Here it is Valentine's Day again... and many of us are thinking, "Oh dear, I'm alone again. How I hate this celebration of couples!" There are in fact a lot of us who live alone (approximately 25% of households are single-person households according to the latest census), and the General Social Survey from 2004 revealed that many of us have no really close confidants. So how are we to cope with such a "holiday" when there seems to be so little to celebrate?
Well, much of the research done on health and social connection does not specify that to achieve longevity, you have to have a Valentine, but it does imply that you have to be socially connected to some small groups in such a way that you schmooze regularly with them. And, even though we don't know for sure whether it lengthens lives, many psychologists stress the benefits of having a couple of people with whom you "can truly be yourself" without worrying about the impression you're making. So one of the worst things you can do if you don't happen to have a Valentine is huddle at home feeling too ashamed to go out and let everyone know that there's no special someone in your life.
Shame, in fact, ends up being one of the biggest problems with our epidemic of loneliness. Staying in and acting as if we are always productively busy is one of the ways we, as a people, cope with our embarrassment about our loneliness. And it doesn't help solve our nationwide problem of loneliness one bit. Going to work used to solve the problem for most people.When we used to work at an actual workplace, it became one of the reasons that America was both a friendly country and extremely productive. Most people in the days of real workplaces reported that what got them out of bed in the morning was the thought of having fellow workers to talk to. But now that so many people work from home, we have people "sinking from view," staying home, feeling left out, and not knowing how they got stuck there. Our clever technologies that exempt us from commuting to work have gotten us lonely and depressed in numbers greater than ever before!
So, as psychiatrists in the business of trying to cheer people up through self-understanding, we encourage those without Valentines to go out any old night, with acquaintances (or friends) and note closely how many others are out in groups rather than with just one significant other. A lovely evening with a group of friends can be every bit as healthful as a "romantic evening gazing into a partner's eyes." So embrace your small groups of co-workers, friends, and acquaintances and don't worry about not having a Valentine this year.
Jacqueline Olds and Richard Schwartz will discuss The Lonely American at the Cambridge Forum, Wednesday, February 11th at 7:30pm. Details here.