Conquering Loneliness During the Holidays

Posted by Allen Rucker in Life After Paralysis on December 21, 2022 # Lifestyle

Holiday postLoneliness is a contagion in America. It’s almost a national characteristic, like the love of guns. The literature on the subject is vast -- there are a hundred books, memoirs, studies, and probably podcasts about loneliness. One telling statistic from a source called the Roots of Loneliness Project: 80% of people under 18 are lonely at times vs 40% of those over 65. And 73% of Millennials report they are lonely. It’s an equal opportunity malady.

I have been intensely lonely at times in my life – losing my father from a freak accident at the age of two, for instance, or my first year at a new college – but I’ve never felt lonelier than the extended period after becoming paralyzed. And the experience continues to repeat itself in smaller doses. Disability and loneliness are often roommates. To quote the same source, “people with disabilities, in general, struggle with loneliness more: 50% of them are lonely and 1 in 4 feel lonely every day.

To explore one response to this condition, especially relevant during the holiday season when acute loneliness becomes rampant, I turned to one of the pioneers of the study of loneliness, a research psychologist from the University of Chicago named John Cacioppo. Along with William Patrick, he wrote a groundbreaking book in 2004 called “Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection.” Cacioppo is an expert’s expert. A couple of years back, Google said his work had been cited over 128,000 times.

The various forms of loneliness and its effects on health and behavior are too much to discuss here – and beyond my bandwidth -- but Cacioppo offers up some sage counsel about combating loneliness that I think is worth expanding upon. “The most difficult l hurdle for people in the throes of loneliness is that, although they are going through something that feels like a hole in the center of their being – a hunger that needs to be fed – this ‘hunger” can never be satisfied by a focus on “eating.” In other words, you can’t demand or even wish people to be your friends. You can generate a long list of acquaintances and call them your friends, but that doesn’t make them so. If you go out and just ask or try to cajole someone into being your friend, your blatant neediness will likely put them off. That’s “eating,” and it rarely works.

“What’s required,” Cacioppo says, “is to step outside the pain of our own situation long enough to “feed” others. The way out of loneliness runs, ironically, through the needs of other people. It’s about attending to them, not how they relate to you.”

I think some people know this intuitively, but often don’t act on it. It’s a me-first society. We listen to reply, not understand. Someone serving the needs of others happily, big or small, is a person with a lot of friends. And when you can make a connection, you are rewarded with a friendship back, the Golden Fleece.

There are a hundred of ways of going about this, but a starting point is simple: listen. Growing up, I was taught to talk, not listen, to try to compete with all the other talkers. To many of us, talking is how we present ourselves to the world. We never had “listening practice.” A recently released book on combating adversity, “Life Is Hard,” by Kieran Setiya, offers this finding: “A growing of evidence indicates that learning how to listen well is the path to relations. Listen – really, listening – is hard work. Listening by itself might be enough to forge a connection. Doing it well takes courage and resilience.”

These are hardcore, evidence-based social scientists, leaning on peer-reviewed empirical evidence, but I remember hearing much the same how-to-live advice from my dear grandmother growing up in Oklahoma: put others first, better to give than receive, hearing is not listening.

Sound advice. The problem is, I didn’t listen.

Allen Rucker was born in Wichita Falls, Texas, raised in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, and has an MA in Communication from Stanford University, an MA in American Culture from the University of Michigan, and a BA in English from Washington University, St. Louis.

The National Paralysis Resource Center website is supported by the Administration for Community Living (ACL), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $8,700,000 with 100 percent funding by ACL/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by ACL/HHS, or the U.S. Government.