One of the most important things that I learned from our survey on loneliness is that people who are dealing with loneliness are not starved for interaction – they are starved for intimacy. I don’t mean intimacy in a purely romantic or physical sense.
Intimacy, according to the Sixty and Me community, is having people to talk with who share your values and interests. It is having people in your life that need you as much as you need them. It is having a reason to leave the house with a smile on your face because you know that someone is going to be genuinely pleased to see you.
In a perfect world, we wouldn’t need to search for these kinds of relationships. But, today’s world is far from perfect. We are more “connected” than ever before. We are also lonelier than ever before.
I want to create a solution. This is exactly the reason that I decided to start Boomerly, a place for men and women over 60 to meet people that share their interests. For the same reason, I want to explore some of the ways that we can deal with loneliness, without falling into generalities like “just get out there” and “join a club.”
The good news is that there are plenty of ways that each of us can start to address loneliness in our lives. None of them is perfect and all of them require work, but, we have more control than we believe. Let’s start by looking at volunteering as a potential solution to isolation and loneliness after 60.
Part of the problem with trying to solve the problem of loneliness systematically is that the solutions that we come up with are, by necessity, “clinical”, in more sense than one. For example, I have seen several attempts to set up call centers throughout the world that lonely people can use when they are feeling lonely. On the one hand, I applaud these efforts. They are certainly better than nothing and, for people who are suffering from loneliness, while dealing with mobility issues, they may offer a critical lifeline.
However, for the majority of people in their 50s and 60s, who have the time and mobility to engage with the world when they want to, “programmatic” ways to deal with loneliness are likely to meet with mixed results. Part of the reason that I say this is because people don’t just need someone to talk to. They need intimacy. They don’t just need someone to be there when they need them. They also need someone to need them.
Volunteering is a powerful antidote to loneliness because it gives people the opportunity to be needed.
Every student mentored teaches us about our own importance in the world. Every bowl of soup served provides nourishment for our own soul. Every house built in a land far away reinforces the foundation in our own hearts and gives us the strength to engage with the world.
Many women in the community have told me that one of the things that they miss most about having a full-time job is being able to interact with younger people. On the surface, this might seem strange. After all, don’t we want to interact with people like us? I suspect that, for most of us, the answer is “yes and no.” We would love to have more friends our own age that share our interests and values. But, we would also appreciate the opportunity to mentor, and learn from, people from other generations.
For many of us, spending time with young people provides energy and a new perspective from which to see the world.
Perhaps more than any other social activity, volunteering gives us the opportunity to meet people from across multiple generations.
One of the problems with many of the traditional “solutions” to loneliness – online dating, sports, meeting with family – is that they involve negotiations with other people. Even if we are open to finding a partner after 60, which is not a priority for everyone, finding someone to meet is neither quick nor easy. Likewise, playing tennis involves finding someone to play with at a particular time and place.
Volunteering, by comparison, is easy to coordinate. Most organizations will be happy to receive your help, especially if you pick an opportunity that matches your skills and interests. You may need to wait for an event to start, but, you probably won’t have to worry too much about the fear of rejection or the nuisance of negotiation.
Volunteering removes many of the barriers that we face to getting out of the house. It helps us to engage with the world on our own terms.
Loneliness is hard to understand and even harder to solve. Part of the reason for this is that people that are experiencing loneliness are often dealing with other emotions, such as sadness, depression, anxiety, or low self-esteem. As a result, we can’t just deal with loneliness in isolation. It’s not good enough to simply tell someone to “get out of the house” or “join a club.” If we are going to address the problem of loneliness, we need to help people to feel better about themselves first.
One of the most basic human desires is to feel needed. We thrive when we know our place in the world and feel like we are making a difference. Perhaps it is no surprise then that volunteering has been shown to make people happier.
Since sadness is often associated with feelings of loneliness, volunteering can help us to break through our negative emotional loops and reach a point that we feel like engaging with the world.
Volunteering is one of the most powerful ways to address loneliness that we have complete control over. It gives us a way to get out of the house that doesn’t involve negotiating with others. It allows us to interact with people from other generations on an equal level. It has the potential to increase our happiness and break the “loneliness loop.” Perhaps most importantly, it addresses our fundamental need to be needed.
Do you agree that volunteering is a powerful way to deal with loneliness and find happiness? Which volunteer organizations or charities do you support? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.
Here’s a short video that I recorded about the power of volunteering to help you deal with loneliness.