I was supposed to be happy.
The laughing, upbeat music, and endless cookies told me I should be. I sometimes think of myself as an entertainer at parties, waving my hands, poking fun at myself, and speaking in a voice that doesn’t sound like my own. And so when I told my friend I didn’t want to be friendly at this party, she rolled her eyes. “You love being friendly.”
I don’t. When I talk at parties sometimes, my mind feels hot and clouded, I’m suddenly aware of how often I’m swallowing, and I jump over silences like an Olympian. When I come home, I feel exhausted.
And so I felt frustrated when I read an article urging people who feel lonely during the holidays to go to parties and feel grateful for what they have.
I’ve spent the past two years researching and writing a book about connection and loneliness. I’ve learned a lot about what cultural practices cause disconnection, what happens in our bodies when we feel it, and what solutions people have pursued to feel connected. For instance, we now know that feeling disconnection from people affects the same part of our brain (the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex) as when we feel physical pain. Our brains process breaking up with someone and breaking a leg in similar ways. If disconnection feels like it hurts, it’s because it does.
Loneliness isn’t a misstep—it has a biological purpose. Humans evolved to feel lonely as a natural alert that we need more connection. We feel pain to get us to do things—just as we feel pain when touching a hot stove to tell us to move our hand, we feel loneliness to prompt connection. Evolutionarily, a group of people has meant safety for humans. The good news is that we’re all perfectly capable of forming connection.
Thankfully, loneliness is not connected to social ability. Dr. John Cacioppo, who studied loneliness, wrote that people who feel lonely “have the capacity to be just as socially adept as anyone else. Feeling lonely does not mean that we have deficient social skills. Problems arise when feeling lonely makes us less likely to employ the skills we have.” His research shows we are less likely to want to socialize when we feel lonely. This can cause us to not interact and feel lonelier. A most unfair cycle.
But forcing yourself to go out and smile doesn’t actually help you feel more connected. Pretending to be happy has a way of highlighting how you actually feel. When entrepreneur Tony Hsieh revamped Downtown Vegas, he created a culture where it was the norm to be “on,” where people celebrated being outgoing and happy. People praised his vision until they realized the Downtown Project had an unusually high suicide rate.
The expectation that everyone should be happy seemed to cause unhappiness. Kimberly Knoll, a therapist in the Downtown Project, explained, “Thinking that you have complete control over your emotions and if you don’t feel happy it’s your fault, that can make people feel shame. It’s anxiety inducing.”
Not only were people in the Downtown Project expected to be happy, but they were also encouraged to be outgoing. One anonymous citizen there said, “There is a danger of happiness as a goal. … It’s lonely. There’s a pressure to socialize and go out. There’s a pressure to party.” This made it seem like everyone else became happy after mingling, but you were a failure if you didn’t. Sort of like if social media came to life (shudder).
We can extract a lesson from this. When other people don’t know what you actually feel, then they can’t empathize with you. This can make you feel more isolated. Acting like a celebrity at an awards show at a holiday party hides what you feel and won’t provide connection.
An alternative is to volunteer. Look up volunteering at a soup kitchen in your area. No need to feign happiness and no need to go overboard and volunteer for days. Giving to other people is one of the primary ways humans feel connected. Research shows that volunteering weekly makes people as happy as moving from a $20,000 to $75,000 annual salary. It forces us to become someone’s ally, even briefly, and we’ve evolved to feel connection when we have allies. Volunteering helps others, but it also helps you feel more connected.
You can also find ways to soothe yourself. Think about the things that help you feel calmer, like writing, exercising, or talking to someone especially accepting. Finding effective ways to show yourself some love can hold you over during a time that’s particularly tormenting.
Loneliness has no universal, quick fix for. People have felt lonely through time and culture and it has also probably felt dejecting and painful for them. Ironically, you stand in good company when you crave connection to others. Jennifer Lawrence has said, “I am lonely every Saturday night.” Justin Bieber has said, “I feel isolated … I would not wish this upon anyone.” If you feel like it’s just you, remember that it’s just you, Jennifer Lawrence, and Justin Bieber. So feel free to ignore the pressure to attend holiday parties. You may be better off volunteering—less entertaining, more giving.