46 percent) or left out (47 percent).
  • One in four Americans (27 percent) rarely or never feel as though there are people who really understand them.
  • Two in five Americans sometimes or always feel that their relationships are not meaningful (43 percent) and that they are isolated from others (43 percent).
  • One in five people report they rarely or never feel close to people (20 percent) or feel like there are people they can talk to (18 percent).
  • Americans who live with others are less likely to be lonely (average loneliness score of 43.5) compared to those who live alone (46.4). However, this does not apply to single parents/guardians (average loneliness score of 48.2) – even though they live with children, they are more likely to be lonely.
  • Only around half of Americans (53 percent) have meaningful in-person social interactions, such as having an extended conversation with a friend or spending quality time with family, on a daily basis.
  • Generation Z (adults ages 18-22) is the loneliest generation and claims to be in worse health than older generations.

How much do YOU need quality connections?

This all brings back my own gradual transition in my 30s and 40s from a true loner, who didn’t trust anyone completely, to a happily married woman in my 60s. After a traumatic betrayal in my 20s I also gave up on people. I did allow a few acquaintances in after counseling in my early 30s, but trust was not my best quality.

My first marriage was a lonely tangle of struggle, criticism and disempowerment. I gradually realized that I would probably be spending the rest of my life alone unless something changed. What changed was a divorce in 2001 and then job/career loss in 2004. Living on severance with only two good friends I saw maybe once a month plus my dogs, I faced loneliness most of the time, providing ample opportunity to consider my options for my future.

At age 49 I decided loneliness was my worst problem and I did not want to live the rest of my life if it was going to be this lonely indefinitely.

Mike snuggling with Rasta 2013

My solution? Since I could not find another job in libraries, I started my own offline dating service where I interviewed local midlifers who were also looking for love after widowhood or divorce. In that way I studied our group problem and decided it wasn’t just me. Then when I found many more cool single women looking for partners, I joined Match.com to attract more cool men for my women. Yep, the first man I met this way was my future husband and partner in crime, Mike. We have been joyfully married fourteen years now.

How to Believe in Love Again! blog sizeMike supported me in a way I have never experienced before, with unconditional loyalty, affection and appreciation. He offered full support to my dream of becoming a professional writer at age 50, back in 2005. This I did with enthusiasm, first as a freelance writer, then as a blogger and finally as an author. In fact, his support led to my second book: How To Believe In Love Again: Opening to Forgiveness, Trust, and Your Own Inner Wisdom, the story of how I transitioned from a sad, miserable loner to a trusting, loving person who admits to a need for support from others. 

Since then I am rarely lonely, but moving to this rural area in 2014 has been a challenge in that department. I so rarely meet someone here I can truly relate to, partially because of differences in upbringing and education levels. In the past I made friends at work and in my exercise classes. I still miss a few good friends I made at the Senior Center in Fort Collins.

I’m now retired so I have tried to make friends in my La Veta yoga class, which I attended for a few years, but to no avail. I have also tried a few other groups like writing groups, support groups, etc. No friendships have emerged. Quality connections are hard for me to find in this environment, but I will continue my efforts. Afterall, I just need one or two more friends to have “four really good friends!”

How lonely are you?

According to recent research, Americans are a pretty lonely group, and the younger you are, the lonelier you feel.

nationwide survey by the health insurer Cigna underscores that fact. Their survey of over 20,000 American adults age 18 or older, finds that loneliness is widespread in our country, with nearly 50 percent of respondents reporting that they feel left out always or sometimes.

The Cigna results offer some alarming findings:

  • Nearly half of Americans report sometimes or always feeling alone (46 percent) or left out (47 percent).

  • One in four Americans (27 percent) rarely or never feel as though there are people who really understand them.

  • Two in five Americans sometimes or always feel that their relationships are not meaningful (43 percent) and that they are isolated from others (43 percent).

  • One in five people report they rarely or never feel close to people or feel like there are people they can talk to.

  • Americans who live with others are less likely to be lonely (average loneliness score of 43.5) compared to those who live alone (46.4). However, this does not apply to single parents/guardians (average loneliness score of 48.2) – even though they live with children, they are more likely to be lonely.

  • Only around half of Americans (53 percent) have regular meaningful in-person social interactions, such as having an extended conversation with a friend or spending quality time with family.

  • Generation Z (adults ages 18-22) is the loneliest generation and claims to be in worse health than older generations.

Is social media part of the problem?

Social media use alone is not a predictor of loneliness; respondents defined as very heavy users of social media have a loneliness score (43.5) not markedly different from the score of those who never use social media (41.7).

More time online and social media may be causing a rise in depression and suicide among American adolescents. People who spend less time looking at screens and more time having face-to-face social interactions are less likely to be depressive or suicidal.

It appears that how people use social media determines its influence on one’s sense of isolation.

Members of Generation Z, born between the mid-1990s and the early 2000s, had an overall loneliness score of 48.3. Millennials, just a little bit older, scored 45.3. By comparison, baby boomers scored 42.4. The Greatest Generation, people ages 72 and above, had a score of 38.6 on the loneliness scale.

Albert-Einstein-I-live-in-that-solitude

I have been what I consider to be a loner for most of my life, and enjoyed most of that time alone. Even though I moved here with Mike, I feared moving to rural Colorado because I didn’t know if I would find friends here. As it turns out, I have a nice group of friends who understand the value of a great education, deep friendship and healthy solitude.

Laura and Rasta on insulation 2014 (2)

I also find I enjoy spending more time alone when feeling so connected to nature as I do here.