What is the worst possible punishment?
While your average teen might claim that being grounded from his or her phone would be the worst punishment (and maybe an adult or two might agree), our society has determined that there is something worse.
Solitary confinement is something that is used to punish those prisoners for whom regular prison isn't a punishment enough, and the effects can be extreme. Put simply, we were made for connecting with other humans, and the loss of that connection is the worst punishment you can receive.
A recent study by health care provider Cigna found that nearly half of Americans sometimes or always feel alone or left out. When we talk about loneliness, we often have some immediate assumptions we make. For example, we think of elderly people who maybe have been widowed. We blame social media for ruining our ability to connect with those around us in a face-to-face context. While these things are parts of the conversation on loneliness, they aren't a very accurate picture.
Yes, there definitely are elderly people who experience loneliness. According to the Cigna study, however, the loneliest group of people are actually members of Generation Z — people born in the 1990s or early 2000s. And, yes, social media has changed the way that people interact. But the Cigna study only found a small difference in the rates of loneliness between people who identified as high users of social media and those who used no social media at all. What conclusions can we make about loneliness, then?
First, it’s important to recognize that loneliness affects all types of people, from young children all the way up to our elderly. Many times we judge loneliness based on how much people are doing. For example, we might not think that our teenagers are prone to being lonely because of all the different things they have going on. After all, between school and sports and clubs, they seem to always be around someone. While loneliness can be measured simply by how often people come into face-to-face contact with others, there are many people who regularly interact with other people and still are lonely. A better measurement, then, is the amount of meaningful face-to-face interactions that you have in a day. The Cigna study found that barely half of Americans have a meaningful, in-person conversation with someone else daily. So you can be the busiest person in the world and still experience loneliness if you aren't having conversations that go beyond what the weather is like or how your favorite sports team did the other night.
A second thing to be aware of is that there are usually certain times in our lives when loneliness is more common. These times are most often during the transitions in our lives. Perhaps you just moved to a new city and are trying to figure out where you fit in. Maybe your last kid just left the house and now there's this awkward quietness that permeates your home in a way you haven't experienced in decades. Or, you could have recently lost a spouse or a loved one and are now experiencing not only grief but also a loss of companionship. If you are going through a transition that has caused you to feel lonely, find someone to open up to about what you're going through.
While there's no short cut to moving through the transitional periods of life, one of the most important things is to not allow your sadness and loneliness to pull you away from those already in your life. Also, remind yourself that this is a stage of life and that the way you are feeling won't be forever, even if it feels like it will.
So often when we experience negative emotions for a prolonged period of time we begin to believe that this is how it's always going to be. Don't try to block the emotion, but rather accept it and tell yourself that there will be a time when things get better.
Finally, and perhaps most obviously, the key to moving out of loneliness and into connection with people is by putting yourself out there. While this may seem easy for some, there are many people who deal with social anxiety or crippling depression that cause this to be a really difficult challenge. If you are someone like that, find someone you trust that you can talk with about what you're experiencing. And if you know someone who is like that, reach out to them. While it will take moving out of your comfort zone, it's the only way to also begin to move away from loneliness.
• Mischa McCray is a licensed professional counselor and a licensed marriage and family therapist. Send questions or topics you’d like him to discuss to email@example.com.