The remedy for loneliness is connection.
I’m sitting in a beautiful hotel lobby in Bangkok, with everything I could need. I just had a lovely telephone conversation with my significant other; tomorrow I travel to Bhutan where I will spend 10 days with a sweet bunch of people exploring a land I love; I just came from spending time with a family I love after spending time with another great bunch of people in a deep social and emotional dive in New Zealand. And I’m lonely. Cortisol is telling me that something is wrong.
Why do I feel lonely when I have so many great connections in my life? Because right now, I don’t feel connected – there is no-one in front of me to resonate with; there are no mirror neurons to exchange stories with; there is no hand to hold; there are no eyes to look into. The need for connection is not being met in this moment so cortisol is telling me to pay attention and do something about it, mostly to seek some oxytocin.
Mother Teresa said that the reason we feel lonely is that we forget that we belong to each other. I look around the lobby at the hotel staff and they are all busy with their tasks. The other guests are all busy with their food or their phone or each other. I wonder if the folks in Bangkok feel lonely, or if their sense of community and connection is more robust than it is in the places I live in where independence and autonomy are prized. I also wonder if their sense of spirituality, their connection with Buddhism, makes them feel more connected than those of us in secular cultures feel.
I feel some dissociation starting to happen. I feel pressure at the front of my head and I start to feel sleepy even though I only got out of bed a few hours ago. Is it fatigue or is it resistance?
I connect my dissociation with my feelings of loneliness. Am I abandoning myself?
I check my resources. Sometimes I am drawn to immersing myself in work as a way to resist, but I can feel in my body that this does not feel right. My body doesn’t like it. Another resource I have is my current go-to television show, “Modern Family.” I realize that I feel a familiar connection with the characters on that show and that this might be a remedy for my loneliness. A 2012 paper by Jaye Derrick found that watching familiar, predictable, enjoyable shows soothes us. I totally get it. I’d much rather watch a re-run of a beloved show than drum up energy for a new plot and new characters. My life has enough novelty in it – I want my down-time to be calming, to restore my attention and my energy.
I also reflect on how I can tend to seek activities that will boost my serotonin or dopamine when what I really need is some oxytocin. When I’m feeling lonely I might try to check a bunch of things off my to-do list to boost my dopamine levels, or I might network about teaching opportunities I feel confident about to boost my serotonin, but these might not make me feel connected in the way that oxytocin does. Another resource for me is food, boosting my dopamine through looking forward to something delicious and boosting my serotonin by defying the inner critic that tells me I’m not allowed to have that chocolate cake. But that resource is becoming less effective as I pay more attention to what my body needs to feel nourished and I choose food that is good for my long term wellbeing over food that gives me short term neurochemical spurts. This is the dance of neurochemical wrangling and eudaemonic wellbeing planning.
Another resource I feel very fortunate to have is writing and publishing online. As I write this, I know I am writing this for you, and that makes me feel connected. Also, as I write I draw on information from my inner world and I connect with myself. I belong to myself and to the HeartWorks community.
So now, I feel some hunger creeping in and I know that the remedy for hunger is not connection but food! Dopamine starts to move into my system as I anticipate getting something delicious from the buffet. As my need moves from connection to food I feel happy about how simple it is to satisfy my need for food here, something else to feel very grateful for. As I feel gratitude, I feel connection with myself and I start to cry a little in a burst of oxytocin. I feel serotonin as I realize it’s safe to meet my needs, that I am special enough here to get what I need and that there are lovely staff ready to help me out. More gratitude and a sense of groundedness as I take in the privilege in my life. As I take in the privilege, I connect with everyone else – as I accept my own life circumstance, I can be with everyone else in their life circumstance. I am free to connect without guilt or feeling unworthy.
Then I go up to my room and I speak in gestures with the dear Thai woman cleaning the rooms, and I’m so deeply touched by her desire to understand what I’m asking her even though we don’t speak the same language. I also feel deeply touched by how deeply touched I am to be connecting with her. I sit at my desk and remember I have a resource in music. I play “Movement 1 – Mercy” by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Alanis Morissette from “The Prayer Cycle” album; I wonder how to pronounce “Suvarnabhumi;” I watch the parking attendants check people’s cars; and I cry as a flood of oxytocin fills my system. Suddenly I feel deeply connected with everyone as I see them connect with each other: the parking attendants working together and the drivers cooperating with them; a woman running to join her friend in a parked car; people sweeping the ceilings of the parking garage so that visitors have a nicer experience; the sweetness of the Thai woman; my friends and family; my decisions to live deeply and courageously.
This has been my practice this morning.
If you’re interested in learning about eudaemonic wellbeing, neurochemicals, and how we can use information from our body to choose self-compassion practices, check out Somatic Self-Compassion Online starting in October and starting in November. We’d love to see you there!