Addressing the Loneliness Epidemic

“We are all so much together, but we are all dying of loneliness.” – Albert Schweitzer

It happened seven years ago while in Toronto.

After a 75-minute presentation to a group of sales leaders, I received an impassioned standing ovation from the crowd of almost 1,000. A book signing followed with more than 100 people waiting in line, giving me a hug, sharing a bit of their story, and thanking me for sharing mine.

As the line eventually dwindled, the person who had planned the meeting asked if I’d like to join him for a late dinner. I thanked him, but shared that between the travel and speaking and signing, I was simply exhausted.

We chatted for a few minutes before I went upstairs, indulged in room service, took a much-needed shower, and fell into bed.

With the background sounds of city traffic and the echoes of people on the sidewalks below, I responded to some emails, replied to a few texts, and read through several encouraging messages on social media before setting the phone down. Despite having eaten, the ache in my stomach that had been present most of the day refused to subside.

With the phone and television off and the room blackened, I grabbed a pillow, shut my eyes, and started to cry.

In that dark hotel room, just hours after receiving the adulation of a large audience and a barrage of messages of gratitude on my phone, I’d never felt so absolutely alone, so totally isolated.

Things at home were good, but hard. My father had been hospitalized with a broken femur and hip as the result of another fall. My wife and I were in the joyful, but incredibly demanding, season of raising three young children with another on the way. And my speaking business was growing by leaps and bounds.

But as the business grew, so was the travel, the airline miles, and the nights away from family on the road.

Surrounded by people, I felt painfully out of place and alone.

And I’m not alone.

You’re Not Alone in Feeling Alone

A massive nationwide survey by Cigna shares that a staggering 47% of adults admit to feeling isolated, left out and totally alone. And although all age groups experience high levels of loneliness, the loneliest age group, the one that felt most disconnected, were those between the ages of 18-22.

In other words, those of us who seem to be most connected, most surrounded by others, most energetic and vibrantly alive, feel most closed off from others.

This sense of isolation leads to a decrease in the effectiveness of our immune system and a reduction in a sense of passion for life, while also leading to an increase in levels of damaging stress hormones, our heart rate, and blood pressure. In short, the result of loneliness is as toxic as smoking more than a dozen cigarettes each day.

And about half of us feel this way. So, how do we combat this epidemic of loneliness?

1. Start with Awareness: Let’s begin with the good news: once you know there is an illness you can take steps toward the cure. And realizing that half of adults experience what you feel can actually be liberating. You are not alone!

The first step forward in recovering from any health scare, overcoming any addiction, surpassing any challenge or embracing any opportunity is to take inventory on where you are, how you got here and where you want to go next. In the sprint through life, it’s critically important to slow down long enough to identify your answers to these questions and clarify the next steps for you.

2. Make the Changes to Reengage in What Matters: It’s been my experience that frequently we keep putting one foot in front of the other as we climb up the ladder of life. Unfortunately, in doing so we may unintentionally be moving in the wrong direction. After years of saying “yes” to every opportunity to share my story and spread the message, I was wearing thin physically, emotionally and relationally.

I used to brag how many days I was on the road. Now, through the support of my wife and the efforts of my team, we made a commitment to travel half as often and brag about how many breakfasts and dinners we enjoy as a family. This shift has allowed me to be more focused on my clients while on the road, but also to be more rejuvenated and connected to those who matter most when I’m at home.

3. Aim for Depth, not Breadth: Although social media has some terrific benefits, it’s important to note that the least lonely group in the Cigna study were those respondents over the age of 72- individuals less concerned with how many followers they have online and more engaged with the people around them in life.

Slowing down my own schedule and online activity has freed me to be more present with my wife and kids at home. I see my parents more now than I did for the previous decade. I’ve chosen to actively engage in men’s groups where I can authentically be a friend for someone else, but also have the ability to lean back on them. And I’ve been more dedicated in reigniting relationships from the past, not simply through a tweet or text, but by actually sipping on a coffee (OK, it may occasionally be a beer) or catching up on a phone call.

Fighting the Epidemic of Loneliness

My friend, although we are all so much together, we are also all dying of loneliness. It’s an epidemic, but not a death sentence.

You see, the solution to this loneliness epidemic is to be aware it’s real, to make the changes to reengage with those who matter, and to strive to deepen those relationships.

Instead of loneliness and isolation, let’s strive to spread the epidemic of connectivity and love.

Today is your day. Live Inspired.

© 2018  John O’Leary  All rights reserved.



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