I discovered the concept of dimensions of loneliness or connection earlier this year, and found it really helpful to make sense both of how we might be feeling and the type of action we might take.  It’s a useful tool during and after the pandemic, so I thought I’d share it with you and how it has applied to me.

And it’s a cruel twist of evolution, that the lonelier we feel, the more likely we are to further isolate ourselves, so I’m also including a call to action as we often need others to help us feel more connected.

What’s loneliness?

Loneliness is defined as ‘the gap between the connection we need and the connection we experience’1.

During this pandemic, we are suffering from both sides of that equation: we are likely to need more connection because we’re in worrying times, whilst the restrictions mean there are fewer options available to us to experience connection.

It doesn’t necessarily manifest as a sad, empty feeling and we might not label the feeling as ‘loneliness’.  It can be anxiety, ‘itchy feet’, a feeling that something’s amiss, sleeplessness, the need for an alcoholic drink, over-eating, irritation, and anger, to name a few.

Connecting

Of course, the amount of connection we need and experience can vary from day to day, month to month, across our lifetime.  Much of the time we manage it all instinctively, through life experience and human instinct. 

When you’re missing your best friend, for example, you’ll probably pick up the phone, and you may even decide it’s time to get together for a good catchup, without thinking about it all that much. You just do it.

I suspect that during the pandemic, we have to be more conscious about what we need and how to satisfy that need.  Many of our usual strategies are unavailable to us.

One way we might do this is by breaking it down into the four types of connection or loneliness, the ‘four dimensions of connection’

Self relates to how we understand ourselves and being ‘comfortable in our own skin’.

Strong connection in this dimension helps us to spend more time alone and be ok with our thoughts.  It also helps us understand which connections are good for us, and those that aren’t.

It can be as simple as knowing how to occupy our time when we’re on our own.  Finding out what gives us joy as solo activity, is a starting point which can develop into a deeper understanding of ourselves.

Time in nature, reading, satisfying my curiosity to learn, are all examples for me, and I know I was able to develop a deep, personal understanding by going for psychotherapy.

During the initial lockdown I practiced yoga every day, read my book, watched Sandy Toksvig’s daily YouTube video and played my piano.  I was also able to decide (at last) that it was time to launch Counselling West Bridgford.

Relational is our circle of friends, and is a broad category.  We have multiple layers of friendships, from those we speak to and see regularly, through to those we would come across occasionally.

So from your group of mates to the bloke on the till at Sainsbury’s that you always chat to.

It’s this dimension for me that remains reduced since lockdown, given the lack of birthday celebrations and general nights out, and I haven’t returned to all that yet.

I now say hello to everyone I pass when I’m out on a walk.  It shouldn’t be underestimated as a way of connecting: a warm smile and hello does make a difference.

But apart from that, the gap has been filled across the other 3 dimensions.

Collective is the category of ‘something bigger than me’, a community.  Examples are your Pilates class, the football team you support, religious faith, a charity you are passionate about, a cause you feel strongly about, or the company you work for.

This dimension has been shown to be the most vital in combatting loneliness.  If we are part of something bigger than ourselves, especially if it’s an ‘act of service’ (helping out), then it improves our self-worth and improves the dimension ‘Self’.

My choir usually has weekly rehearsals and half a dozen concerts per year and that connection has gone, at least for now.  Also, I really missed the sense of being part of the university which I got from going to campus for my NTU work.

Every few weeks, each of the committee members call choir members to see how we’re doing.  There’s also virtual choir recordings and a WhatsApp group which we are all invited to join in, no obligation.  This helps me feel connected to the choir until we are able to meet again.

And I have dedicated myself to creating, launching and promoting the Campaign for Connection. 

Intimate connections are the one or two people we are closest to.  It is often your intimate partner but can also be your best friend.

During the pandemic, I have found that this dimension has strengthened for me.

I have had much more regular contact with loved ones, and I would say a deeper connection too.  It has filled the gap coming from other dimensions.  They reached out to me as much as I did to them, and I am grateful for that.

How to use it

By reflecting on each dimension, what we need, what have lost or gained, and what may potentially be available to us, we can take action to reduce loneliness.

We can look at any of the dimensions to replace what’s missing, to ‘close the gap’. 

For example, you may resolve to buy a season ticket for your football club, if you realise you’re missing connection in the Collective (“something bigger than me”) dimension.  Or start regular psychotherapy to gain a deeper understanding of how you think and feel – the Self dimension.

In difficult times, we may need more connection.  Equally, it may be that one (or more) of the dimensions is less available to us.  Either way, we feel the impact.

We don’t have to exactly replace what’s missing, especially in the short term.  During the pandemic, there may even be an element of “grin and bear it” until our freedoms return.

Perhaps more phone calls than usual with your best mate can help make up for missing going out for dinner with a group of friends, for now at least.  Or replacing your usual fitness class with a virtual version until you can join everyone back at the gym.

Better, together

What is vital in all of this, is that to really make a difference, we must help each other.  We are designed for connection, but sadly the more lonely we get, we are also designed to further isolate ourselves even though it makes no logical sense. 

So if you haven’t heard from a good friend in a while, maybe give them a ring; if someone seems more irritated than usual, hear them out and try to understand; if someone asks if they can help you out, say yes rather than politely refusing.

I like the following, written by John Paul Lederach:

“Listen to understand, speak from the heart, and stay at it – for the rest of your life”

When it comes to the Covid-19 pandemic, hopefully a greater understanding of the dimensions of connection and loneliness can at least help us find alternatives to see us through and help each other out.

And we can appreciate our connections all the more, once they return.