Considering the social isolation required by COVID-19, it’s no surprise that many people are struggling with loneliness. Loneliness is a very real problem with emotional, and even physical, consequences. Research has shown that loneliness can reduce our life span as much as cigarette smoking or obesity. If you’re fighting loneliness, it’s important to keep in mind that not all relationships provide the same sense of connection: the “quantity” and “quality” of connecting can make a big difference in reducing loneliness and increasing happiness.
With regards to quantity, how often you talk is important. You may have longtime friends with whom you can fall back into old rhythms after not having spoken for years. These friends are treasures. As poet Joseph Parry advises, “Make new friends, but keep the old/Those are silver, these are gold.” However, having friends to talk with regularly is important in reducing loneliness. Georgetown University professor Deborah Tannen, PhD, has written about how the frequency of talking with someone is what makes people happier -- not what they talk about.
While Tannen makes an important point, the actual connection people make is also vitally important. It’s not so much the content of their conversations that is important, but how well they connect. And as Tannen notes, both men and women are equally capable of deep connections -- even when they adhere to gender stereotypes in the way they communicate. For example, men can connect when fishing quietly together or bantering about football. Women might -- or might not -- feel connected as they pour out how they feel about their relationships and the details of their day. What’s most important in making people happy is that they feel understood, valued, and validated.
To accomplish this feat of having a quality connection, people must be able to relate to each other. They must be able to “speak the same language.” For example, a long-time business colleague just simply showing up at a partner’s daughter’s wedding can express deep layers of support and caring. This means that, in both words and actions, friendships foster happiness when people interact in ways that connect for each of them. Otherwise, the people are just filling time. They might feel less lonely from having the interactions, but those interactions can feel hollow.
When you talk frequently and connect openly, you are likely to keep loneliness at bay as you warm yourself with true companionship.