Last week we focused on self-compassion...let's turn the focus outward.
Despite the fact that most of our daily irritants come from other people, we are social creatures and need human connection. Note that there is a difference between being alone and being lonely. We need some amount of solitude in order to check in with ourselves, contemplate life, relax and refresh. Making a conscious decision to be alone because you need solitude is a healthy action. Loneliness, on the other hand, can occur even if you’re in a room with 100 people. Cigna reports that 46% of Americans sometimes or always feel lonely. One in five report rarely or never feeling close to anyone.
Extensive studies have shown that loneliness is a major health risk factor and now has escalated to a public health concern. The U.K. created a Minister of Loneliness last year to address that country’s problem. Former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy declared that loneliness was a health epidemic. He reported that loneliness and weak social connections are associated with a reduction in lifespan comparable to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day and even greater than that associated with obesity.
Loneliness also increases risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, anxiety and depression. At work, loneliness reduces task performance, impairs aspects of executive function in the brain such as decision making and reasoning, and reduces creativity.
There are many factors for the increase in loneliness, but social media has contributed enormously. While the stereotype of loneliness used to be elderly people, now more young adults are lonelier than any other group. There is a direct correlation between the amount of social media used and levels of loneliness. The more social media, the more alone you feel.
To mitigate these health risks, it’s important to realize that social media use gives the appearance of being socially connected, but you are better off having 3 or 4 close friends than you are in having 3,000 Facebook friends or Twitter followers. That’s because it’s the quality of your connections that affect your health, not the quantity.
So, we know scientifically that we need to feel connected, to work and play with each other, to love and support each other, in order to feel a sense of happiness and contentment and to improve our health. We can obviously reduce our social media use, but we clearly need to make more, and better, human connections. How can we get along better with others? How can we improve our relationships? How can we prevent conflicts or tension?
We spend a lot of energy on judging others, blaming others and in conflict with others. One solution would be to stop judging, blaming or arguing with people, which we can learn through mindfulness practices, but it takes time to change all of those habits. In the meantime, we can turn to compassion and empathy for much quicker (and proven) results.
We look around our world and see what is different about everyone. Our egos see “differences” as a threat, which is why we tend to spend time with others just like us and negatively judge those who are different. But stop and consider that all human beings basically need the same things. Whether you live in China or Mexico, work as a nurse or a CEO, vote as a conservative or liberal, are wealthy or poor, black or white, young or old, you desire and need to feel cared about, good health, financial security, safety, autonomy, and a sense of happiness. If we can remember this as we interact with someone that is different than us, it is much easier to find common ground, and to feel empathy or compassion for the other person. And once we find empathy or compassion for another, we are minimizing the ego’s ‘fear reaction’ and maximizing connection with the other person. Compassion and empathy are how we move out of egotistical thinking. We basically move out of our heads and into our hearts.
The next time you find yourself judging, irritated by or disappointed in someone else, stop and consider their behavior as an expression of an unmet need. Remember, they have the same needs that you have. Instead of reacting negatively to that person, pause and see if you can identify what that unmet need may be. You can never know what another person is really feeling, but the act of considering it induces empathy and automatically reduces the ego’s negative influence.
If you’re interacting with someone you don’t particularly like, this can feel like a very difficult exercise. It can also be very challenging to override the brain’s automatic response without additional tools beyond changing our thinking. The ego sends almost instantaneous stimuli to the amygdala in the brain, which connects strongly to brain circuitry for both focusing our attention, and for intense emotional reactions - including fear and anger.
There is, however, a mindfulness technique that softens the ego and increases connection with others through specific types of meditation. Studies show that during mindfulness meditation, the amygdala response is significantly lowered compared to non-meditators. In other words, mindfulness meditation buffers the stimulus from the ego to the amygdala. One of the most effective of these types of meditations is called Loving Kindness.
If you joined us last week, you started this practice with loving yourself. Now before you roll your eyes at the thought of loving others or even your enemy, consider that the Loving Kindness Meditation has been extensively studied and the results are pretty impressive. Just some of the benefits include increased positive emotions, strengthened capacity for empathy, and increased compassion. In a study conducted by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, a loving kindness intervention was shown to immediately help reduce pain and the emotional tension associated with chronic migraines. And other studies have shown that loving kindness meditators have longer telomeres than those who do not. This is a biological marker of aging, so we could save a lot of money on facial creams and plastic surgery simply by practicing this meditation on a regular basis!
The Loving Kindness Meditation is easy to memorize and only takes a few minutes a day. It’s also important if you’re trying to improve your relationships and connections with others because it turns out, learning about compassion does not necessarily increase compassionate behavior. Frequently, we may empathize emotionally with someone’s suffering, but then tune it out as our own feelings become too uncomfortable. We initially feel compassion towards them regarding their illness, homelessness or poverty, but at some point, we grow uncomfortable with the encounter - so we cut it off to protect ourselves from the uncomfortable feelings and sensations.
Studies show that practicing Loving Kindness Meditation increases our ability to help others. This compassionate meditation enhances empathic concern, activates circuits for good feelings and love, as well as circuits that register the suffering of others, and prepares a person to act when encountering suffering.
The best news is, loving-kindness acts quickly. Although the effect is temporary, in as little as 7 minutes, a person’s good feelings & sense of social connection increases. In as little as 8 hours of cumulative practice, however, a person shows brain changes toward more permanently increased compassion. That’s only 10 minutes a day for 6 weeks. Reductions in cognitive bias (where we judge those who are different than us) occur after just 16 hours of cumulative practice. We could accomplish that in as little as 12 weeks by just practicing the Loving Kindness Meditation for 10 minutes a day.
The more and longer we practice, the stronger both the brain’s rewiring and our own behavioral tendencies toward compassion become.
For a guided meditation on Loving Kindness, click here. (via Dr. Emma Seppala, TedX Speaker and author of "The Happiness Track")