“It is not good for man to be alone”Genesis, 2:18
In the centre of Edinburgh old town, you will find a statue of a dog, which represents the spirit of Edinburgh. This dog is called Greyfriars Bobby and he lived 17 wonderful years. He belonged to policeman John Gray in the 1850s and like most dogs, he supported his owner unconditionally. When Mr. Grey died, he was buried in Greyfriars Kirkyard, leaving Bobby companionless. Despite this, Bobby spent the rest of his life on his owner’s grave and his loyalty was rewarded with a collar, which can now be found at the Museum of Edinburgh. It is estimated that even in spite of developing jaw cancer, Bobby spent 14 years by his owner’s grave. Bobby died on the grave, and a commemorative statute was erected, less that 500 meters from the cafe where JK Rowling wrote Harry Potter. Inspirational, to say the least. We admire the story of because Bobby met something we all seek, and that is an optimum level of connection.
Connection is often something we take for granted. Even in my own life, I have neglected meeting up with friends and family because other errands were deemed more important. This is not stating that you give all of your time to your loved ones but like everything regarding mental health, it is a balancing act. On the scales of life, connection is probably one factor we should exaggerate. A study in 2010 found that loneliness is more likely to kill you than smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It has also been found to make death twice as likely for men and 2.8 times more likely for women. Why? Well it turns out that from hundreds of studies on stress, on hundreds of possible factors, social support remains the one that seems to be the most effective buffer. So when facing a stressful situation, having support from loved ones protects us the most. In contrast, loneliness makes stressful situations far more stressful. Studies have found that it’s also not just about having family and friends around. It is the subjective degree of connection or support you have with your clan that matters. Picture the London tube on a Monday morning. Thousands of people, half asleep, but often not one form of connection. Or picture the social media influencer with millions of followers, but alone on a Friday night. Knowing lots of people does not equal connection.
In addition, research has also found that loneliness can lead to a lower sense of self. We often identify ourselves in terms of our social standing. I am a father, a sister, a wife, a best friend. If we don’t have family and friends, these statements can flip. I am a loner, an outcast, a social reject. The effects of lack of connection on health are even more far reaching. Studies have also found that it increases the risk of heart disease, it decreases the likelihood of healthy behaviours such as exercise, and it weakens our immune system. So it’s kind of a big deal. In fact, it’s even imprinted in our genes. Social support = survival support = survival. The first homo aspens survived because they hunted and gathered in packs. The lone rangers did not. Fast forward a few thousands year and the same equation still holds in the fast moving, tech driven world. Social support = mental support = survival.
The concepts of popularity and fame have blurred the line on connection. There is something known as the aging paradox, whereby older adults over the age of 65 are better at regulating their emotions despite having less cognitive resources to do so. The biggest predictor of this is quality and NOT QUANTITY of relationships. As people grow older, their quantity of relationships decrease but their quality increases. This is one of the most important messages we can teach children in an age where instagram followers tends to indicate success. Unfortunately, despite a huge population and endless ways to communicate, there has actually been a decline in connection. So what can we do to combat this?
The immediate solution is environment. Put yourself into an arena where you can meet new people such as a club or society. And that’s great. But that’s not enough. We need to learn how to internally alleviate loneliness. We do so by teaching children that it is important that they take the situation into our own hands. If you are in a situation where you are by yourself and you are feeling lonely, you need to go up to people and connect with them. If you stand back and wait and hope that someone comes to you, you are allowing your negative situation of loneliness to be governed by factors outside of your control. And if you get rejected, which you will, this is a good way of building character. Put the situation into your own hands and take action. Helpful thoughts are great but when the situation is under your control, they are useless without helpful behaviours. Are you lonely at home with nothing to do? Call that friend you haven’t seen in a long time. Create plans. Your inner voice might try to stop you because of fear of rejection but tell that inner voice to shut up. It will be worth it when that situation of loneliness is replaced by connection.
The Motus Movement.