7 Lessons You Need To Actually Beat Loneliness & Form Real Connections
Loneliness is an epidemic, especially in America.
The average person in the U.S. has only one close friend, and 75% of people say they're unsatisfied with their friendships. Bleak, right? As if that's not bad enough, only 53% of people in the U.S. have meaningful in-person social interactions, like an extended conversation with a friend or spending quality time with a family member, on a daily basis. (This makes me wonder: What the hell is happening in offices? We spend a third of our lives1 at work! Clearly, most companies are not creating a culture where people are able to form meaningful relationships.)
Yet people being lonely isn't just sad. It's also terrible for our health. Believe it or not, loneliness is just as tied to early mortality2 as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, being an excessive drinker, or being obese. Think about how many times your health teacher lectured you about the dangers of binge drinking when you were growing up. Did they ever mention how crucial intimate relationships are for your well-being? Probably not once. They were too busy telling you how having sex will make you get pregnant and die. (Shout-out to Mean Girls.)
As loneliness is skyrocketing in America, attendance at religious services is plummeting. Thirty-nine percent of Americans ages 18 to 39 have no religious affiliation at all. That number has nearly quadrupled from 10% in the past 30 years. In America as a whole, 23% of people are religiously unaffiliated, and 16% identify as "nothing in particular." This religious makeup is totally different from 50 years ago, when most people in the United States relied on a single religious community.
To summarize all of this in a simple equation: A decrease in the number of meaningful gatherings in America, combined with increased isolation, has resulted in a loneliness epidemic. It's literally killing us, and we're not doing enough to fight it.
When we gather together purposefully, we experience a sense of shared humanity. We feel less alone.
The solution? Create consistent, healthy congregations that fulfill us in the way that organized religion used to.
At first glance, that statement is probably confusing. When you read the word "congregation," you typically think of a group of people who gather for religious worship. In fact, if you look in Webster's dictionary, that's pretty much what you'll find. Yet if you flip forward a few pages to "congregate," you'll find something different.
Congregate: To collect into a group or crowd.
Were you expecting something cooler? Me too.
So, while it hurts my English major heart to do this, I have to disagree with the dictionary. I believe that the act of congregation is about more than people simply existing in the same space. It's about coming together with intention and creating the container for moments of healing, transformation, and community.
When we gather together purposefully, we experience a sense of shared humanity. We feel less alone.
Being welcomed into secular congregations has changed my life. These gatherings have given me the space to share what's in my heart, heal from trauma, repair my relationship with my body, and genuinely feel like I matter. While organized religion could have offered me those same benefits, it didn't feel like the right place for me. It still doesn't.
I wrote Unlonely Planet because I want to destigmatize loneliness and provide a framework for anyone to find and create their own healthy congregation. These are some of the lessons that I learned in the process of writing the book that I'd like to share with you:
Couples can be lonely, too.
One relationship cannot fulfill your every need. That's why a rich network of friends is always necessary, regardless of having a romantic partner or not. Throughout my research, I talked to multiple couples who were happy in their relationship yet felt the burden of their partner relying on them for everything.
"I want more consistency in my interactions with friends," one man told me. "I feel like I see them once every five weeks. I want a stronger sense of community."
Community is not aimed at older folks.
Anyone who's over 50 is more than welcome at the events I host and feature in The Joy List, my weekly newsletter of events that New Yorkers can attend alone and leave with a new friend. Yet I'll admit, that person will be out of the average age range. I've had to tell curious Joy List-ers this before, and they inevitably feel disappointed that they're going to stick out.
Even communal housing options in New York City typically host people in their 20s and 30s. While an older person is welcome in this space, they won't necessarily fit in. Running The Joy List has taught me how few intergenerational events and housing options there are in New York. My guess is if that's the case here, it's also happening in other cities.
However, some do exist. Programs like DOROT give older folks the opportunity to mentor high schoolers. The students get help with their homework, and the mentors have a sense of purpose. In the end, both feel more connected. In a different realm, Nuns and Nones gives religious women and millennials the opportunity to share their spiritual worldviews. Both parties learn from each other and feel like their voice matters.
Finding your people is a commitment.
I have chatted with so many people who desperately want closer friendships yet convince themselves they don't have the time to create those relationships.
"I don't even get out of the office," one woman confided. "But I don't feel lonely in the sense that the place makes me lonely. It's me. I'm not making the time to put myself out there."
Carlin Ross, a sex education teacher, once told me that women feel so much shame around their sexuality because they simply don't understand their bodies. "Yet having a great sex life doesn't come automatically," she told me. "People have to invest the time and energy to teach themselves. But we think we should already know everything. So we feel broken when our sex lives aren't fantastic."
That same concept applies to amazing friendships. They take a big investment, yet we're never explicitly told that. So, when we live without them, we live with the shameful assumption that something is wrong with us—rather than the understanding that we're simply not growing our skill set. How can anyone expect a friendship to grow if you don't know how to nurture it?
Our homes can make us happy.
So many people in New York City are desperate for housing and choose to live with anyone who seems mildly sane. Yet if you have the luxury of choosing who you live with, why not share space with someone who makes you a better person?
Moving in with roommates who care about me and make an active effort to help me grow has improved my quality of life like nothing else. Don't assume you'll find great relationships outside of your apartment. You sleep and eat your meals there. You should have some friendship as well!
Find the connectors.
Every community has someone who absolutely loves connecting people to one another. You'll recognize them by their insane amount of Facebook friends, a friendly grin, and the fact that at least three people have told you, "Wait, you haven't met [insert name here] yet? They know everyone!"
If you have social media, locating these people is easy—especially if you're about to move to a new city. Simply post something along the lines of:
"Hey, everyone! I'm moving to Chicago and looking for connections to amazing people. Who should I meet?"
If you're searching for more connections in your current area, simply remove the "I'm moving to Chicago" section. You'll be surprised by how many people are tagged. Folks love to help. You just need to give them permission to do their thing.
Don't just consume; collaborate.
It’s easy to show up at an event and expect to be catered to. And sometimes that's nice. Yet it's often more rewarding to contribute to the space. This is why I always recommend that people volunteer at events. Not only will this save money, but it also allows them to meet the organizers and their fellow volunteers. You already have some shared values with those people, which means you're likely to get along.
Volunteering also helps with social anxiety. When new people enter the room, you don't have to stand there wondering what to do. You have a purpose—checking them in, serving food, taking their coat. This helps conversation move more naturally and gives you a sense of direction.
This rule applies for more informal gatherings as well. You could just show up at someone's brunch and expect to be fed. But the hosts will appreciate you—and you'll feel more at ease—if you bring a bunch of ingredients to create a small dish like a fancy cheese plate. You have something to occupy your hands, a conversation starter, and instant gratitude from the hosts and guests right off the bat. Boom.
Be a gatherer.
New Yorkers love to say, "People are too busy. They won't come to an event if I invite them." I love you, but I'm going to call bullshit. So many people are waiting to be invited. Even if they can't go or are too anxious to attend, they will be so thankful that you thought of them and reached out. It's a gift to tell someone you'd like to spend time with them.
I think a lot of people are too passive in their social lives. And I get it. The fear of being rejected can prevent us from reaching out. Yet I'm a firm believer in what Adam "Smiley" Poswolsky, a Camp Grounded counselor, said in a memorial piece to its founder: "Some people spend their time living; some people spend their time creating the world they actually want to live in."
Which one do you want to be?
Jillian Richardson is a professional community builder, writer, and founder of The Joy List, a popular weekly newsletter with the mission of reducing loneliness in New York City and eventually the world. She's also the author of #1 Amazon new release Unlonely Planet: How Healthy Congregations Can Change the World.
Richardson is committed to creating connection and community by organizing places where people feel seen, heard, and valued. She's been sending The Joy List out every Monday morning for three years, helping thousands of people build connection to both place and each other. She also helps companies like Meetup, Moo, Intel, Comcast, and many others create community based around authentic human connection. Her work has been featured at NBC, Quartz, Salon, The Establishment, Marie Claire, and elsewhere.