Saturday, March 22, 2014

Loneliness Epidemic or Epic Connection? You Make the Call

Loneliness has recently been described as a silent epidemic. Surveys report that people now have fewer close friends then ever before. Experts assert that Facebook friends aren’t real friends and that the brave new world of social networking is making people more isolated and alienated than ever. A recent cover story in Oprah Magazine laments the demise of the simple phone call and warns that texting is an inadequate and potentially seditious substitute. Are people hiding from intimacy behind smart phones, social media, gaming and electronics? Or could our ability to interact via our devices in point of fact be an asset that is bringing us ever closer and creating genuine opportunities for socializing, emotional support and conversation? I find it interesting that many of these surveys, articles, and experts rarely provide a clear definition of the terms they study. What if we aren’t actually lonelier than before? What if what’s really called for is reconsideration of an outmoded conceptualization of friendship and loneliness?

Never before have we been so connected with such a diversity of choices and options for social interaction immediately at our fingertips. Does the data really justify experts’ warnings that these new alternatives are inferior to older established types of social interaction? Wasn’t the highly respectable telephone call once considered a new-fangled assault on conventional society? Don’t members of the old guard frequently voice dire predictions that fresh innovations are deficient and hazardous compared to their traditional time-honored counterparts? When you consider the rapid rate of change in our contemporary society, it’s reasonable to assume that how we look at friendship and loneliness needs to evolve at a comparable pace.  What we expect from marriage has undergone a radical transformation in the past 50 years.  Therefore, it seems plausible to presume that our conceptualization of friendship should be following a similar trajectory.

On a slightly different note, could it be possible that we might now have fewer closer friends because we are actually better off with fewer close friends? We are busier than ever before which means most of us have less time and energy to invest in our friendships than we did in the past. Many people in committed relationships consider their spouse or partner to be their best friend. Along with this partner, more friends at lower intensity may be the most parsimonious solution. In my opinion, an evolving mosaic of diverse friends accessible by telephone, online, and in-person seems the most elegant and practical antidote to “the loneliness epidemic”.

What about when a close friendship goes sour?  A chum who initially appears to be the answer to all your prayers can degenerate into a frenemy. Toxic and exploitative friendships are a dirty little secret no one usually admits to in polite company. Many people unquestioningly tolerate appallingly manipulative behavior in the name of close friendship. After all, who doesn’t aspire to having a BFF? But, what if you find your bestie requires too much time, effort, accommodation, frustration and discontent on your part with precious little in return? Should this one-sided level of compromise be required to keep a close friendship intact? Might it not be better to have several satisfying friendships of moderate emotional intensity with a lower overall risk of toxicity from any one person? Of course, all successful relationships will require some degree of work and negotiation but no friendship should be consistently inequitable, controlling or draining.  Your pals should lift you up, energize you and make you happy. You shouldn’t feel a sense of dread when the caller ID lights up with the phone number of someone who you call your best friend.

Or are we lonely because we give up too soon or we don’t value relationships as we should? Maybe we have all grown so selfish and self-absorbed that we can’t appreciate a good relationship when we have one staring us right in the face. What if our expectations have become excessively narcissistic, misguided and unrealistic? Perhaps the idealized images projected by TV, books and movies, seasoned with a sizeable dose of nostalgia, in combination with our fast paced, immediate-gratification culture have come together in a way that makes emotionally intimate friendship impossible or unsustainable. Maybe superficiality is the best anyone can really do and we should simply embrace it and be content with our lot.

Besides, how do you really know if someone is your friend anyway? Conversely, how do you know when someone who you think is your friend really isn’t? Frankly, how do you determine who is an asset in your relationship life and who is actually a liability? Who do you consider to be your friend? Is your next-door neighbor your friend or merely an acquaintance? What about your spouse, sibling or child? Is the barista you chat with every day when you pick up your morning coffee your friend? What about your coworkers or the other riders in your carpool or the person who works out next to you at the gym 3 times a week? Is the childhood buddy you talk to once every ten years at your high school reunion your friend? Can someone you’ve never met face to face really be your friend? Are all of your Facebook friends real friends? What about the people you play online games with every day? If virtual friends are real friends what does it mean when they can’t give you a hug, bring you soup when you’re sick or help you move that new couch into your apartment? We call dogs, “mans best friend.” Can a dog really be your best friend? The answers are not always easy or straightforward.

While we are on the subject, what exactly is a best friend, anyway? How do you decide when an acquaintance has become a friend? When is someone who was once your friend officially a friend no longer? All of these questions can get your head spinning and make you want to hide under the covers in sheer frustration.  To find the answers, it’s important to take some time to seriously consider your personal understanding of what friendship and loneliness mean in your own life. Your definition of friendship will be as unique as your fingerprint. It will help you determine who really is a friend to you and what significance this has for your sense of social support, interconnection and loneliness.

I am currently exploring the answers to these questions using a survey I’ve developed. In December, I will giving a TED talk on the topic of friendship. I would appreciate your input on my talk by clicking on the link below and completing my survey. 

Check back for future blogs where I will be exploring the topic of friendship further and sharing the results of my survey.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Changing Face of Friendship: A Brief Survey

I’m pleased and honored to be giving a TED talk at TEDxVail in January. Giving a TED talk has been a bucket list item of mine for years.

TED is all about sharing ideas worth spreading. In the 9 minutes allocated for my talk I will be discussing the changing face of friendship. Loneliness appears to be a silent epidemic in modern society. Research finds that more people report feeling lonely than at any previous time in history. In my psychotherapy practice, clients frequently admit to intense feelings of loneliness and difficulty finding and maintaining friendships. One might think these feelings are specifically related to the reason, such as depression, anxiety, stress or family problems that is bringing the client to therapy in the first place. However, I hear this lament from many different types of clients, regardless of their reason for seeking therapy. Many of these clients are charming, interesting, successful people who report no significant problems with friendships in the past.

Because of my general interest in the topic, I frequently ask people about their friendships. I hear the same poignant messages over and over such as, “I used to have a lot of close friends but now I don’t.” or “I hardly ever see my friends anymore.” or "I have a lot of people I enjoy staying in touch with but I don't have anyone to help me if I'm sick or I need to move a piece of furniture." or "Once my best friend got married, our relationship was never the same again." or "I'm on Facebook all the time but it only makes me feel worse." or "Nobody takes the time to really talk with each other anymore and I miss it."

 All of this seems paradoxical in light of our constant connectedness through social networking and electronic devices. I hope that by understanding the changes in our lifestyles, expectations, attitudes and resources over the past few decades, we can find ways to achieve greater feelings of closeness, connection and intimacy and enjoy the many benefits of better social support.

I’ve created a short questionnaire to survey opinions, issues, trends and attitudes about contemporary friendships. I want to understand how people define the difference between a friend, a best friend and an acquaintance. I am curious how access to social media, technology and smart phones influences feelings of loneliness and connection. How much time do we actually spend in face-to-face vs virtual encounters with friends? Who is considered a friend? How is friendship defined for most people? Exploring what different demographic groups have to say about loneliness and friendship will also be very interesting.

Many people have asked how they might be able to help me with my talk and my friendship project.

If you would like to help, I have two requests. The first is that you complete the brief friendship survey I’ve created by clicking on the link below and that you share this link (or just this whole blog) with as many people as you can. This will give me lots of data to work with. 

My second request is that you share your own ideas about friendship with me, either through comments on this blog or by back-channeling me via email. If you would like to email me, please click the link below for the email address listed on my website. You can also message me through my professional Facebook page (link below). Sadly, whenever I directly post my email address on my blog I get bombarded by spam.

Here's some of what I would like to hear:

What are some of your own favorite friendship stories?
What is your opinion about why friendships have changed so much?
What you think makes someone a best friend?
How does an acquaintance become a friend?
How have you dealt with a toxic friendship?
How you define the word friend?
How have friendships in your work place changed over time?
Do you believe loneliness is a silent epidemic?
What factors do you think are contributing to people’s feelings of loneliness?
And anything else you might like to share about the topic of friendship.

Thanks so much for your help. I look forward to your answers!