Loneliness is epidemic in Canada. According to Statistics Canada, more than one in ten people in Canada are always or often lonely. In people who live alone, that number rises to nearly one in four (Canadian Social Survey: “Loneliness in Canada,” November 24, 2021).
Like many emotions, loneliness has physical consequences. It can, in fact, increase “a person’s risk of premature death from all causes, a risk that may rival those of smoking, obesity, and physical inactivity” (CDC: “Loneliness and Social Isolation Linked to Serious Health Conditions”).
Loneliness fits nicely into that gospel category called variously trials, adversity, tribulations, but it has its own characteristics, causes, and remedies. It deserves, from time to time, some attention on its own. To begin with, unlike sickness, death, or extreme poverty, loneliness is pretty much invisible. A young mother surrounded by pre-schoolers can be lonely for another woman to talk to. A bishop, who spends hours every day meeting and working with people, might be in need of a friend. One thing for sure: loneliness is universal. Everyone has at some time felt alone.
I was lonely when I moved from my parents’ home to university. I was lonely as a young wife in a new town and new ward. I suffered from loneliness when my husband passed away, not just for the loss of him but the loss of old relationships that changed with my widowhood.
So, if we have all experienced it, why do we find it so hard to say, “I’m lonely.” Something inside us can’t help thinking maybe the problem is within us. We aren’t smart enough, or fun enough, or likeable enough. We aren’t quite sure this loneliness isn’t deserved.
I have a beloved sister who has moved many times because of her husband’s work. She is naturally outgoing. She has learned to expect a time of aloneness in a new city, and has developed ways to make new friends in new places. But even she remembers a night, sobbing as she knelt beside her bed, saying, “Heavenly Father, your children in this place are not very nice!”
Notice the examples of others
I am not an expert; not a psychologist or counsellor or a sociologist. I don’t have a three-step process guaranteed to fix you right up. The internet has numerous reputable sources such as government provincial and national health services that will give you resources and suggestions. The purpose of this article is to reassure you that feelings of isolation are far from uncommon, and to share some examples of people fighting against it—for themselves and others.
On a recent family Facebook post a middle-aged man asked, “How do you make friends as adults?” There is loneliness behind that question, and no one, clear, easy answer. Every solution will involve some reaching out, a step much easier for some than others. Each reaching out involves some risk.
My parents lived in a rural area for the first 60 years of their marriage. They lived in the same house and the same ward (although there were divisions and changes) all that time. In the way of small, small towns, they knew every neighbour, and shared in events large and small. In their early eighties, when the acre lot and big house were too much, they moved to town. “Oh, no,” I thought. “They’ve waited too long. They’ll never make friends now!”
But I was wrong. No one told my mother that in town, you didn’t share with neighbours whenever you made sweet rolls, or walk all the way around the block to introduce yourself to the woman behind the tall cinder brick fence backing on your yard. Six years later, at Mom’s funeral, the neighbours were there. One said to me, “Before she came, we were just people living on the same street. Now we’re friends.”
It requires a certain kind of friend to fend off loneliness, but the more people you have as friendly acquaintances, the greater opportunity to find the kindred spirits we all crave.
Another couple I know, also in their eighties, told me, “We gathered up all our courage and took invitations to all our neighbours for a potluck garden party.” To their surprise, everyone came. They had name tags complete with house numbers, and for many, it was the first time they knew who lived next door, two doors down, across the street from them. Everyone agreed it should be an annual event, and when one family moved, the wife made a special visit to our friends to say, “I’m moving, but I’d like to come back for the parties!”
But . . . . . .
All very well for extroverts, you might say, but I could never do that. And, of course, it is easier for some than others. But we can all make an effort to push a bit past our comfort zone. As a new widow, I found it impossible to initiate social arrangements, although my calendar was completely and devastatingly empty. Some married friends would have been willing to take me along as a third wheel indefinitely, but that didn’t seem a fair or wise option. I set myself three rules:
1. Spend thirty minutes daily in scripture reading, prayer, or meditation
2. Spend thirty minutes a day in physical activity
3. Say “yes” to every invitation
All three were a help in those difficult times, but the results of the third were observable. Some of the single women in my ward invited me to the occasional movie, meal, trip to the dog park, or ride to the border to pick up packages. Often it would have been easier to stay home, but eventually I didn’t have to force myself to go, and the friendships I made have been lasting.
Even an introvert can set a goal to learn two names each Sunday, and to speak to two people each week. When someone says, “Hi! How are you?” answer, “Fine, thanks!” and add one sentence. You can practice it at home before you leave. “I’m getting my cast off this week, so I’m happy.” Or “I can finally see the grass through the snow.” This shows your willingness to engage. When you are aware of someone you would like to know better, invite them over for fresh cookies and milk, or whatever your specialty is. Stride one step past your comfort zone.
Rely on the Lord for help
All the “Sunday School answers” will be of help as you struggle. Prayer and scripture reading, service, will all help you become closer to our Heavenly Father, and give you comfort, but earthly connections are vital as well. Ministering well is a start. Each of us can be a friend, learning to know and appreciate those we are called to visit, making sure they feel welcome at meetings and activities.
In a 1969 talk, President Gordon B. Hinckley said this: “There is no lonelier picture in history than of the Savior upon the cross, alone, the Redeemer of mankind, the Savior of the world, bringing to pass the Atonement, the Son of God suffering for the sins of mankind” (Gordon B. Hinckley, “The Loneliness of Leadership” [Brigham Young University devotional, Nov. 4, 1969], speeches.byu.edu).
Surely, He who endured the ultimate loneliness will bless us as we seek His help in finding a sense of belonging and genuine friendship.