American culture is one that strongly values independence and achievement over connection and the collective good. If you are feeling isolated, you are not alone. Nearly 25% of Americans report feeling lonely, and it is among one of the most common distresses. Feeling less isolated and part of a community is a process, one that takes intention to connect with those around you. Here are 5 simple strategies you can implement right away to build your own “village”.
1.) Know the Names of the People you See Everyday
If you buy coffee at the same place everyday, do you know the name of your barista? Do you know your neighbors, the mailperson, the people who work at your local grocery store? Learning the names of the people in your community makes interactions more personal and less anonymous, which Karen Sternheimer, PhD explains can generate informal social control. When we are not anonymous, we are more likely to act in ways that reflect positively upon our identities. If you’re on the introverted or shy side, you may find this process awkward at first, but that’s ok. Try it anyway and notice how you feel afterwards.
2.) Offer Help
There are so many opportunities to offer our generosity and support, and yet too often we pass them up. The next chance you have to let someone pull in front of you on the highway, to get the door for someone, or to let someone go in front of you in line, do it. Giving of yourself in small ways creates an instant connection with total strangers. On the other hand, offering help to those that you care deeply about (family, friends) is also good for your physical health. Dr. Michael Poulin’s research shows that giving to others counteracts the negative effects of stress on the body. So whether you offer help to a stranger or someone you know well, giving is good medicine. Offering support takes daily intention to notice when others need help, which will also increase mindfulness in your daily interactions. (To learn more about the benefits of mindfulness on your overall mental health, see this article.)
3.) Write a Letter
This antiquated way of communicating is an instant way of connecting with both your own thoughts and feelings, as well as with the people in your life. Pick someone you love dearly and write them a letter, not because there is a reason or occasion like a birthday or holiday, but for the sole purpose of connecting with them. We are conditioned to reach out for a reason, but we don’t need a reason to do so – deep down, everybody wants to connect whether they act like it or not. In fact, Kent State professor Stephen Toepfer did a study of letter writing where participants were asked to express heartfelt gratitude in a real, authentic manner. The letter writing participants experienced an increase in overall well-being and their self-rated levels of happiness and life satisfaction climbed upwards throughout the duration of the study. Letter writing is something you will need to carve out time for, but it is worth it. And if you are not sure what to write, begin with gratitude. Saying thanks on paper will make you happier.
4.) Find a Group to Play With
Whether you connect with an online gaming community like Farmville, one of the most popular social networking games on Facebook, or with a local bowling group, do something that brings you joy with others who enjoy the same thing. Even if you are short on time and money, the online community provides abundant ways to connect with others quickly and at no cost. Contrary to stereotypes that the average “gamer” is socially isolated, over 70% play their games with a friend, either cooperatively or competitively. Social networking games in particular require significant amounts of cooperation and connection. And research shows that experiencing positive emotions while playing games may build social relationships that provide support for goal pursuit and coping with failure. Too many of us never make the time to play, but the intention to play with others will not only make you feel less lonely, it is fun too!
5.) Visit Somewhere Local
So many communities are rich with free, local places to connect with neighbors and play; the library, the park, the local farmers market. Go to a local event. Even if you don’t speak with anyone, you’ll likely feel a sense of connection from just attending the event. You might even meet a stranger who will no longer be a stranger when you see them again. Studies confirm that there are numerous psychological and physical benefits from feeling connected to where you live. So make a point of staying close to home for at least one event each week, even if it’s just taking a walk around your neighborhood.
We may not live in villages anymore, but you can create one. Loneliness is an epidemic in our culture. Your intention to connect is a key factor to decreasing any isolation you might be feeling. It requires prioritizing and making time for connection over other items on your “to do” list that may feel more pressing. Feeling loved, nurtured and connected takes time and effort, but it is worth it.
About this Contributor: Laney Cline King, LCSW, received her Bachelor of Science in Psychology at the University of California, San Diego and her Masters in Social Work from Columbia University, New York. She is an LCSW (Licensed Clinical Social Worker) with over 10 years of experience helping children and families in a variety of nonprofit settings. As a certified LEAN nutrition coach, she currently provides workshops to families wanting to lead healthier lifestyles. At this time, Laney is most involved with the toughest job of her career, raising her three children in the San Francisco Bay Area.