Two women drinking coffee on a bench

April 24, 2024

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5 Exercises to Alleviate Loneliness

Finding new ways for meaningful connection can improve personal health and well-being. 

By Rachel Fleischman

Alone, all alone. Nobody, but nobody can make it out here alone.
Dr. Maya Angelou

It is said that the root of suffering is the pain of separation—the fears and loneliness that emerge when we lose sight of our intrinsic belonging to each other and to all of life. We find ourselves amid an epidemic of loneliness that far predates the pandemic. Loneliness, as defined by mental health professionals, is the gap between the level of connectedness we desire and what we actually have. 

A lack of social connections can dramatically impact personal health, with up to a 30 percent increased risk of early death, or the equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes a day, according to a report from the US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy.  

A study conducted in 2022 found that only 39 percent of adults nationally reported feeling very connected to others emotionally. Recent surveys have shown that approximately half of the nation’s adults experience loneliness, with young adults experiencing some of the highest rates.

Six years ago, the British government took action by appointing a minister of loneliness to address growing concerns among the public. Initiatives like "Happy to Chat" benches, which encourage strangers to strike up conversations, have gained popularity and spread across England, Canada, and Poland.

Social connection can be transformative. It helps us thrive and buoys resilience. The presence of family, friends (including four-legged ones), and community members serve as a testament to our existence, offering solace during times of pain and bolstering us along life's journey.

Here are five exercises you can explore to branch out, engage more, and connect in new ways:  

  1. Explore meaningful activities: It can be helpful to engage in meaningful busyness to soften loneliness by pursuing activities that resonate with our personal interests and bring a sense of fulfillment. These could be crafting, knitting, writing, jigsaw puzzles, bird-watching, gardening, pottery making, exercising, taking on a new movement form such as tai chi or qigong, playing an instrument, singing, or learning a language. Being in nature is a balm in itself. Take an activity outside (walking anyone?) and it can be absolutely transformative. 
  2. Try micro-interactions: As Murthi, the US Surgeon General, notes, "We are the medicine hiding in plain sight." Every encounter with a stranger holds potential for meaningful connection and joy. View them as opportunities for connection. Try making eye contact and exchange smiles when you go on walks, or with a fellow gym-goer, on public transport, with coworkers, or at your local café. Notice if these interactions lift your mood or offer a sense of wellness. Even brief interactions can foster a sense of belonging and warmth. Give yourself the challenge of having three or more micro-interactions each day.
  3. Engage in acts of service: Helping others is a remedy for loneliness, as it fosters meaningful connections and reinforces our sense of purpose, and our value in the community.  When we make the effort to help someone else, it not only enables us to connect with that person (or cause), but it also deepens empathy which is the gateway to presence and connection. Try researching nearby volunteer opportunities. You will be amazed at how easy it is to find some. Think about what issues and causes move you. Common community efforts include animal welfare, local beach/ park/neighborhood clean-ups, food giveaways, soup kitchen service, toy drives, clothing donations, reading to kids, and support for the elderly. Sign up for something easy and … go!
  4. Join a group: Seek out opportunities to join communities or groups aligned with your interests or passions. Whether it's a book club, sports team, improv class, walking or hiking group, craft circle, sailing team, or dance workshop, being part of a collective fosters a sense of belonging and camaraderie, and offers us valuable opportunities for social interaction and support.
  5. Be present: In today's digital age, it's easy to get caught up in distractions and fail to fully engage with the people around us. Practice mindfulness and be fully present in your interactions. Put away your devices and give others your undivided attention. Even short moments of genuine connection can enrich your relationships and enhance feelings of fulfillment. The poet and spiritual teacher Mark Nepo reminds us, “Being half anywhere is the true beginning of loneliness.” Be where you are. Try putting your phone on do-not-disturb for a few hours and see the world around you with fresh (and present) eyes.

Studies show that individuals who frequently experience loneliness tend to have higher levels of social empathy, likely due to their own experiences. Recognizing the importance of connection and actively engaging with others can help us cultivate a deeper sense of belonging.

May you move through the world feeling alive, appreciated, curious and in connection with yourself and others!