The situation that we find ourselves in right now has taught me a thing or two about isolation and about connection. Since these restrictive measures have been introduced, I have been feeling much less isolated and much more connected to others than I usually do. Which I found strange! I therefore wanted to understand why I am feeling this way and so I started to look into the research on loneliness and isolation.
Now we know that isolation is bad for our mental health and that having interactions with and connecting with others is important. However, we often don't realise that it is not just the QUANTITY of connections/interactions that is key to our good mental health, but the QUALITY of those connections/interactions that determine how connected (or how isolated) we feel. Having looked into the work of researcher Johann Hari, I have learnt that two things are needed in order for an interaction with someone else to help us to feel more connected and less isolated:
1. Reciprocity: the interaction needs to be mutually beneficial and involve give and take - you can't just listen to someone else, barely speak and expect the interaction to benefit your mental health. It also helps to be on the same level as the person you are interacting with - so if your only interaction is with your boss/a teacher/a therapist or someone that is technically in a position of power/authority, this also may not alleviate your feelings of loneliness as again there is no reciprocity. The same applies the other way too - only interacting with subordinates may also leave you feeling just as lonely or disconnected.
2. Shared meaning and purpose: the interaction needs to be one in which you share a meaning or purpose with another individual. Perhaps you have shared goals, shared dreams or even just a shared interest - but this common ground is crucial for the interaction to alleviate your loneliness. This is why you can be in a big city surrounded by people and feel completely alone - because nobody understands you and nobody shares your meaning/purpose. It is also why when a relationship falls apart, you can feel completely lonely even though you are with your partner every day - because there is no shared vision for the future.
These two crucial ingredients for meaningful and beneficial interactions with others have helped me to understand why I am actually much less lonely (and feel much more connected) now than I usually would. Working as therapist and as a trainer - both of which I love and find immensely rewarding - means that I have many interactions which lack reciprocity. The same would also be true for teachers, doctors and nurses - who may only find that connection through speaking to peers and colleagues. At the moment, in pauses in between training sessions and therapy - I have my husband (and dogs) permanently around me and I am making more effort to connect through video calls with friends, colleagues and family members more regularly too. Being more introverted, it takes more effort on my part - but it is certainly worth it for how much better it makes me feel.
So as you start to think about what you can do - to reach out to others and manage your loneliness... perhaps you too can start to think not just about the QUANTITY of interactions you have but most importantly about the QUALITY of those interactions too.
“All I ever wanted was to reach out and touch another human being not just with my hands but with my heart.” ― Tahereh Mafi