Dialogue Nights #11: The Loneliness Epidemic

| Mitch Bogen
Icebreaker activity during the March 2019 Dialogue Nights on the loneliness epidemic

The most well attended Ikeda Center Dialogue Nights yet took place on the evening of Friday, March 29. That more than 80 Boston-area university students and young professionals showed up to explore the topic of “the loneliness epidemic” was telling, suggesting that loneliness is a phenomenon of great concern to their age group.

Also telling, however, was the energy, openness, and good humor that the attendees exhibited throughout the evening. The desire for connection is there, it’s real and strong, and it is even possible that we are at our best in the company of others.

In her opening remarks, Center Program Manager Lillian I underscored this idea by quoting Center founder Daisaku Ikeda, who has observed: “It may seem easier to remain closed off in our private world, but we will not grow as a person. Alone and isolated, our true potentiality cannot shine. Interaction with others enriches our lives.” She also talked about recent studies that have shown that loneliness carries actual health risks, which have shown, for example, that loneliness can be as lethal as smoking 15 cigarettes a day! Crucially, added Lillian, the negative impacts of loneliness are not measured in the sheer number of friends or social contacts one might have, but rather in the depth and meaningfulness of these contacts. The implications for our age of online “friends” are clear. Thus, said Lillian, one goal of the evening would be to “Practice how to make deeper connections with others.”

Icebreaker activity during the March 2019 Dialogue Nights on the loneliness epidemic

The evening’s icebreaker activity featured a simulation of the experience of being on a subway or commuter train. The inspiration for this activity came from another study, this one conducted by the University of Chicago, which found that people often misjudge what will make them happy when commuting. They think that quietness and solitude is most desirable on a train or bus, but the experience of study participants showed that they were actually happier when they engaged in conversation with their fellow commuters. During the activity, participants had the opportunity to engage with the person across the “aisle” from them.

After the commuter role-play, participants shared things they learned during the activity about how to effectively engage with others, including strangers. Their findings included suggestions such as:

  • Open with a compliment
  • Ask simple questions, such as inquiries about what the other is reading
  • Avoid introspective questions
  • Ask open-ended questions
  • Extend empathy

Next, everyone watched a short animated video that showed how loneliness manifests in the daily life of a regular person, for example how we can get concerned or depressed when others aren’t texting you. It also showed the power of reaching out to others. Following the video the participants broke into small groups to discuss three questions:

  • Do you experience loneliness? Are there certain things that trigger the feeling of loneliness?
  • Based on Ikeda’s quote [about the danger of isolating and the enriching power of interacting with others], why do you think we feel more comfortable in isolation?
  • Can you share about a time when you felt isolated but interacted with others and found a sense of belonging?

After their discussions, participants shared some of the feelings and ideas that emerged in their groups. One mentioned how social media can make you feel left out when you see others doing fun or adventurous things. Another described how you can be lonely even when in a relationship. Offering a discerning insight, one young woman described how we might choose isolation because that way we at least “know what to expect.” There is a risk to reaching out to others; our encounters can be awkward or there can be misunderstandings, which can tempt us toward avoidance. Building on this, Lillian I said that this can become a self-reinforcing cycle, where we start to give the impression of not wanting to engage, which makes engaging more difficult.

Pledge of belonging activity during the March 2019 Dialogue Nights on the loneliness epidemic
Pledge of Belonging activity

Center Events and Publications Coordinator Anri Tanabe introduced the final activity, called “a pledge of belonging.” She explained that now that everyone had had a chance to explore many aspects of loneliness, the vital next thing to do would be to confirm what would be feasible for each participant to do in his or her daily life to create community, make meaningful connections with others, and help to ease our loneliness epidemic. Here are just a few of the dozens of pledges and activities brainstormed by attendees.

  • Be present and in the moment with those around you; interact with others in an authentic way
  • Check in on people you care about
  • Balance the need for rejuvenating solitude with reaching out to others
  • Be inclusive, especially when you know someone is lonely
  • Enter interactions believing the other person is worth knowing – and by extension that you are too
  • Be more open-minded and be authentic with yourself
  • Greet one person each day; say hi on the street
  • Ask others how they genuinely feel, and show interest
  • Make standing plans
  • Call your parents
  • Give freely, without expectations
  • Create a gratitude journal
  • Use technology mindfully, or even put your phone away

To close, Center Executive Director Virginia Benson reflected on her own experiences with loneliness and some of the things she did to establish more connection with others. Her most fundamental loneliness challenge related to her family, she said, explaining that she had always felt left out in group conversations with them and dreaded family gatherings. Then she encountered a quote from Daisaku Ikeda that changed her whole perception.

No matter how you spend your time, a day is a day and a life is a life. If you are always filled with complaints and dissatisfaction, always saying you don’t like things—that they’re boring or no fun—your days will be wasted. Instead, wherever you go, you should create enjoyment there and open a path of growth and happiness [for yourself and others]. You should grasp the rudder of your own heart and steer it in that direction…

Memorizing and internalizing this passage, Benson realized she needed to take responsibility for herself and made the decision to no longer allow any days to be wasted. Soon after, she took the initiative to begin contributing to the happiness of family gatherings, consciously and creatively participating in conversations instead of just zoning out and silently judging everyone. In fact, this experience was so life changing, said Benson, that she believes it set her on the path to the Ikeda Center, devoted to dialogue, where she has now spent “twenty-six hugely fulfilling years.”

In a sense, Benson’s story brought the evening full circle, illustrating on a personal level dimensions of another Daisaku Ikeda quote Lillian I had shared to open the event: “In a world of richly diverse cultures,” urges Ikeda, “we cannot afford a regression to shuttered isolationism. It is crucial to revive the spirit of dialogue and to unleash a creative search for peaceful coexistence. To have faith in the promise of dialogue is to believe in the promise of humanity.”