Loneliness affects approximately 1 in 4 people, and if you’re a freelancer you may be particularly prone to this. Loneliness usually refers to the quality of your social relationships. It doesn’t matter how many people you’re surrounded by – if you’re happy and well connected to the people you’re in touch with, you’re not lonely. But if you feel disconnected from those around you and feel that there is no one you can confide in, you’re more likely to be lonely.
Loneliness is a tough condition to deal with because it can increase your risk of depression, Alzheimer’s disease, and early death. In fact, being lonely is as harmful to your health as smoking 15 cigarettes per day. It is more harmful to your health than obesity.
It can make you have problems with self-restraint. If you feel lonely on a regular basis, then you’re more likely to reach for crisps and pizza for lunch than a healthy salad. You might have a harder time putting the stopper back in the bottle of alcohol after drinking a glass or two. That’s because your self-control is shot and you’re finding it easier to give in to guilty pleasures than to restrain yourself.
The good news is that loneliness can be overcome. Researchers have looked at the different ways of combatting this condition. They taught lonely people to compliment others in order to increase their social desirability. It turns out this didn’t have much of an effect. Lonely people know how to talk to others and make themselves liked – but this only tends to happen when they’re happy – which is nearly impossible when you’re feeling lonely. Scientists then studied the effect that providing social support to people affected by this condition has.
But there was a problem with this approach: if lonely people knew that others were coming to “check in on them” as if they were a “patient”, they didn’t like it. As world-renowned researcher Professor John Cacciopi says, “if you know people are stopping by to check on you, it makes you feel like more of a loser.” The only intervention that worked was changing people’s view of the world.
This is one of the key differences between people who are lonely and those who aren’t. Those who are lonely are more cynical of the world and distrusting of others. They are more likely to reject others and expect to be rejected – and quite prematurely too. They don’t tend to give others a chance to get to know them. They go into social situations looking for threats and any evidence that confirms their beliefs. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you expect to be rejected, you start behaving in a certain way – perhaps being colder and more reserved with others – and people can feel this and might not warm up to you.
The first step to breaking with the past and the distress you’re feeling is to change how you see the world, to change your mind. As the Nobel Prize-winning playwright George Bernard Shaw said, “Those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.” But how can you change your mind? By behaving in certain ways – even if you don’t feel like it – repeatedly. By talking with people wherever you are. By trying something new.
The difference between mice and humans is this: when mice see something doesn’t work out (like when they’re put through those maze experiments), they try something else. But humans repeat their mistakes.
So, how can we stop repeating our mistakes and try something new? The first thing you can do to overcome loneliness is to start talking with as many people as possible wherever you are – and this is especially important if you’re a freelancer because you can be on your own for long stretches of time. And before you chuckle at this, think about it for a moment. How many times do you talk to the person preparing your coffee at your local shop? How many times do you talk to the cashier at the grocery store? If you go to your local gym, how many times do you strike up a conversation with the people in your fitness class? Talking to as many people as possible wherever you are can not only introduce you to potential new friends, but you begin to network everywhere you go. It’s the simple steps in life that we take – repeatedly – can make the most difference.
The second thing you can do to overcome loneliness is to share about yourself. Even if you’re feeling down and don’t feel like opening up and all you can do is muster some questions, sharing about yourself is important to establish a connection. Tell stories about yourself, say what you like, what you think. When you do this, you take your interaction to a whole new level – it becomes meaningful.
The third thing you can do is to be kind to yourself. When we criticize ourselves for failing, for not behaving the way we want to, for not making friends – this doesn’t motivate us to improve. It has the opposite effect. It makes us feel even worse and can make us feel anxious. And when we’re anxious, we “perform” even worse in life. We need to be kind with ourselves and accept that on certain days we may not feel like talking to anyone or doing anything. While on others, we try again. Progress is gradual and we need to be patient. We need to be kind to ourselves. We need to show self-compassion. And that is one of the most important first steps you can take on the path to change.