The 3 Most Important Words to Say to Someone Who's Struggling
How to Help Someone Going Through a Challenging Time
Thanks for reading The Nonlinear Life, a newsletter about navigating life's ups and downs. Every week we explore family, health, work, and meaning, with the occasional dad joke and dose of inspiration. If you're new around here, read my introductory post, learn about me, or check out our archives. And if you enjoyed this article, please subscribe or share with a friend.
The holidays are approaching, and already the Internet is filling with articles about how to talk with loved ones who have different political views. And no wonder: We’re still in the midst of a bruising election season; war is raging in Europe; everything from the pandemic to the weather to the movies is subject to debate these days.
But as serious as political polarization is right now, it masks a much more urgent problem—and this problem is one you absolutely should talk about with your loved ones this holiday season.
Everyone feels overwhelmed. We feel confused, burned out, frustrated, and unsure. And because everyone feels their own unique blend of these emotions, we all feel alone.
In a study released this week in the journal Nature Reviews Psychology, Maike Luhmann of Ruhr University Bochum in Germany, and two colleagues, draw a distinction between loneliness and being alone.
People experience loneliness when they feel that their social relationships are deficient in terms of quantity or quality and perceive a gap between their actual and desired relationships. Around the world, people describe loneliness as a painful, sometimes agonizing, experience. Loneliness is conceptually distinct from being alone (a momentary state of objective absence of other people), solitude (when being alone is perceived as pleasant and sought out intentionally), and social isolation (the objective lack of social relationships and social contact).
Loneliness, already a national crisis in recent years, exploded during the pandemic. A study released in 2020 found that 36 percent of Americans reported feeling lonely “frequently,” “almost all the time,” or “all the time” in the prior four weeks. That number was up fifty percent from before the pandemic. Perhaps most alarming: 61 percent of 18- to 25-year-olds reported these feelings.
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“If you look at other studies on the elderly,” said the chief researcher, Richard Weissbourd, of Harvard, “their rates of loneliness are high, but they don’t seem to be as high as they are for young people.”
And make to mistake: These feelings are not fleeting or made up. They are grounded deep within our brains. I had lunch a few years ago with John Cacioppo, a distinguished professor at the University of Chicago and one of the leading neuroscientists in the world. Cacioppo almost single-handedly brought loneliness to the forefront of psychology. “When people are asked what pleasures contribute to happiness,” he told me, “the overwhelming majority rate love, intimacy, and social affiliation above wealth, fame, or even physical health.”
Loneliness, by contrast, is the biggest detriment. Those with higher rates of loneliness have higher rates of depression, anxiety, hostility, pessimism, and neuroticism. They also have increased rates of dying from heart disease, cancer, respiratory diseases, gastrointestinal diseases, and every other cause of death studied. Social isolation is on par with high blood pressure, obesity, lack of exercise, and smoking as a risk factor for illness and early death.
Why? Cacioppo’s research has shown that being lonely is like being in a hostile environment. It triggers cellular changes in the body that make the immune system less able to protect vital organs.
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Even the Bible agrees. Why does God create Eve? “It is not good for man to be alone,” the Book of Genesis says.
I have strong feelings about this topic because it’s so personal to me. At every moment of hardship in my life, I have not only felt alone, I’ve even sought out aloneness, almost as a kind of penance to torture myself for whatever I’m experiencing. After enduring a seventeen-hour surgery to remove my cancer-ridden left femur from my leg thirteen years ago and being unable to walk or leave the house because my immune system was so weakened with chemotherapy, I would sometimes stare out of my window, observe people strolling effortlessly down the street, and mutter to myself, You don’t know what it’s like. You don’t know what it’s like.
I wanted to be alone because I wanted verification that somehow my altered state would make me untouchable, unreachable.
And most people, to be honest, oblige. They don’t know what to do, how to act, when to step forward, or when to retreat. In one way, that’s understandable. Every difficult situation is unique, and finding the right thing to say that might comfort someone can be taxing and perilous. So many of the pat phrases we fall back on—“I know what you’re going through;” “Everything happens for a reason”—while perhaps well-meaning, often fall flat.
So what should you say?
“You’re not alone.”
And by saying that, you’re conveying the most important single thing you can say: I don’t know what you’re feeling. I don’t know your situation. I don’t even know what to do.
But I still love you.
You’re still lovable.
And you are part of a world that is full of heartbroken, pain-riddled, mistake-prone, fearful people just like you. And just like me. And the only way any of us can get through one of these situations is to, first, acknowledge that they exist and, second, admit that we always know how they’re going to turn out.
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By stepping into that breach, reaching out your hand, and saying, in so many words, that you, too, are afraid, but that you won’t shrink from the task at hand. You are giving the best gift of all: companionship.
You are saying, as Mary Oliver wrote in “Loneliness:”
I too have known loneliness.
I too have known what it is to feel
rejected, and suddenly
not at all beautiful.
And still I love you. And I promise, that no matter what happens, I’ll always love you.
Even when you feel alone.
Thank you for reading The Nonlinear Life. Please help us grow the community by subscribing, sharing, and commenting below. Also, you can learn more about me, read my introductory post, watch my latest TED Talk, or scroll through my other posts. And if you'd like to do a storytelling project with a loved one similar to the one I did with my father, click here to learn more.
You might enjoy reading these posts:
The Science of Sibling Rivalry—and How to Fix It
Surprise! Adult Children Like Helicopter Parents—and Benefit from Them
Strawberry Shortcake vs. Key Lime Pie: The War Between the State Desserts
Or check out my books that inspired this newsletter: Life Is in the Transitions and The Secrets of Happy Families. Or my new book, The Search: Finding Meaningful Work in a Post-Career World.
Or, you can contact me directly.
Click here to preorder THE SEARCH.
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