With actual tobacco smoking in sharp decline in America, other life aspects are now being called “the new smoking”. Last year, medical researchers began warning us that sitting is the new smoking. They declared the modern, sedentary lifestyle is as awful as chain smoking cigarettes. This year, the headlines scream that social isolation kills more people than obesity and is just as stigmatized.
I cannot help but notice the various health warning issued by experts and propagated through the various media. It’s hard to ignore the health cautions if you’re media centered. Sometimes I think that public health warnings, themselves, are the “new smoking”.
As the latest warnings are issued, I notice that I am “guilty” of having the offending practices present in my life. Certainly, I grudgingly appreciated the flood of anti-smoking warnings. Their messages were ever-present as I struggled to kick the cigarette habit.
I had long been a sedentary person. I’d rather sit back in my easy chair and read good books. After some coaxing by an ex-boyfriend and my physician, about 25 years ago, I cultivated the habit of working out at the gym. The practice has grown on me, so much that I feel grumpy if I have to miss a workout.
During most of my life, I’ve been most comfortable spending my time alone. I can imagine being happy to spend my life as a hermit in the Himalayans. I used to fantasize about working as a lighthouse keeper alone on the New England coast. I imagined gazing into the fog and rain at the distant lights of ships at sea. I was content as could be, on duty alone during the graveyard shift at the radio station. Then I found out that doing shift work could be the “new smoking”. Now, I don’t work there anymore.
Now, I happily live alone in a little house by the river. I’m thankful for the mostly quiet atmosphere that allows me to easily meditate and contemplate life as it happens. I’m free to come and go as I please. I never have to compete for living space in my home. I’m not really a “loner”; I just prefer being alone. With only two exceptions, my lovers have felt the same way.
With the new warnings about social isolation and my advancing age, I have started to think about this new-found health issue. Yet, I wish the “experts” would stop throwing the public into a panic about social isolation. It’s not like lonely folks can just give up isolation “cold turkey”. When we over-think problems, our behavior becomes further entrenched.
Fear mongering over social isolation only causes more fear and anxiety among the loneliest members of society. I used to think of my solitary lifestyle as a situation to be fixed, because family and acquaintences told me it was. So, I joyfully went on dates, checked out night clubs, haunted book stores, sweated at the gym, and did volunteer work. I met plenty of really nice people, but I felt zero authentic connection to most of them.
According to at least a couple of recent surveys, 40-percent of adults reported that they are lonely. This figure is double that of the 1980s. Another study, this one of Facebook users, found that the amount of time folks spend on the site is inversely related to actual personal connectedness with flesh and blood people.
Social isolation in today’s society is very much a taboo subject. That means the more we’re warned about loneliness, the more we worry about it. The more we worry about it, the more shameful it feels. The more shameful we feel, the more we withdraw from others. We see beautiful, perky, happy people cavorting together in advertising spots and we receive the message that being alone just isn’t very cool.
Culturally, we obsess over ways to prevent health problems from getting out of hand. If a person wants to quit smoking, there are many resources devoted to kicking the habit. If a person wishes to be less sedentary, there are numerous physical therapists, personal trainers, and gyms to utilize. However, I’ve never had a doctor or personal trainer inquire about my social interaction and wellness.
While there are more organized interventions to help alcohol and drug afflicted individuals, nobody stages meaningful interventions for lonely people. Even if doctors do bother to ask their patients, they don’t write prescriptions for effective medication to alleviate social isolation.
Many isolated people have long known that social isolation can be unhealthy. If they’re unhappy with their situation, they struggle to find solutions. Unlike many of our problems, a glib, upbeat web site or blog post cannot provide real help.
We will encounter “checklists” to help us evaluate our social wellness “scores”. This usually results in us comparing ourselves with what “should” be. Often, these lists and quizzes only manage to ramp up our anxiety. We can obtain advice from well-meaning, self-appointed YouTube relationship experts, but that will only be short-lived and mostly superficial, at best.
If you found this post after a web search for social wellness remedies, this is another dead end. All I can tell you, that in my non-professional opinion, is that acceptance is the key. I haven’t formulated or borrowed a step-by-step regime to fix anyone’s social wellness scores. All I can tell you is what I figured out in my late teens. You just accept yourself, warts and all.
The best lives are not all unicorns and butterflies. Instead of feeling oppressed by loneliness, I discovered that being alone can be a huge treasure. Something called solitude has always been an option. Solitude means showing respect and love for yourself but not in a narcisstic manner. Solitude is the act of being happy with and in harmony with yourself whenever you’re all alone.
Who knows? If we can get solitude down pat, maybe some of the advice we find elsewhere on the Web might actually work. We might discover that social isolation is not the “new smoking”.
Happy Social Wellness Month.