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Loneliness: More Than Just a Bad Mood

Many of us are becoming more and more isolated from family and friends, argue psychiatrists Jacqueline Olds and Richard Schwartz.

RS. Especially if you’re a little shy, which a normal percentage of the population is. If you have a slew of roommates who are socializing, it’s a little bit easier to just sit there and find connection.

Q. And at the same time, on the weekend you might want nothing more than to just get away from your roommates—or anyone else for that matter.

JO. True. I think that an enormously large reason for loneliness is because American life is so crazy-busy. People work so hard that we all sometimes want to step back from the fray and have a little peace and quiet. It’s just that when you keep stepping back, pretty soon you start feeling a little left out.

RS. Which speaks to what you were saying before about the bombardment with cellphones, e-mails and text messages. At every moment, someone’s reaching out and communicating with you. We know so many people whose response to that is, “I just can’t deal with this level of stimulation, so I stopped checking my messages.” So they step back a little, they start offending people just a bit because they’re not responding to them, and suddenly they feel disconnected.

Q. Are there signs to look for, to know if this is happening to you?

JO. Most people can tell when pleasant solitude has changed to loneliness. They start feeling they don’t quite have enough to do, and feeling everybody else has more connections than they do. They may start getting more chronic infections because their immune system is down. They might feel like they need to drink more or eat more to give themselves some solace.

Q. What do you do if a friend is drifting away? We all try to respect people’s time constraints when they say they’re too busy to get together.

RS. A friend of ours said that a while ago, if you had a neighbor you liked, you’d find a way to pay a visit. Now if there’s someone you like, you try not to bother them.

JO. I also think that people get into a mindset where they think if they have to see anybody, it will be energy-depleting, when in fact it might be energizing. So if there’s somebody you miss and you think they’re being too reclusive, just turn up on their doorstep and bring them something delicious to eat.

Q. In this day and age, though, it can be more of a frustration for them to stop what they’re doing and pay attention to somebody who wants to socialize.

RS. I think that’s the working assumption, but once someone starts being lonely, one way to manage the loneliness is to fill the time with busyness. Then you really get into a vicious circle where you’re getting busier and you’re proclaiming your busyness to other people, which keeps them away. Then, you’re filling your remaining empty time with more busyness. We suggest taking the risk that someone would actually like to be rescued from their busyness.

Q. Do you think part of it is keeping up with the Joneses? Everybody wants others to think they’re accomplishing big, important things.

JO. I think absolutely that’s right. We’ve gotten into this embarrassing busyness competition. In school when a teacher assigned busywork, we all shunned it. Now we are always competing with each other to see who has the most stupid busywork.

Q. And to see who’s the most popular. On social networking sites like Facebook or Twitter, there’s a not-so-secret competition to see who has the most friends.

RS. In a study by Pew, they called people and asked them how many close friends they have. And everybody gives a very high number. It’s only when you then sit down in person and say “Have you talked to one of them in the last six months?” that you get a different kind of answer.

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