Most people are lonely and don’t know it. I know that because I was one of them, and only recently was able to acknowledge that truth.
I am writing this article while sitting in a Starbucks at the corner of 1st Avenue and 13th Street in the East Village of Manhattan. I recently relocated my family to the big apple from Toronto, a city I lived in for twenty-six years, with the intention of expanding our business and our lives. Overnight, this decision uprooted me from daily "hellos" with acquaintances from my neighbourhood, regular coffee chats with friends and the local restaurant servers knowing me by name to spending a great deal of time alone. However, I’ve quickly learned that alone doesn’t equate loneliness, as there are many introverts who spend time by themselves and yet do not feel lonely. Loneliness happens when the human interactions we do have with others are not meaningful. I’m surrounded by 8.8 million people. I can assure you that I have hundreds of interactions with human beings every week. It’s just that most of them have yet to match the meaningful connections I had cultivated back home.
It takes me back to the time when my father lost his job when I was a teenager, and at the age of sixteen we had to move from the security of my small town to the big city where I now had zero friends. Today, I still remember the sadness and frustration I felt walking past conversations of kids planning house parties knowing just a few months earlier it was me that people came to with the plan for Friday night. Back then I would have interpreted my anger as me being mad about not having a social life. Today, I look back at that time and realize I was just sad about not having people to talk to about the things that mattered to me.
As you read these words you may think you are immune from loneliness, and its adverse effects because you “know” people. You have friends, you chat with others at the gym and you just had lunch with your sister the other day. What people often do not realize is that loneliness has nothing to do with who you know, but rather how well you know them.
And the research shows that people know each other less today than at any other moment in time, soon I’m predicting to our own peril. In the critically acclaimed book “Together”, by Dr. Vivek Murthy, researchers claim that loneliness occurs when we don’t feel a meaningful human connection with people within one of three categories. Those being a lack of connection with our friends, our community or our closest confidant, with that most often being an intimate partner or a family member. Not having a meaningful connection to the people within any one of these three categories puts you into the clinical position of experiencing loneliness. Don’t worry you’re not alone.
At work 41% of men and 29% of women say they feel lonely. In America 46% of those studied identified as feeling a general sense of loneliness. During post secondary education, 60% of students said they had felt lonely in the past year, with 30% saying they had felt lonely in the past week. And while these numbers are alarming, what’s more alarming is that research is now drawing a clear line between this lack of human connection and many of the biggest ailments we face today including depression, anxiety, suicide, high blood pressure, heart disease, Alzheimers and even cancer. Knowing this, it’s time to wake up and admit that we are facing a human connection crisis, and if we can solve it we might have a fighting chance at solving many of the other problems we tackle every day.
This brings me back to you. I probably don’t have to convince you of the merit of such things as eating healthy, getting a good night's sleep and exercising daily. Like you, I too have been beaten over the head with these important suggestions for good health for decades. It’s for that reason most sane citizens count their calories, aim for eight hours of rest and squeeze in a few walks during the week.
But what if I told you it is now easier to predict how long you will live, whether you will be struck with disease, and the likelihood of you experiencing mental health challenges throughout your life by knowing the strength of your human relationships better than it is knowing what food you eat, how much you exercise and even whether you smoke cigarettes? It’s a hard concept to swallow, but it turns out we can eat cake and still live a long life with one small change. We just have to talk with each other! And not about the weather, but about whether another person understands how you feel, because it turns out they do. And it turns out that most of them want to talk about it, which sadly will be next to impossible if we keep placing digital communication above interpersonal and, while projecting unrealistically perfect lives on social media .
As I sit in this Starbucks, it’s crystal clear to me that beside the quick banter I just exchanged with the barista that I won’t be approached by someone looking to have a meaningful conversation any time soon. Knowing that, just like eating well, daily exercise and getting sufficient sleep, it’s on me to make it happen. There is a long list of ways in which I can accomplish that including things such as joining clubs, attending events and starting conversations with the fellow parents at my kids school, all of which I’ve done. Making this effort has garnered a handful of short and meaningful connections over the few months I’ve been here, but I am fully aware that if I am to thrive physically, mentally, emotionally and even spiritually that I will need to keep investing into deepening these relationships. Now and forever.
I send this message today with the hope that I can inspire you to do the same. As a corporate speaker, I have always wanted the best for my fellow humans bouncing around outer space on this huge rock we call planet earth. It’s for that reason that I made the decision during the pandemic to help people infuse more meaningful connections at their place of work. It’s a place millions of people spend eight hours a day, so it felt like a good place to start. Whether it’s at a conference, in the office or at the end of a meeting, people are starving for this, you included, so imagine if we all made the effort to find ways to make people feel a little less lonely? What could we accomplish for others and how would it impact our own lives personally? Well, the research says it’s a whole hell of a lot!
Throughout my career, I have had the pleasure of addressing over one million people around the world, and pushing people to be their best has been one of the greatest honours of my life. Today, I have challenged myself to up my game and go further by making it my goal to help generate one million meaningful human connections on planet earth every day. Whether it’s during the cocktail reception at an all staff meeting, one on one between a manager and their team member, or while two colleagues bump into each other in the parking lot, I want to help people engage in powerful conversations that will lead them to a powerful life.
At this point you either agree with me or think this is just a little too “woo woo” for you. If you’re on board, then let’s talk. I’d love nothing more than for you and I to have our own meaningful connection so that I can share the many tricks I have up my sleeve to get people talking before it’s too late. From keynote presentations to weekly exercises, I have a multitude of ways you and your team can be inspired to bring a little extra humanity to the workplace. Oh, and by the way, I didn’t even get into the research explaining how making this kind of effort leads to greater collaboration, higher productivity, less conflict, greater sales and more. I’ll get into that in a future article.
For now, I invite you to take this seriously and explore what it can mean for you. Drop me a line with a question, surf around the website and take advantage of what we have to offer or just leave a comment below. Loneliness is not something we can tackle in one day, but as you know, all great things started with a conversation. Especially powerful conversations!