Nearly 400 years after John Donne wrote “no man is an island,” that simple phrase has been quoted countless times. Why is it so enduring? I believe it’s because the vast majority of us identify with it in a fundamental, human way. We can feel in our soul the basic need for connection, just as much as we need food or water.
Of course it’s important for us to be independent and able to do things on our own. Of course people need alone time. But too much of anything can be detrimental to our health, and there is quite a difference between being alone and being lonely, something I became more aware of during my time in Taiwan.
How we become isolated
It is surprisingly easy to become isolated from the people around us. With technological advancements, more often than not we talk to our friends and family through our phones rather than face-to-face.
And now, moving to new countries, travelling for extended periods of time, or working remotely are quickly becoming new norms. Most people jump at these opportunities - and rightly so as travel can be an invigorating experience - but when you're alone in a new place, it can be hard to meet people.
I believe my personal experiences with isolation partly resulted from moving around for work. Arriving in a new town every year or two, it was exhausting to be entirely surrounded by unfamiliar faces yet again – regardless of how friendly and welcoming those people tried to be. I ended up spending a lot of time watching Netflix alone in my apartment.
Whatever the reason for our solitude, it can cause a whole host of problems. For example, spending too much time alone can negatively affect self-esteem. Social isolation can also be a trigger for mental health issues. I know for me personally, all that time alone with a screen did nothing to ease my recurring battle with depression.
To make matters worse, those same mental health issues can create a kind of negative feedback loop since they can make it even more difficult to get out and make the connections we need to feel better.
Don't be nervous to ask a classmate, colleague, or acquaintance to hang out - most people are looking to make genuine connections too and will be flattered that you asked them.
The good news is that if we are willing to put the work in (and maybe be a little extra brave now and then), we can begin to develop those strong relationships we so desperately need.
Ironically enough, the catalyst for me to get out of my shell and make new connections was another move to a new place. This time, I moved all the way to Taipei, about 12,000km from home.
Perhaps the complete change of setting jolted me out of my usual habits. Or maybe I thought I had a better chance at meeting new people in a larger centre. Whatever the reason, I finally put myself out there.
I went to language exchanges, book clubs, Meetups, and Chinese Mandarin classes, since making connections is usually easier when you already have something to talk about. I also invited colleagues to hang out after work.
Sometimes it was uncomfortable or awkward, and I met a lot of people who I would never see again. But I also met people who would become some of my closest friends.
When you're feeling lonely, it's common to think that there's something wrong with you, that everyone else has a bustling social life except you. The reality is that most of the time we overestimate how many friends others have and how many social activities they participate in.
It's normal to feel lonely, so when you reach out to someone else they will probably really appreciate it.
Why potential awkward moments are worth it
Once we manage to get past the small talk and make some genuine connections, the benefits start rolling in. Forming bonds with others can fill our brains with lots of the feel-good chemicals, and knowing we have friends to rely on in tough times can be incredibly reassuring.
Giving and receiving empathy can also be hugely helpful to our state of mind. I can’t even express what a relief it has been in my life when I’ve found the right friend to talk to about an issue, and they just get it. That was especially true in Taipei, when my usual support network was so far away.
In addition - though it’s frustrating for those of us who already feel left out - knowing people is an excellent way to meet more people. Once we’ve stepped outside our comfort zone to meet a few new people, they can introduce us to others, and so on.
Like many problems, isolation can feel insurmountable when we are trapped in the middle of it. The truth is that with courage and determination, it is possible to forge the connections needed to climb out of that dark place. It isn’t easy, but it can be simple. And it is absolutely worth the effort.
Want to talk? We're here to listen.