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Moe Carrick

Loneliness at work: what is it, why it’s damaging, and how to fix it.

May 28, 2021
by moecarrick

Think about the best magic trick you’ve seen. Was it the cards that did the trick, or was it what the magician did with them?

So in life, it isn’t our things or even our people that give us the most fulfillment. It’s what we do with them.

The cards themselves aren’t magic, it’s what the magician does with them.

It’s not the pile of burning logs; it’s the energy at the late-night bonfire. It’s not the tent under the stars; it’s the camaraderie of adventure that we’ll carry with us to the grave. It’s the richness of our experience that matters.

We’re in an epidemic of loneliness, and the solution isn’t technology. The good news is that we’re literally born to make connections; the problem is that we live in a world engineered to drive us apart. And while the burden of loneliness isn’t equal, the path toward a better future is clear.

Every interaction we have with another is an opportunity to build lasting and meaningful connections—at work or at home. It’s time to get darn good at it.

We’re in an epidemic of loneliness

More than three out of every five Americans say they’re lonely. Even more report feeling left out, misunderstood, or that they lack companionship. Some say we have a loneliness epidemic in the US.

It’s not just the pain of a lonely heart that we’re dealing with here. Insurance companies—ever tenacious researchers—have quantified and qualified the adverse health effects of long-term loneliness.

Loneliness is an actual disease. And while it’s commonly categorized as a mental health problem, more and more research is documenting the deleterious physical effects of loneliness.

It is more dangerous than smoking, precipitates suicidal ideation, Alzheimer’s disease, and other dementia disorders, not to mention the additional strain on the immune and endocrine systems. All told, loneliness is a primary latent cause of many hospitalizations.

Oh, and loneliness at work also wrecks havoc on productivity, dramatically increases churn (a massive cost to employers), and contributes to workers feeling burnt out, disengaged, and miserable.

In a culture that often sends their elders away, it might be easy to tell ourselves that the old are the lonely ones. But this just isn’t true. Both the severity and prevalence of loneliness are highest in the youngest generation.

and the solution isn’t technology.

The internet was born to connect academic and military researchers with one another. Since its inception, the internet was intended to make connections. But almost two decades since some clever technical minds took digital connection mainstream (I’m looking at you, Zuck), we’re starting to see its limits.

It’s been proven in multiple studies that heavy social media users are lonelier than light users. The very mechanisms the tech industry wants us to use to build connections are, at best, very ineffective and, at worst, prey upon our attention to sell advertising.

The good news is we’re literally born to make connections;

This is starting to get depressing. But the good news is that humans are hard-wired for connection. A recent study has shown that vagal tone—a measure of the strength of the neurons that link our brains with our heart—develops more participants practiced empathy and connection with others. Vagal tone is directly related to heart-rate variability, which is a vital indicator of overall health.

Practice love and your body gets healthier. Our brains need it, our bodies need it, our spirits need it. And we’re good at it.

It’s just that we aren’t to build healthy, meaningful connections with people throughout our lives.

The problem is that we live in a world engineered to drive us apart.

In school, children are segmented by age. At first glance, this is good—it gives them others to play with—but doesn’t teach young children to cooperate effectively with others.

What’s more, practical but challenging relationship-building skills like accountability, vulnerability, or boundary setting simply aren’t taught.

By the time children are leaving high school, they are equipped with massive stores of knowledge—calculus, biology, medieval history—but are more and more under-equipped to build strong, resilient bonds in their communities.

In fact, when we deem our children most prepared to engage with the world—at age 18, after ~13 years of schooling—we send them away to another holding tank. In college, young adults are once again deposited into a clutch of similar-aged humans. Too often, these relationships remain stunted as if the man were still a child.

The burden of loneliness isn’t spread equally.

I say “man” intentionally. Men are 1.7 times more likely to be lonely, 3.7 times more likely to commit suicide, and 39 times more likely to commit mass gun murder.

Yes, the gender category we call “man” is in a dangerous state. It has to do with loneliness and lack of community.

Men can have a hard time connecting authentically with other men.

In the mold of the traditional gender role, women are taught to tend to social well-being. From a young age, they are encouraged to be tender, express their feelings, and pay attention to what others are doing and feeling. As a result, women carry an unequal burden of domestic life. They serve as the bringers for social gatherings and the keepers of the peace in intense family conversations.

Meanwhile, men are taught to push through pain, whether in sports or in trauma—to stifle their tears. Tears, it turns out, are a wonderful datapoint in gauging emotional states.

As children, young boys often exhibit incredible sensitivity to social dynamics and care deeply for their peers. By teenagehood, the same boys become indifferent to each other’s pain.

It’s beyond time to teach men to open their hearts wide and retrain their vagal nerves.

But the path is clear.

Our ingrained habits change us. As neuroscientists repeat, neurons that fire together wire together. In other words, we are doomed to repeat the things we repeatedly do.

Do you open your phone when you feel stressed? Do it enough, and the brain will fill in the gap: stress means you will unlock your phone.

It’s Pavlov’s dog but worse. You feel lonely one day, so you decided to treat yourself to an ice cream cone. Next thing you know, the merest inkling of sadness has you unconsciously wandering to the kitchen.

With a bit of awareness, you can break the cycle and rewire your nervous system to crave a loving, tender connection. When you feel sad, call a friend or go for a walk.

When you’re lonely, draw a card that prompts you to connect with someone in a meaningful way. You have a good conversation, and before you know it, you’re craving that social connection like a Milky Way for the soul.

What we need to do is practice love.

Every interaction is an opportunity to build lasting and meaningful connections.

So you’ve never been taught how to forge connections or harness strong accountability. That’s okay. Old dogs can learn new tricks—and given the complicated physiology of connection, our bodies know what to do. All we need to do is practice.

I’m proud to announce something we’ve worked very hard on.

Recall the magician you thought of at the beginning of this article.

Magicians use cards to draw people in. Together, the small audience has a memorable experience that bonds them in joy and wonder.

But all of this depends on the skill of the magician—a rare thing indeed.

What if the cards themselves could facilitate connection?

Now they can.

Introducing The Brave Deck.

The Brave Deck, designed by Mei Ratz, written by everyone at Moementum Inc.

It’s a new tool for building strong connections.

While simple, it’s not easy.

Draw a card, ask your friends the question you find on it, and wait for the awkward stares.

Then, together, take a deep breath and answer the tough questions.

The Brave Deck requires you to draw on courage and vulnerability to rediscover the magic of a loving, vulnerable connection with anyone.

It’s something you can do with your colleagues, friends, or families that will be memorable. It’ll unlock the magic that keeps you together.

We know you’ll be grateful for it in the end.