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In 2017, Vivek Murthy, US Surgeon General, defined the secret sinking, hopeless feeling that was stealing the sunlight from our days. He called loneliness a public health epidemic, something many of us were surprised to hear, wondering, can a feeling really harm our physical health?
His book, Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World, released three years later, is an empathetic account of this clinical disconnection that suffocates too many of us and those we care about. It is also a cutting—and rather radical—critique of the value system that, for better or worse, holds up modern society and how it’s becoming a scourge to our physical and mental health.
Our increasingly complex world is pulling the curtain back on the fragility of our intrapersonal, interpersonal, and universal connections in every area of life. In business, employee disconnection is one of the main drivers of voluntary turnover, costing companies $406 billion a year. Disengaged employees also have lower productivity, more missed days at work, and a lower quality of work, adding to the hard costs.
But the real cost of disconnection is the demise of the quality of far too many lives. During the pandemic, loneliness increased by 181%. Once an ailment reserved for the aging and the isolated, loneliness now touches all of us – no matter if we’re surrounded by coworkers, our children, our families, or our successes. As Murphy narrates, loneliness as a public health epidemic means it’s not only painful but also lethal.
The Deceptive Sides of Connection
A few years ago, a friend shared something that still resonates; it’s what I hear from clients all the time: “I’m busy but bored. I’m tired of Zoom and conversations that either feel stagnant or leave me feeling diminished.” Here’s the fake out—loneliness and feeling disconnected is not necessarily the absence of people but the absence of a sense of authenticity, bonding and purpose. The question is: how can we recover that sense of joy, equanimity and purpose that comes from a healthy, engaged connection with others and even with oneself? The answer lies in confronting the three deceptive sides of connection:
The Superficial Side of Small Talk
Communicating and connecting are words often used synonymously. The truth is we can all communicate, but that does not mean we are connecting in meaningful ways or with the people who are right for us. For the past two decades, small talk has been heralded as no small thing, with studies showing how it benefits introverts by developing their social skills, improving employees’ interpersonal citizenship skills, and even contributing to an improved group climate facilitating a sense of belonging. Yet, suppose we see the forest for the trees. In that case, societal upheaval, increasing divisiveness, the pandemic’s aftermath, and burnout in the workforce have each and collectively created a perilous imbalance of small talk and superficial connections eclipsing the deep communication—big talk—and meaningful social connections needed.
The Anti-Social Side of Social Media
Between unraveling global health crises, climate upheaval, changing work structures, social media, and the temptation for just one more episode – the modern mind is under constant siege. Technology—though useful for connection in many circumstances—is stealing the light of our attention. In an environment of information abundance, attention itself has become a scarce resource. And because it is scarce, it is now an object of competition and commodification for many companies. (Netflix’s C.E.O. has even famously cited that sleep is their most significant competitor). Moreover, too much time on social media immersing ourselves in the illusion of others’ perfect lives can cause emotional harm, augmenting feelings of exclusion, stress, and insecurity.
The Dark Side of Remote Work
While WFH (work from home) comes with many perks (and has even been reported to improve mental health), enjoying the camaraderie of coworkers is not one of them. A recent Microsoft study found that the shift to WFH caused both formal and informal business communities within Microsoft to become more siloed, dropping collaboration time by 25% from the pre-pandemic level.
If you feel disengaged or lonely at work, know it’s not solely an individual issue but an organizational challenge. Quiet quitting and its viral popularity, for example, is a reaction to unsuccessful changes in how most employers have been managing the workforce. According to a recent article from the University of Barcelona, “The psychological contract is increasingly tricky for organizations to handle because the pandemic has altered the expectations of employees significantly.”
How to Active the Energy of Deep Connection
The antidote for disconnection is found in bringing our energy, attention, and sunlight back to what truly matters. We must take the reins away from the three energy-depleting deceptive sides of connection and reinvest in those that contour our lives with love, laughter, and light. Here’s how to start:
Intrapersonal: Your Place Within Yourself
Connection is an inside job. Thriving intrapersonally creates a solid foundation for finding fulfillment in our interpersonal lives. The relationship we have with ourself, including understanding how to replenish our energy, yields a reservoir to nourish a deep connection with others. Intrapersonal energy is like an internal reservoir that requires daily replenishment as levels become depleted.
The problem is that most of us treat personal energy as coming from vast reserves like the ocean. Instead, our personal energy must be cultivated and carefully replenished. It’s like that cell phone that regularly needs a recharge or a reservoir that requires replenishment.
Cultivate and replenish your intrapersonal energy and use it as a forcefield against loneliness. Assess your energy blocks— the essential pieces that ancient traditions and modern research agree bolster your resilience, emotional equanimity, and ability to engage with people and causes you care about.
Interpersonal: Your Place Within Yourself
Interpersonal energy is derived from relationships with others and is gained or lost due to the quantity and quality of those connections. Think of intrapersonal energy as a reservoir and interpersonal energy as an emotional bank account. When invested wisely, interpersonal energy will bolster a sense of courage, equanimity, connection and resilience. Even when we feel too busy to focus on socializing, it’s important to get back into the practice of having face-to-face connection with people we trust and can confide in. Those interactions have been proven to release a healthy cocktail of neurotransmitters that can make us less stressed and more resilient.
Learn to say no, while cultivating and saying yes to healthy relationships to amplify your impact. Unhealthy relationships and toxic connections can leave you feeling depleted and diminished. Healthy relationships will enable you to grow, feel supported, and increase your joy—amplifying the impact you have in your family, workplace, and communities.
Universal: Your Place in the World
Universal energy is free, accessible, and available to be drawn from at will, even when time and resources are scarce. When activated, universal energy can heighten awareness, focus and emotional equanimity while decreasing your stress response. Examples include spending time in nature, experiencing the arts, practicing Qigong.
From an evolutionary perspective, we’re programmed for protection and mutual aid; feeling useful and needed eases our feelings of isolation. Whether we dedicate our time to advocacy against racism, sexism, ableism, or ageism – contributing to causes we care about is an antidote to loneliness and fills our cups. Yet, few of us will discover and devote ourselves singularly to a “Big P” purpose and change the world, much less save it. Becoming overly focused on striving for the type of purpose worthy of capital letters, we can begin to feel out of touch with the vital sources of meaning in our lives that connect us to the bigger world—” little p” purpose.
Little p's add up and can be whatever brings you joy. For me, that means time spent in my garden, then sharing the literal fruits of my labor. What does "little p" purpose look like to you? Whatever it is, do more of that while you cultivate your relationship with purpose.
Let’s Take Care of Each Other, Together
A bit of good news to bookend this newsletter: understanding the deceptive sides of connection empowers creative solutions to help ourselves and those we love, to create more meaningful connections in every area of our lives. Here are great resources to fill our cups today for a less lonely tomorrow:
Connect on a deep and different level that ripples into your community.
Generations Over Dinner is an important and fun new initiative that strives to create meaningful multi-generational conversations and experiences over the original unifier: food.
Skip the small talk.
Make meaningful connections with loved ones, teammates, classmates, coworkers, strangers, new acquaintances, and even yourself. Simple and remarkably powerful: Make Big Talk.
Cultivate camaraderie and collective wisdom.
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Friends, wherever and however you choose to fill your cup—I wish you a time free from fragments and full of wholeness, laughter, and purpose. To leave you with a poetic contemplation:
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New and updated for 2022, Barbara’s science-based, proprietary Five Essential Elements process will enable you to discover how the Elements can change your life. Assess your current energy status and turn insights into action by creating an activation plan to cultivate clarity out of chaos, live authentically and expand your leadership capacity.