Loneliness and disconnect is one of the signal problems of our generation.
The age of smartphones and social media might connect us 24×7, but it also isolates us because to a large degree because we now go through our day talking and interacting with a lot less people than even 20 years ago. And this has huge effects.
Data from the Center for Disease Control and other government health agencies estimate that loneliness directly or indirectly costs the U.S. roughly $960 billion per year in the form of major depression, suicide and addiction. The British government even recently appointed a Minister of Loneliness to help tackle the problem in the U.K. If we are not lonely ourselves, we walk among people who are lonely every day.
The solution to this loneliness epidemic is simple, though: We just need to talk and share with someone who will listen.
A 2007 UCLA brain imaging study found that verbalizing our feelings makes us happier and actually reduces the intensity of negative feelings. Sharing our feelings with others is part of being human, which is why loneliness can be so devastating.
“This is ancient wisdom,” says Matthew Lieberman, the UCLA professor in charge of the study. “Putting our feelings into words helps us heal better. If a friend is sad and we can get them to talk about it, that probably will make them feel better.”
Sharing is a Habit
A big part of why so many of us struggle with loneliness is because we’re out of the habit. We just don’t know how to share anymore.
Sharing ourselves and what we honestly think and feel can be scary, so many of us choose the easier route instead: we hold back, we recluse to social media and that false feeling of connecting with others, or we just keep to ourselves. We share less, and we get use to it.
At the same time, our sharing muscle gets weaker.
When we open up and share what we’re thinking and feeling, we get more confident about it. Yes, sharing can be scary or awkward at first. But once we start practicing it regularly, we discover it isn’t nearly as hard as we thought. We get used to it—we build our sharing muscle, just as we lift heavier weights when we weight-lift regularly. What seemed hard at first becomes easy once we do it repeatedly and get used to it.
Habits Start with 21 Days
So if we are feeling lonely, we need to talk and share. And for most of us, we’re not talking and sharing with others on a deep level because we’re out of practice.
That’s where a 21-day Sharing Challenge comes into play.
In the 1950s, plastic surgeon Maxwell Maltz noticed something strange. When he would perform an operation such as a nose job, it would take the patient roughly 21 days to get used to the change in their body. Similarly, he found that patients who lost an arm or a leg would also take about three weeks to emotionally recovery and adjust to their new situation.
This observation led Maltz to experiment with his own life, and he found that the same principle applied to new habits he wanted to adopt. When he would try something new in his life, it would take about 21 days.
New habits typically take longer than that to fully develop—it takes 66 days for a habit to become automatic, to be exact. But 21 days is the sweet spot for making the mental change that is necessary to continue with a new habit. If you practice a new habit for roughly three weeks, you build the momentum that helps you continue with the habit and make it long-lasting.
Your Mission If You Choose to Accept It
So if you feel lonely—or just want to be a more self-actualized—here’s a challenge for you: Try to share what’s on your mind or in your heart with another person each day for the next 21 days.
If you practice sharing with another person a little each day, you will slowly build your sharing muscle and start to form the habit of connecting with others that will increase your sense of wellbeing and reduce feelings of loneliness.
It is a simple challenge, one you can do no matter your income or situation. All you need is to open up to someone a little each day. This other person can be a friend, a colleague, a priest, or even a stranger through the HearMe app. You don’t need much, just the willingness to build your sharing muscle.
The benefits of the Challenge are huge, though, despite the Challenge being relatively easy to perform. You will up your happiness and sense of wellbeing, get thoughts and feelings off your chest, and be on your way to counteracting the isolation and loneliness that is increasingly becoming a critical issue in our modern world. And you will do it just by talking.
Mother Teresa, who helped the poorest of the poor in Calcutta and was considered a saint in her lifetime, often spoke about loneliness and how it mattered even more than material wealth.
“Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty,” she once said. “Being unwanted, unloved, uncared for, forgotten by everybody, I think that is a much greater hunger, a much greater poverty than the person who has nothing to eat.”
We all can suffer from this poverty of loneliness. But we also can cure ourselves with just a little bit of work. That work starts with building our sharing muscle and re-learning how to connect with others, and that’s what the 21-Day Sharing Challenge is all about.