April 23, 2009

It's no surprise that more and more of us find ourselves a little lonely. We don't know our neighbors, we shop and socialize on the Internet, we never seem to have enough time for our friends, we work out solo wearing headphones that keep the world out, we jump from job to job, city to city.

"A lot of people today are ending up lonely," says Jacqueline Olds, M.D., an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and co-author of the book Overcoming Loneliness in Everyday Life (Birch Lane Press, 1996). "The fact that people move so much more and have so little time to devote to keeping up their social connections really ends up being kind of a disaster."

We even tend to live by ourselves: In 1998, the most recent year for which data is available, 26.3 million Americans lived singly -- up from 23 million in 1990 and 18.3 million in 1980. Our American culture stresses the importance of individualism, independence, self-reliance. But at what price? These are the very same traits that can lead to fewer connections with other people.

Today, Olds says, many of us seem to be suffering from too much independence. As an extreme example, she cites the two teens who put Columbine High School on the map. Each of them seemed like very lonely people, she says, "and they were always on the fringes; nobody ever really accepted them."

A more common phenomenon is this: When you're in high school and college, you are surrounded by loads of potential friends. Everywhere you look, you find people your age with similar backgrounds, interests, goals and schedules. Friendships and associations have time to jell. But once you leave the familiarity of school behind and enter the adult world -- sometimes in a new city, with a new, stressful job amid all-new people -- finding friends becomes tougher.

The stigma of loneliness

"Nobody wants to admit that they're lonely," says Olds. "Loneliness is something people associate with losers." Even in the privacy of a therapy session, Olds says, her patients are unwilling to admit that they feel lonely. "People come into therapy complaining of low self-esteem, when the problem is actually loneliness. But they don't want to bill it as such because they are embarrassed. They'd never want anyone to know that they were lonely, and they don't have any clue that lots of other people feel lonely, too."

Loneliness is such a stigma, in fact, that people will own up to it in anonymous polls, but when asked to give their names, they'll choose to admit instead that they are self-sufficient, not lonely. However, admitting that you're lonely -- and knowing that loneliness is very common -- can be the first step toward solving the problem. Your next step is to try to meet people you have something in common with.

We're more lonely, yet hardly alone

Making new connections as an adult isn't as easy as it was when you were younger, as Carol Hildebrand of Wellesley, Mass., will attest to. Just a few years ago, when she was in her early 30s, Hildebrand found herself feeling quite lonely as many of her hiking and camping buddies were getting married and having children.

"My friends didn't have time to go winter camping anymore," says Hildebrand, an editor for a business technology magazine in the Boston area. "Their lives had changed. I was running out of friends who were still single and who had time for me," Hildebrand says.

Many of us in our 30s have had this same experience. But it's not impossible to make new friends -- you just have to know where to look. Here's some advice on how to connect with others and how to make the connections you already have deeper:

1. Request a small favor. "Most Americans feel very loath to ask favors and to start a reciprocal cycle of helping each other," says Harvard's Olds. But if you, say, "borrow sugar" from your neighbor, she'll be more likely to ask you to water her plants when she's away. Over time, you'll come to rely on each other for other favors (a ride to the airport?) and a friendship may form.

2. Maybe your ideal mate or friend should not be a 28-year-old, college-educated, single, heterosexual night owl who loves Lyle Lovett, Vietnamese food and sea kayaking, just like you. Limiting yourself to a carbon copy of you could mean missing out on some great friends. Be open to friendships with people of other ages, religious backgrounds, races, tastes, interests and sexual orientations.

3. Many women feel lonely because they have no interests to fill their alone time. Take up a hobby that you can do solo -- painting, sewing, swimming laps, playing the piano, writing in a journal, learning a foreign language, hiking, photography (everyone likes to do something) -- so you'll feel more comfortable when you are by yourself. And remember this: The more hobbies you have, the more likely you'll be to share common interests with others and the more interesting you'll be to new friends.

4. Any shared project is likely to lead to friendship, so pick a cause you believe in and start planning. Join a local political campaign or environmental group; fund-raise for a charity; organize a 10k; form a baby-sitting cooperative with other mothers; volunteer for a community service such as teaching children to read or cleaning up local parks. You're likely to make deeper connections when you hang around people of like minds.

Remember this, too: Making friends takes time, so pick a long-term project. (You could also take a class or join a club -- art, sport, theater, tennis, whatever -- where you'll meet people who share your interests.)

5. Ask someone in your yoga class (or office or apartment building ... ) out for coffee. If she says no, ask if she'd like to go some other time. If she says she's just too busy, don't assume she's making excuses because she doesn't like you. She may be too busy to make new friends. Move on to someone else, and do not take this rejection personally. Whatever you do, though, start small -- don't invite someone you've just met to go skiing over the weekend.

"It's much easier for everyone involved if it goes quite slowly," says Mary Ellen Copeland, M.S., M.A., a mental-health educator and author of The Loneliness Workbook (New Harbinger Publications, 2000). "Lots of people have issues with trust. They've previously been hurt in some way by someone, so they'll back away from friendships that are building too fast."

6. There's a support group for everyone -- new mothers, single parents, alcoholics, small-business owners, diabetics and overeaters, to name a few. Join one. If there's a group that supports your needs or interests, give it a try. Olds suggests the Toastmasters, which has chapters in nearly every town in the United States. Participants get together regularly to practice their public speaking. Toastmasters attracts people of all ages and all walks of life, and it is inexpensive. You can meet wonderful people this way, Olds says. Look on the Web; or if you can't find the right group, consider starting your own.

7. Seek a therapist to build your self-esteem. "People who feel bad about themselves tend to have a hard time reaching out and making friends and being with people, so they tend to be quite lonely," Copeland says. If this is you, find a therapist who can help you view yourself differently.

As for Carol Hildebrand, she looked for new connections in two places. First, she joined the Appalachian Mountain Club, which sponsors hikes and other outdoor activities. She started taking trips -- such as an eight-day mountain hike through the Presidential Range in New Hampshire -- where she met people with whom she had many things, including a love for the great outdoors, in common.

Later on, she took a job just for the fun of it working a few nights at an outdoor-gear and apparel store. Eventually, not only did she make new hiking friends (and get some great discounts on gear), but she made friends with someone who shared her interest in winter camping - and who eventually became her husband.

Your health: The costs of a lonely soul

All women need friends and loved ones to rely on, confide in, feel totally comfortable with. Without these vital connections to other people, it's not just our spirits that suffer; our physical health deteriorates, too.

Research has shown that people having fewer than four to six satisfying social relationships (with family, friends, mate, neighbors, co-workers, etc.) are twice as likely to catch a cold and four times more likely to have a heart attack.

This is because loneliness can cause chemical changes in your body, making you more susceptible to illness, says Jeffrey Geller, M.D., a loneliness researcher and director of integrative medicine at the Lawrence Family Practice Residency Program in Lawrence, Mass. A lonely body will unleash stress hormones (such as cortisol) that suppress the immune system.

"Lack of social support winds up putting a person at risk for serious illness at statistical levels equivalent to smoking, obesity and lack of exercise," says Ronald Glaser, Ph.D., professor of molecular virology, immunology and medical genetics at the Ohio State University Medical Center.

If you are lonely, here's how your body - and mind - can suffer:

* You'll have less ability to fight off infection and illnesses such as colds, influenza, cold sores, herpes and other viruses.

* You'll have a higher susceptibility to bacterial infections and perhaps even cancer.

* You're more likely to suffer from depression.

* You're more prone to abuse alcohol and commit suicide.