Four ways to overcome loneliness in a Facebook ‘friend’ era

We have have hundreds of “friends” and “followers” on social media, yet we’re feeling lonely.

Despite the rapid growth of social media, a recent survey of 20,000 American adults found that nearly half reported feeling sometimes or always lonely.

It’s a paradox. On the one hand, some adults have acquired hundreds of Facebook and Instagram friends and follow their every move. Some folks are receiving and sending texts to family and friends by the bucketload. But on the other hand, these same adults feel lonely.

It doesn’t make sense. Or does it?

Humans are pack animals, like our close friends, canines. We want to be part of a pack (family), have connections with others and need companionship. Some adults need to have many friends, and others are content with just a couple of close companions. But none of us is an island — we need other people in order to be healthy and happy.

The loneliest time in my life was a three-month period I spent in England when I was 19. My college in Cambridge had a field term where students worked in an educational or cultural setting (now called an internship). I was lucky to get a placement working in a bookstore.

But it was hard to make connections with my coworkers, who were all much older. I wasn’t involved all with the university, so there weren’t easy ways to meet other college kids. I was also pretty shy then, too. I spent many hours alone and, by the end of the semester, I was pretty depressed.

In addition to companionship, we also have a strong need to be understood by another — to feel that someone really gets us. We also need to have a friend who will show up when we need them. This is where the rubber meets the road. It takes time to develop these kinds of relationships.

Modern life, with its fast pace and long work hours, doesn’t leave much time for finding and maintaining friendships. Facebook friends aren’t real friends, even if they “like” something you post. These digital relationships aren’t like having a cup of coffee with a buddy at your local Starbucks.

So, how can we nurture our social connections?

Take a class. Every Monday I attend a tai chi class with 15 other adults. Over the years, we have become friends while practicing and learning together. We are a small learning community. I also developed deep friendships with fellow students over the 20 years I practiced aikido. There are all kinds of classes to take — dance, exercise, yoga, photography, painting. If you can think of it, there’s a class for it.

Participate. There are hiking clubs, chess clubs and sailing clubs. I love watching young adults, of all fitness levels, playing in underdog softball leagues. What a great way to meet new people and have fun together! I’ve met many people at my local gym who work out at the same time I do. Religious and spiritual organizations also have many opportunities to get involved. Book clubs have sprung up everywhere, combining the joy of reading with the pleasure of eating with others.

Get involved. Instrumental relationships or social connections based on doing something together — like working on a project, a committee or an activity — brings people together naturally and builds social connections. Volunteering is a great way to form these kind of natural relationships.

Make time for friends. In our busy lives, this isn’t always easy. Maintaining friendships is as important as meeting new people. It takes commitment and time, but it’s well worth it.

Just as we pay attention to our health, through better eating, exercise and adequate rest, we benefit from keeping our social world alive and well.

Paul Schoenfeld is a psychologist at The Everett Clinic. His Family Talk blog can be found at www.everettclinic.com/family-talk-blog.

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