Ducking loneliness

Kathryn Crawford Saxer A Little Kindness

“I’m lonely,” my career coaching client told me. “I feel like I’ve been working so hard and raising kids, and now I’m looking around and wondering where everyone is.”

I know the feeling. For the first time in some 15 years, I can go do — something! anything! — without planning around child care. But what to do and with whom?

“Finding new friends, and reviving old friendships, is a lot like networking for a new job — or dating, for that matter,” I told my client. “It involves putting yourself out there, navigating around dead ends and making the effort.”

The effort is the hard part.

I asked a friend how she met her boyfriend. “I had gotten really comfortable,” she told me. “I’d go to work, stop at Whole Foods on my way home and watch Netflix and eat my dinner by myself in my cozy, safe apartment.

“I realized that if I wanted to meet someone, I was going to have to force myself to get out,” she said. “I was not going to get lucky sitting by myself in my apartment.”

Writing in the Harvard Business Review in 2017 on loneliness, physician and former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy pointed to research showing that “loneliness and weak social connections are associated with a reduction in life span similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day and even greater than that associated with obesity.”

So loneliness matters, and is something to take action on.

Murthy bluntly describes loneliness as a public health crisis, and the workplace as one of the primary places where it can get better — or worse. “Many people feel that the folks they’re working with are work colleagues, but they wouldn’t call them friends. They wouldn’t describe them as people they can trust,” he said in a Washington Post interview.

“And there’s a real lost opportunity there, because when people have strong connections with the people they’re working with that can not only improve productivity and the overall state of the company, but it can also improve their own health,” he said.

My client has strong work friendships — it’s the Netflix-filled weeknights and weekends that seem lonely and isolating to her. She’s not going to make new friends sitting by herself in her house, but it’s very comfortable at home — gravity is strong once you get home after a long day at work.

How can you trick yourself into making the effort?

I told my client about The Poker Game, a metaphor meriting title caps in my coaching practice. My husband and I attended my kid’s high school auction and bought tickets to a poker game and martini party scheduled a couple months in the future.

We signed our future selves up for a party. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

The Saturday afternoon of the party, the last thing I wanted to do was make the effort of leaving the cozy comfort of my house and go be social with people I’d never met. But my past self had bought tickets and committed us.

My past self tricked us.

And of course the party was fun and worth the effort.

“How can you trick your future self?” I asked my client. “What would be fun for her, and how do you commit her to it?”

“You know, I’ve always thought it would be fun to …” my client began.

First published in The Seattle Times. Read my archive of Seattle Times Explore columns.