A map in my hand
The trail is wide beneath me
I’d rather be lost
This is not one of your typical “loneliness” posts where I tell you how to be happy when you’re single, talk about how great it is to be alone, or tell you how you need to find someone because that’s what we’re supposed to do. Actually, it’s kind of the opposite.
I do a lot of reading, in particular on Medium, and I’ve noticed quite a few posts recently talking about the negative health effects of loneliness. And on the whole, I agree with most of the research (it is science after all). Loneliness does age you and if you are lonely, it contributes greatly to detrimental health, including higher rates of depression, anxiety, and general poor self-confidence. Additionally, lonely people tend to have shorter lifespans. That being said, some of the articles like to conflate loneliness with being physically alone, and that’s just not the same thing.
Loneliness is a feeling. A feeling that you are totally isolated, sad and have no connection to the outside world. It is NOT the same as being alone. I can (and have) been in rooms full of hundreds of people and felt lonely. Conversely, I’ve spent an entire weekend in my car on a road trip alone and never felt more connected to the world.
Mostly, it’s about perception and where you are mentally, emotionally, spiritually and physically within yourself. I have felt absolute loneliness, and I have felt a total sense of community without constantly scratching that social itch. And while I have never and will never claim to have all the answers (or any answers), I can talk about what has helped me. No solution is ever going to work for everyone, and anyone claiming they have a fix to a problem for everyone is full of shit. I honestly believe in the idea that everyone is doing their best with what they have, so I just want to help spread as much good as I can.
So these are the things that help me live my life on my own terms, connected with my community, without feeling lonely and isolated. If these work for you, then I’m glad. And if not, keep trying things. Again, we are not a monolith, so we all should be doing whatever works for us individually. I’ll start with the most important one:
Unfortunately, none of the rest of the things matter until you figure this one out. A few years ago, I took a road trip to visit some National Parks in my area (Cuyahoga NP in Ohio and Mammoth Cave in Kentucky). I wanted to clear my head, but also take some alone time. And it didn’t really work. I had a good enough time, but it was just an okay trip. And I didn’t realize until a year later, when I took a trip to Colorado, that the first trip was lacking.
When I drove to Colorado, everything that could have gone wrong, did. My engine blew up in the middle of Kansas, I had to rent a tiny car to finish my trip, then catch a one-way flight back to Kansas two weeks later, two days before Thanksgiving, to get my car. I say all that to say, I enjoyed that trip a thousand times more than the first. And it was because I was more in tune and comfortable with who I was and loved myself more.
Loving yourself is the deal breaker. You can do all the meditation, all the yoga, eat the cleanest diet, and go to the gym every day. And all of that can bring self-love, mental clarity, and self-confidence. But if it’s not coming from a place of love, it will be tainted.
Piggybacking off my road trip stories, another reason I enjoyed the trip to Colorado more was the intention of the trips. When I went to Ohio and southern Kentucky, I was trying to get away from things: my thoughts, my connections, my life. I wanted to be anywhere else. And it put an unnecessary pressure on the road in front of me. “I will clear my head. I will have a good time.” Forcing life isn’t an option.
When I went to Colorado, I had two goals: meet up with friends I hadn’t seen in a while and experience the mountains for the first time. I had no expectations of my friends (we had a great time) and I had no expectations of the mountains (they were better than advertised).
That release of pressure and expectations contributed to my enjoyment of the trip, in the same way that doing so contributes to the joy of life. Seek out experiences of value and then let go. If it’s truly something of value, you will be guided in the right direction.
I spend most of my time alone. Even putting sleep aside, I’d say I spend roughly 2/3 of my waking hours alone. And this doesn’t bother me because of what I do with those six-ish hours. I work in a service industry job, so I talk to 50–100 people every day. I eat at restaurants a lot and I try to create relationships with the people that work there. I’m not saying I’m a social butterfly, but I do interact with enough people to get my fill.
If you are more extroverted or don’t have your social needs met now, I’d suggest local groups based on your interests. If you’re a runner, join a running group. If you love books, check in with a library about any “Book of the Month” clubs. Even social media is a place to interact with people you see eye-to-eye with. It gets a bad rap, but social media is exactly that: social.
There are always ways to socialize more, you just have to know your limits. If you are socializing too much or not enough, you will wreck yourself. When I’m forced to be a social butterfly are the times that I’m most withdrawn. And if I isolate myself too much, I start to feel hopeless. Finding that right balance and respecting your own time will ensure that you keep your loneliness in check.
This was the biggest realization I had when starting to shift my thinking on being lonely. None of us are ever alone. There is always energy around us, coming from every living thing. When we drive down the street, we are connected with the other drivers around us. We have to be. If we weren’t we would disregard law and sense and put others in danger.
The place that I find connection in over anywhere else is in nature. Nature is one of the best places for connection because of the amount of living things that surround us. If I’m in my apartment, I’m surrounded by a bunch of man-made objects and a few neighbors. If I’m in a social setting, I’m usually surrounded by a bunch of people who are so sucked into their phones, they aren’t even connecting with the person in front of them. But when I’m in nature, unencumbered by technology, the only things left to connect with are the trees surrounding me, the dirt beneath my feet, the bugs and wildlife building homes and working together. And that clarity can improve your chances to connect with yourself.
When you start to feel connected to everything around you, it’s a lot hard to get lost in the day-to-day shuffle. Your sense of community grows and your loneliness fades. It’s so easy to limit connection to the ones we experience with humans, but expanding that to every living thing is a game changer.
I want to emphasize that this is not an advice column and these are not guaranteed practices toward success. Too many people claim to be experts before dispensing knowledge that “should work for anyone”. And if it doesn’t work for you, then there’s something wrong with you.
I am just a man who has noticed some things that have improved my life, and I want to spread the good word. I’d encourage everyone to try different things to enhance their lives in whatever way they feel they are lacking. Just make sure to listen to your self when your decisions start to point you in the right direction.
A few weeks ago, I went hiking on the Appalachian Trail. You can read about my experience here. Because it was unfamiliar territory, and because there are legit BEARS in the mountains, I went hiking without having my headphones in. I needed to be able to detect threats if needed or be more in tune with my surroundings in case a worst-case-scenario happened.
I’m usually the person that doesn’t go anywhere without headphones. The grocery, walking down the street, even at work if I’m working alone, I’ll have my headphones in. It’s my safe space and my bubble that will usually deter people from trying to disrupt me. So to hike for three hours in the middle of nowhere without headphones was definitely outside my comfort zone.
I won’t rehash my entire experience again, but it ended up being a beautiful experience where I was able to clear my head. Without the constant noise to distract me, I was able to dig deep into some issues that I’ve been having and find answers. And I also was able to think of new things I wanted to investigate or do. It was a great place to find some clarity.
I knew I wanted to try it in the city, where the images aren’t so picturesque and the sounds aren’t so serene.
When I came back to the real world, I knew I wanted to try it in the city, where the images aren’t so picturesque and the sounds aren’t so serene. I wanted to see if I could find that same happiness when the elements weren’t in my favor. And while it wasn’t the same experience, the few times I’ve run without headphones since have been beneficial, in most of the same ways.
Make no mistake, headphones are still necessary for me most days. I’m getting back into running shape, which means the majority of my miles are arduous and painful. And the podcasts or music that I like to listen to are a big help toward getting me to the end of my miles for the day. But every once in a while, it’s nice to unplug and listen to the silence (or cars) around you.
“Life can’t compete with memories that never have to change.”