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Friendship, loneliness, and prayer: Praying about “learned loneliness”

Lynne Baab • Tuesday September 26 2023

Friendship, loneliness, and prayer: Praying about “learned loneliness”

“The most salient social feature of the pandemic was how it forced people into isolation; for those fortunate enough not to lose a loved one, the major trauma it created was loneliness. Instead of coming together, emerging evidence suggests that we are in the midst of a long-term crisis of habitual loneliness, in which relationships were severed and never reestablished.”
—Arthur C. Brooks, “How We Learned to be Lonely,” The Atlantic, January 5, 2023

Arthur Brooks is a Harvard professor who teaches a popular class about happiness, drawing on sociological and psychological research. He believes that for many of us, the pandemic taught us to be lonely. He notes that research indicates that learned loneliness from the pandemic disproportionately affects single people and those who are not involved in a faith community. Professor Brooks discusses remote work and the fact that many are still choosing it, “despite the fact that 60 percent say they feel less connected to their co-workers than they had before the pandemic.”

Professor Brooks cites 2022 research:

“More serious for happiness is that many people now prioritize socializing for fun less than they used to in the ‘before times.’. . . 21 percent of respondents said that socializing had become more important to them since the coronavirus outbreak, but 35 percent said it had become less important. Some people are probably seeing their loved ones less because of continued fear of disease. But when I’ve pressed friends for an explanation, the typical response has been, ‘I just got out of the habit.’ This anecdotal evidence is backed up by data: Most respondents in a spring 2022 survey of American adults said they found it harder to form relationships now, and a quarter felt anxious about socializing. Only 9 percent were worried about being physically near others; the biggest source of anxiety (shared by 29 percent) was ‘not knowing what to say or how to interact.’ Many of us have simply forgotten how to be friends.”

I want to highlight two quotations within that longer quotation: “I just got out of the habit” and “not knowing what to say or how to interact.” Are these patterns true in any sense for you? What relational habits have changed for you in the past three and a half years? Do you have less confidence in your ability to know what to say or how to interact? Do you see these patterns affecting people you know?

One of the challenges in pondering this issue is that many of us had major life changes in the past three and a half years. I know people who moved, retired, got married, had babies, watched a child begin school or go off to college. In addition, political polarization has intensified. The effect of the isolation of the pandemic is overlaid with other life changes. Therefore, new habits and relational patterns could have come from numerous sources or from the combination of life changes. Two weeks ago, I wrote about Josh, who is lonely because of a series of different situations that took friends away from him. Josh’s feelings of loneliness were amplified during the pandemic, and he’s doing what he can to build new friendships, but “learned loneliness” could describe some aspects of the past decade of Josh’s life.

It’s helpful to ponder and pray about whether there are any components in our lives of “learned loneliness.” Am I volunteering less just because the pandemic gave me permission to stay home, and I never felt the impetus to begin volunteering again? Am I contacting old friends less? Am I freer in saying no to social gatherings? And are these healthy or unhealthy changes in habits, or some combination of both?

I will write in the weeks to come about the difference between loneliness and solitude. For many of us, the pandemic helped us discover or rediscover the joys of solitude. For now, let’s define loneliness as having a sad or painful component.

Professor Brooks writes, “This growing habitual loneliness is a public-health crisis. Research has consistently shown that isolation is linked to depression and anxiety. It has also been shown to lead to premature mortality, worsen cardiovascular health, increase inflammation, and disrupt hormones and sleep.”

Most of us don’t have to look too far in our circle of extended family, friends, and acquaintances to find people who are lonely, and I suggest we pray for them. Some older people in my extended family are lonely because their friends have died or moved away to be closer to their children. If the research that Professor Brooks cites is accurate, then these dear people are at higher risk for various health complications. We can pray for many things for the lonely people we know: that God would protect them from negative health consequences, give them brief but reassuring conversations with the people they encounter in their daily lives, help them take initiative with people they know, and bring people into their lives who might become friends.

We can also bring the pattern of our own friendships to God in prayer. We can ask for guidance: do I need to initiate more, ask better questions, pray for my friends more often, follow their events more carefully, reach out to new people, put myself in more situations where I’ll meet people, and so on. We can ask for the Holy Spirit’s empowerment to do what we feel led to do. We can ask for help with the shame that some of us feel when we’re lonely, as I wrote about two weeks ago. I don’t know if you’re seeing as many articles online about loneliness as I am. Whenever you hear about loneliness, I encourage you to turn to God in prayer.

Relational God, we lament that “learned loneliness” is paralyzing, and we pray for ourselves and for those we know who are lonely. When we feel paralyzed about reaching out to others, help us take that first step. When we see acquaintances, family members, and friends who feel lonely, help us to know what role you are calling us to play in addressing their feelings of isolation, and help us pray for them.

(Next week: a listening skill with two functions. Illustration by Dave Baab: the Grand Canyon from Grandview Point. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up below under “subscribe.”)

The first three posts in a series on initiative in friendships:

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