A Trusted Friend in a Complicated World

Feeling Lonely? 17 Little Things You Can Do to Connect With Others

Loneliness can be as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, not to mention the mental and emotional toll it takes. Here's how to break out of your shell.

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First, understand feeling lonely is not an illness, it’s a state of mind

Loneliness is not a condition to be treated but rather a natural part of the human experience. And that’s a good thing says Mayra Mendez, PhD, LMFT, program coordinator of mental health services at Providence Saint John’s Child and Family Development Center in Santa Monica, California. “The most helpful thing to know about loneliness is that it isn’t something that happens to you, it’s something you can control,” she says. “It’s okay to be lonely sometimes, it doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you.”

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iStock/Steve Debenport

Do a little good

Serving other people is one of the best ways not to feel lonely and even make some lifelong friends, Mendez says. Volunteering at a local school or library, knitting blankets for babies at the hospital, bringing meals to the elderly, being a Big Brother/Big Sister, teaching a scout troop—the options are endless. Service will get you out in the community and help you feel like you’re making a real difference: two essential things for living a full, happy life.

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Skip boring small talk

Mendez has three simple rules when it comes to starting a conversation with a potential friend (and everyone can be a potential friend!): First, talk about your shared experience. Whether you’re waiting for a bus, in a long line at the store or working out at the gym, you’re both doing something right? Talk about that. Second, keep it simple and light. There’s no need to spill your whole life story. Third, skip news and politics. No one wants to hear a diatribe! Check out these tips to avoid awkward conversations.

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Find something to be passionate about

What do you do that gets you out of bed in the morning? What events make you excited for the future? Anything that gives your life meaning and happiness is a great way to connect in a very authentic way with other people. For many people, their job is their passion, Mendez says, but it doesn’t have to be. Hobbies like an outdoor sport, crafting, singing, or cars all offer opportunities to make new friends while improving your skills and having fun. The best part? You already know you have something in common to talk about!

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Embrace your spirituality

Religion can be a great way to connect with like-minded people and become part of a close-knit, loving community. But even if you’re not particularly religious, you can still bond with people on a spiritual level, Mendez says. It’s about recognizing the things we all have in common as human beings living on this planet and building from there.

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iStock/Jacob Ammentorp Lund

Be a good friend

It takes one to know one. Part of not being lonely is not taking for granted the people that are already in your life, Mendez says. It can be tempting to focus on the faults of long-time friends or family members but if they’ve been in your life this long, it’s likely for good reason. So take time to note what you love about your current social circle—and be sure to let them know it too. Here are 24 little ways to be a true friend.

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Give a compliment

Want to immediately brighten someone else’s day? Give them a quick compliment. Bonus: It will make you feel at least as happy as it does them. Our society can feel so sterile and anonymous that just this little act of reaching out—”I really like your shoes” or “you’re doing a great job”—can be a ray of sunshine that pierces through loneliness long after its given.

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Take a class

Free or cheap classes on a wide range of topics are generally available through community centers or local colleges. Not only will it get you involved with other people but you’ll be learning something new as well. At best you’ll meet some cool people, at worst you’ll still have something interesting to talk about in the future.

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Get treatment for mental health issues

Social anxiety and depression are very real and can be incredibly isolating. Loneliness on its own isn’t an illness but if you’re constantly feeling down and left out then it may be a sign of a bigger mental issue, Mendez says, and it’s important you get professional treatment. Left alone, depression, anxiety, and loneliness can turn into a vicious cycle, each magnifying the other feeling until you’re sucked into a vortex of despair.

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Chat up a stranger

We’re surrounded by people all day yet nothing can feel lonelier than being alone in a crowd. The good news is that you’re definitely not the only one who feels isolated even in groups and reaching out to those people can provide a lifeline for both of you. A light conversation can be great but don’t stress if you’re not a natural extrovert—when it comes to banishing loneliness it doesn’t have to be much, Mendez says. A simple “hello” or even just a smile while making eye contact builds an instant connection that will make both of you feel seen. This is what expert minglers naturally do when they meet new people.

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Find a furry friend

“Animals can really help with loneliness,” Medez says. “It’s about having something to take care of, that needs you, and that gives you unconditional love in return.” This is especially true for people who are ill or have other problems that it make it difficult to leave their home. Bonus: Furry friends often make great introductions to human friends.

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Ditch negative thoughts

The mind is a powerful tool, Mendez says, and how you talk to yourself can make all the difference in how lonely you feel. “Don’t compare yourself to others, on TV or in real life,” she says. “Instead, try reframing negative thoughts.” For instance, the thought “Everyone here hates me!” becomes “Everyone here doesn’t know me.”

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Log on to social media

They don’t call it “social” media for nothing! Going online offers an almost unlimited amount of ways to connect with other people, whether it’s collaborating on a cause you’re all passionate about or researching a niche hobby or venting about your kids. This is a great option for those who are home-bound or live in an area where friends of your age, race, sexual orientation, or religion are hard to find. Just be extra careful as social media can be as harmful as it is helpful, Medez cautions, and never give out personal information that could be used to steal your identity or hurt you.

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Get a roommate

It’s just as true for middle-aged folks as it is for college kids: If you’re living on your own, finding a roommate (or three) can help fight loneliness—not to mention help pay the bills. Some people crave solitude as they get older but for many living alone is just lonely. And this idea of getting a mid-life roomie isn’t as strange as it may first sound. The Wall Street Journal reports that people over 40 are one of the fastest growing demographics in the shared living market.

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iStock/Petar Chernaev

Focus on yourself first

Happiness attracts happiness, Mendez says, so be the kind of friend you’d like to have. This doesn’t mean you have to create a fake self if you’re not feeling particularly happy or optimistic, but it does mean you should make an effort to put your best real self forward. “You have to learn to like yourself first,” Mendez advises. “People are comfortable with those who are comfortable with themselves.”

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Learn relaxation techniques

A lot of people don’t reach out to others simply because they’re afraid, Mendez says. It makes sense. Who among us hasn’t gotten butterflies at the thought of trying something new, talking to a stranger or otherwise putting ourselves “out there”? But anxiety is just a feeling and one you can control, she explains. Deep breathing, meditation, mantras, exercise, and other proven relaxation techniques can help you learn to let that fear go, both in the moment and in the rest of your life.

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Just do something

People get so caught up in worrying about being lonely that they inadvertently trap themselves in a vicious cycle of negativity, Mendez says. “Negative perpetuates negative,” she explains. “Don’t mope just get out there and do something—anything is always better than nothing.” It can feel overwhelming but something as simple as a walk around the block in the fresh air can invigorate you enough to try out some of these other suggestions.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest

Charlotte Hilton Andersen
Charlotte Hilton Andersen is a health, lifestyle and fitness expert and teacher. She covers all things wellness for Reader’s Digest and The Healthy. With dual masters degrees in information technology and education, she has been a journalist for 17 years and is the author of The Great Fitness Experiment. She lives in Denver with her husband, five kids and three pets.