I’m a 27-year-old millennial with a booming career. I have a family that loves me unconditionally and I have friends that I have known for years. For crying out loud, it’s 2019—I have the world at my fingertips! Despite all of this, however, I fight with a kind of loneliness that even someone from a background like mine cannot shake. Maybe I needed fresh air or to get out even more than I already was? The truth is: I tried all of that and it doesn’t work.
My loneliness often takes me by surprise. I could be out shopping—dancing down the streets of Chicago with my headphones in—during the first half of my day and suddenly spend the second half of day at home alone in the dark, wondering why no one “likes” me. I tried hard to understand these feelings, documenting my exact thoughts in a journal or recording my voice in “happy” and “sad” times for comparison. I came to accept that fact that I was just “depressed” and needed medication. I quickly learned I didn’t.
Enter the work of Dr. Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston who has spent the past two decades studying courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy. In her book Braving The Wilderness, she breaks down the root cause of loneliness and how it can manifest itself among individuals and groups of people. She illustrates how loneliness can transcend the body into physical space. She lays out how to mitigate loneliness when it consumes us.
Dr. Brown posits that, among other things, as people continuously stratify—or sort, as Dr. Brown puts it—themselves into homogenous groups centered around similar beliefs, political ideologies, or other like-minded groups. As you would guess, sorting results in groups of people who share similar thought patterns. It sends a signal to folks within a particular group that they can trust one another. That, within the confines of a politically, racially, or spiritually indistinguishable walled garden, people like them are in good company.
Often referencing the work of Bill Bishop, Dr. Brown asks, “Wouldn’t you think that all of the sorting by politics and beliefs we’ve been doing would lead to more social interaction?” Citing years of research, Dr. Brown submits that “at the same time sorting is on the rise, so is loneliness.” One would assume that as people begin to assimilate across various idiosyncrasies, they also become happier. This is, as Dr. Brown points out in the book, unequivocally not true.
Take, for example, folks who gather on partisan beliefs. According to Bill Bishop, “In 1976, less than 25 percent of Americans lived in places where the presidential election was a landslide.” Contrasting that to the 2016 presidential election, Bishop cites that “80 percent of U.S. counties gave either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton a landslide victory.” As is illustrated by Bishop, it’s more likely than ever that we no longer share neighbors who are different from us, politically speaking.
So what’s the point? It all boils down to connection. Dr. Brown illustrates in her book that loneliness is, in both a qualitative and quantitative way, linked to connection. Dr. Brown states that “at the same time sorting is on the rise, so is loneliness.” However, sorting ourselves is not the reason we’ve become lonelier — fear is. Fear drives out connection. Even within an in-group formed on the basis of a particular shared facet, certain aspects of a person — like their race, gender, and other attributes — may cease to be reconciled, creating yet another pocket of indifference.
While I think there is a lot to be learned about the relationship between connection, fear, and the assimilation of similar ideologies on a macro level, I would like to return to how all of this opened my eyes and how it can be applied on a micro—or individual—level. As I began to dive deeper into my personal experiences, I started with my friendships. As I mentioned earlier on, I have a good amount of friends; however, it wasn’t with my close friends that I felt connected in such a way that would rid me of lonliness. Most of my close friends are part of the LGBT community, grew up in the same children’s home I did, or share some other strong common characteristic. It was with the friends with whom I had to push myself to reach across the aisle and engage in conversation over political, spiritual, or ideological differences that I experienced the strongest feeling of connection. Simply put: Engaging with friends who are different than I drove out my fear and laid the foundation for a meaningful relationship.
To be clear, and to hopefully drive this home for folks: I am not proclaiming that reconciling political, spiritual, or ideological differences is the only way to combat loneliness. Boiling this down to the core argument raised by Dr. Brown: fear drives a lack of connection and a lack of connection drives an increase in loneliness. Certainly, as we becoming more politically divided, afraid of reconciling our differences and thusly driving out any chance at connecting, we too, will also experience loneliness. However, stepping out of our comfort zone (overcoming fear) and seeking connection with others on hobbies in which we think we lack skill, movies that we render “not our type”, or music that we don’t necessarily vibe to, will drive out loneliness. This can be done with friends who may consider close or among friends with whom you lack a strong bond. It can be done informally through having a gathering in your home or formally through joining or starting a book club or other group.
For myself and maybe for you, I hope we take heed of the advice Dr. Brown puts forward and find ways to connect on a meaningful level – even if that connection exists outside of political, spiritual, and ideological indifference. For once a connection is forged, our differences can be reconciled.