Kira Asatryan is the author of Stop Being Lonely. She is a couples coach and a team coach who trains Silicon Valley startups to work cohesively. She is also a popular blogger on Psychology Today and other sites. Prior to becoming a full-time relationship coach and writer, she ran marketing campaigns across major platforms including Facebook, Twitter, and Google Search. She lives in San Francisco, CA and her websites are www.StopBeingLonely.com and www.KiraAsatryan.com.
1. Why is loneliness such a problem for everyone nowadays?
The primary reason loneliness is an increasingly common problem for people is that our contemporary social environment is working against the development of close relationships. In other words, people these days have a reduced number of natural opportunities to get close to one another.
Some of the environmental obstacles to closeness are part of larger social shifts. Today, people relocated all the time and each time they do they’re faced with the challenge of losing stable relationships and forming new ones. People are delaying marriage longer than they ever have before, and living alone is rapidly becoming the most common living situation. In fact, most adults would say living alone is much preferable to living with parents or extended family.
These factors, among others, lead to people experiencing more loneliness now than they likely would have in the past.
2. Why do you think loneliness is an especially big problem for millennials?
Millennials are experiencing high levels of loneliness because they are the generation most entrenched in what I see as the greatest obstacle to closeness – personal technology. While personal technology has afforded Millennials amazing levels of independence, it’s also made them much more disinclined towards in-person interaction.
For example, Millennials no longer need to go to a class to get an education. They no longer need to go to an office to maintain a job. But these are the places where opportunities to form close friendships exist. Millennials often feel no need to interact with people in person because they have texts, chat, and social networks. These technologies, while amazingly efficient, hinder people from getting to know each other in organic ways.
3. You say that the answer to loneliness is more closeness. What do you mean by that?
Closeness, as I’ve defined it, means direct access to another person’s inner world – his or her needs, values, dreams, passions, stories, etc. You create closeness with another person by getting to know him or her and then showing him or her that you care. Through these two, complimentary acts – “knowing” and “caring” – your inner world and the other person’s inner world become, metaphorically, close enough to touch.
Closeness works as the antidote to loneliness because loneliness is not necessarily caused by a lack of people in one’s life. Many people have a phone full of contacts and still feel lonely. Loneliness is actually sadness caused by the feeling of internal distance – mental and emotional distance – from others. Closeness reduces this internal distance and the sadness that comes with it – loneliness.
4. What distinction are you making between love and closeness?
The main distinction I make between love and closeness is that love is a mystery and closeness is not. Meaning, we understand what generates closeness between two people – the feeling of being known and cared about – but we really cannot say the same thing about love.
Expectant parents will tell you it’s possible to love someone before they’re born. We can love people after they die. Love is transcendent – there’s no doubt – but it is also unpredictable and impossible to conjure at will. Closeness, on the other hand, has predictable outcomes and can therefore act as a reliable solution to loneliness.
5. Why is closeness so important in relationships?
Closeness is an extremely vital aspect of all relationships, whether they be friend, family, business, or romantic relationships. Closeness is important because it is responsible for that sense you sometimes have that another person understands you on a deep level and cares about you.
Knowing and caring, taken to together to make closeness, communicate to another person, “Not only do I see your truest self, I’m also invested in keeping your truest self well.” When this message is communicated in a relationship, the relationship feels stable, satisfying, and authentic. Without this message, the relationship can easily feel hollow, shallow, forced, or – at its worst – like a burden.
6. Can closeness be learned? If so, how does one do that?
Definitely. Creating closeness in your life is a skill that’s learned just like any other. The first step to learning how to create closeness is to understand that you are in control of your loneliness – that you are already empowered with what you need to feel less lonely.
Once you believe this, the work of creating closeness is to find like-minded people with whom you could potentially develop a close relationship. Once you’ve found a potential close friend or partner, start using the “knowing” and “caring” techniques outlined in Stop Being Lonely. These include gaining access to that person’s inner world, asking her inviting questions, empathizing with her deliberately, and demonstrating attentive interest in her.
7. What should someone start doing right now to feel less lonely?
The first step to feeling less lonely is to understand that you are not to blame for your loneliness. Oftentimes, people who struggle with loneliness feel that if they just “put themselves out there” more, their loneliness would fade. From my experience, loneliness is not a personality trait, it is not a character flaw, and it is often not for a lack of trying.
In Stop Being Lonely, I talk about the idea of separating yourself as a person from the problems in your life. To start feeling less lonely now, try separating yourself from the problem of loneliness. You are a precious human deserving of closeness, and loneliness is a resolvable problem that lives outside of you. When you think about it this way, the problem is much easier to tackle.
Technology influences the way we see the world – and the way we see other people. Those of us who have grown up using personal technology could say that it’s one of the main conduits through which we learned about the world. It was, and is, an important teacher of lessons.
Unfortunately, some of the lessons that technology teaches us are not helpful for creating closeness. For example, technology teaches us that mediated interaction – interacting through a device – is a reasonable substitute for in-person interaction. But those of us who struggle with loneliness know this is not the case.
I can’t feel what another person is feeling through Instagram. I can’t really understand what matters to my friend through Facebook. Mediated interaction, almost by definition, is not direct access to each other’s inner worlds.
9. How are our devices influencing how we interact with one another?
Many of us view technology – particularly our phones – as tools to make life more efficient. In fact, efficiency a value of utmost importance when it comes to designing personal technology products. If it’s not efficient, it’s not a good technology product.
The problem is that, the more we interact with technology – perfect tools of efficiency – the more we develop a “technology mindset” that isn’t well trained for dealing with interpersonal nuances. In other words, the more we interact with our phones, the less patience we have for interacting with people.
10. You say closeness can help businesses as well. How does that work?
While closeness requires getting to know another person and demonstrating investment in that person’s well-being, there’s nothing inappropriately “intimate” about closeness. You can absolutely be professional at work at still get close.
In fact, many recent studies have shown that the more managers get to understand their employee’s deeper motivations – an act of “knowing” – the more productive the relationship becomes. And, the more managers can be emotionally responsive to their employees – an act of “caring” – the more engaged both people report feeling at work.
What does this indicate? Closeness is not just appropriate at work, it actually improves productivity and helps businesses thrive.
11. Can you give us a few last practical tips to help a person feel less lonely?
First, notice whom you’re interested in getting to know better. It could be a distant family member, and acquaintance at work – anyone. Keep your eyes open for potential closeness partners in all areas of life.
From there, pick a person you’re interested in knowing better and ask her to meet up in real life. Once you’re together, take the opportunity to ask questions that deepen the conversation beyond projects, hobbies, and activities.
For example, instead of just asking what she’s working on, ask how she feels about what she’s working on. When she tells you she wakes up at 6AM every morning to run, ask what motivates her to do this. These are the conversations that lead to deeper understanding and that get the closeness ball rolling.