One of the most common problems I see in my clinical work at the Smart Therapy Centre is loneliness. Every day, men and women struggle with lack of connection, alienation and desperate feelings of despair.
Yet, most people think that they (as individuals) are the problem – that there is something wrong with them for being lonely and that everyone else out in the wider world is happy and engaged.
But nothing could be further from the truth. Loneliness is a problem associated with wealthy, first world countries where it is experienced in epidemic proportions.
This is mainly because advanced industrialisation means we no longer live, work and play within our local communities like we used to – which in many ways is good. For example, breaking out of these small local communities broadens our horizons, enables us to see larger goals, reduces conformity and allows individual difference to flourish unhindered by small-minded social pressures to fit in.
But we also lose something in the process. Our friendships become less embedded in knowing the ‘whole’ person in depth.
Also, once we are ‘extracted’ from local communities that still do exist (like schools and small towns) those friendships will frequently, over time, become eroded and empty because there is no longer any regular interaction with daily problems we need to cooperatively solve.
We can however get around loneliness to some extent, but it often involves letting go of the notion that friendship is forever and has some personal, intrinsic, deep and individual meaning. Instead we must accept the reality that once the shared activity is over, usually so too is the friendship – since we are no longer involved in the side-by-side shared social process of working on daily concerns.
Quite reasonably, many people do not want to face this reality and they continue to hold onto outdated friendships from old local communities where everyone is increasingly irrelevant to each other as time passes. This is fine, so long as you don’t expect anything too deep and satisfying from these occasional encounters since what creates the depth is the process of day-to-day interaction.
On the other hand, if we want the advantages of extraction from local communities (bigger visions) but fewer of the disadvantages (loneliness), then we can join interest groups that are relevant to our current lives and where we are keen to solve the same problems as other group members.
It is in these places where we will find people with whom we have more in common. Also, with the focus on frequent contact and the side-by-side shared activity we can gradually delve deeper into other shared interests allowing us to know more of the ‘whole’ in other group members over time.
I generally find in my clinical work that it is helpful for people to join groups that meet often and are purposeful. Such ‘groups’ could include paid work; dance groups; political groups; volunteer work; reading groups; running groups; science clubs; migrant groups; orienteering clubs; bushwalking clubs; business groups; community service groups; gardening clubs; choirs; chess clubs; travel groups; art groups; ukulele clubs; tennis clubs and so on.
In these contexts, people engage in vigorous participation in order to achieve common goals and in order to improve and increase understanding, while having great fun and deriving ‘meaning’ doing the much-loved activity.
It is particularly beneficial if there are opportunities within these groups for smaller gatherings as well as a larger pool of people nearby coming in and out to bring in fresh ideas and help prevent stagnation and conformity. An example of this might be learning to dance at several venues (to increase frequency and closer connection in smaller groups) while sometimes attending large dance gatherings where all venues come together to compete and/or just to dance the night away.