Welcome to Joy Lab!: Welcome to the Joy Lab podcast, where we help you uncover and foster your most joyful self. Your hosts, Dr. Henry Emmons and Dr. Aimee Prasek, bring you the ideal mix of soulful and scientifically sound tools to spark your joy, even when it feels dark. When you're ready to experiment with more joy, combine this podcast with the full Joy Lab program over at JoyLab.coach
Henry: Hello, I am Henry Emmons, and welcome to Joy Lab.
Aimee: And I am Aimee Prasek. Here at Joy Lab, we infuse science with soul to help you uncover joy. To do that, we focus on building the elements of joy. Those are the positive emotions and inner states that become the building blocks for a joyful life.
We are playing with the element of fun this episode by focusing on two key obstacles for fun.
Henry: We are, we are a lot of fun.
Aimee: So loneliness and isolation. Um, so I like playing with these concepts together, sort of the opposite of fun, because they're actually easy to conflate loneliness and isolation. Uh, but when we think about them a bit more, I find that the differences between them can sort of highlight what might be at sort of the heart of our pain or sadness when loneliness or isolation is at play. Well, there was a pun right there. There we go. That's all we got.
Henry: We're off to a good start.
Aimee: Alright, well yeah, let's get into it. So first off, some definitions. Loneliness. Loneliness is really a feeling. you can be lonely in a crowded place. You might feel alone, disconnected. Uh, you might feel separate. You've probably felt those things before. Maybe feeling like an outsider at school or work or some event. Like even surrounded by people, yet you feel lonely.
Now, isolation and really in the context of what we're talking about here, social isolation, isn't really about the feelings of separateness, but the actual separation of ourselves from others. So it refers to like a true lack of social connections. And this can happen for a ton of reasons. Some completely outside of our control. Like if you can't drive and public transportation is difficult as well, or you have a medical condition or recent phenomena here amidst COVID, uh, you weren't able to maintain connections with technology. We saw, saw a lot of issues with that, during the covid height. But what we're focusing on here is really isolation at our own hands, consciously or unconsciously. The other thing to note is that you can be socially isolated and not lonely. We are a social species, but there are times for when that works out just fine. And we'll talk a little bit more about that later.
Henry: I like that distinction that we're, we're looking right now at the kind of isolation that we have some agency over. That it's got something to do with ourselves. We have possible ways out of it.
So, and I also agree that, know, loneliness and isolation are not exactly the same thing. I think of them a little more like maybe two sides of the same coin. Sometimes, you know, frankly, I do want to be alone.
Henry: Most of the time I crave connection just like everybody else, or at least most everyone else. When you want to feel connected and you aren't, then you might see yourself or perceive yourself as being isolated. That is a perception, and then you might feel lonely. That is the emotion. And as I think we all know, it can be a very painful emotion.
It can hurt. Our need for connection is so great and so strongly woven into us, really into the fiber of our being, that when we don't have it, it's pretty hard to survive, actually. Much less to thrive. So yes, we are talking about it right now as a barrier to fun and play, and it is. But really you could say it's a barrier to everything that gives us joy.
Loneliness can just take us down in so many different ways.
Aimee: I think it's actually surprising how it can take us down so completely. Maybe an example here comes from the new call from US Surgeon General of Dr. Vivek Murthi. This was the national strategy to advance social connection, he announced, uh, to address the very real public health problem of isolation and loneliness. This matters because these things take us down, like you said, Henry. Loneliness and social isolation are linked to an increased risk of pretty much every not great health outcome you can think of. It's wild. Just some examples here. Social isolation increases the risk from premature death from all causes at rates similar to smoking, obesity, and lack of physical activity, that just blows my mind. Right? There's research with folks in heart failure who report loneliness. Those individuals are four times more likely to die from their condition compared to those who do not report loneliness. Uh, isolation is associated with a 50% increased risk of dementia.
Yeah. About a 30% increased risk for heart disease and stroke. I could keep going here. I'll end with folks who are lonely, have higher rates of, this one's pretty obvious, depression, anxiety, and suicide.
Aimee: So there's like a lot of crossover in the data here with loneliness and isolation. But the point is that feeling lonely or being socially isolated is not uncommon, and it can be really damaging for our wellbeing. Here's just a quote from, um, Dr. Murthi regarding this call. He said: "Given the profound consequences of loneliness and isolation, we have an opportunity, an obligation, to make the same investments in addressing social connection that we have made in addressing tobacco use, obesity, and the addiction crisis."
Henry: Wow. I love that.
Aimee: Yeah, it's pretty awesome. And there's a bunch of recommendations here from a public health perspective, which ultimately are cost saving for society, for all of us. So when we step back and look from an individual perspective, and assuming we have the structures and abilities to be socially connected, talked just a bit about that earlier, then we all have a lot of control actually here to address our loneliness.
So at the same time, there are paradoxes at play. We feel the pull, the desire of connection because we are social species. Yet we separate ourselves. Sometimes for some really good reasons. Like for me, I really need alone time to refill my tank. I need to purposefully isolate to come back to balance when I feel off. That's something that really helps me.
At the same time, separation is counter to our instinct, to our wiring. So amidst sort of all the humans m illing around, and all the opportunities to connect, again, assuming we are able, it is so common to feel lonely. Just actually one last piece of research here.
There's a 2020 report from the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine. They found that more than one third of US adults over the age of 45 feel lonely. And if you're under that age and saying, me too. You're not alone either. the feeling of loneliness is increasing in nearly every age bracket as well.
Henry: You know, it seems so contradictory to me that there are a lot more people in the world today than ever before with a lot more tools to connect with each other really, you think about it. And yet, people are lonelier than ever. And there is more depression and anxiety than ever. So I think it's really reasonable to ask what is going on here.
I, I talk a lot about the, the range of causes of depression, which I call the enemies of joy. And I think of these things as these various factors that disrupt our natural, inborn capacity for resilience and happiness and, and meaning. I think those things are all kind of part of our infrastructure too.
But these enemies of joy fall into these three very broad categories, which kind of helps cover a lot of ground. But, the first is what I think of as the, all the physical causes. The things that are happening in our body or in our brains particularly. And that involves a lot of the factors from both inside and outside the body that create imbalance or toxicity.
So a lot of focus on the physical and the brain. The second big category, big enemy of joy, is what I refer to as the mind run rampant. Which is just kind of what it sounds like. It's when our own thoughts and beliefs and even our emotions take us down these rabbit holes and they just make us unhappy.
Sometimes we even develop these emotional storms that we've talked about before. But the third cause, the third enemy of joy, which is what we're talking about now, I refer to as the illusion of separation. That belief that we are isolated or disconnected. And this is a paradox like Aimee was saying, because on the one hand, I do think it's an illusion.
It's not real.
And what I mean by that is taking lessons from the spiritual traditions, really all of them say this in one way or another, that we might think that we're alone. We might see ourselves as kind of going through lives in our own skin and kind of separate from others. But in a very real way, we are not. We are connected deeply with nature, with one another, and with the sacred too. Whether we are aware of it or not. Yet, in our day-to-day lives, we may in fact not be with other people or at least not be able to connect with them in meaningful ways. And just like you were saying, Aimee, we might feel very alone, even in the middle of a crowd of people.
So, It makes sense to me to try to work at this on several different levels at one time, but I do think a good place to start is inside of ourselves. We're gonna come back and talk more about that later.
Aimee: That just made me think of if you took me to the Mall of America, that's like one of the most loneliest places for me.
I've talked about that before. So, um, as someone who leans more toward introversion, I like that we can work on loneliness by starting with our inner world.
So I appreciate that, Henry. Uh, and that approach really relates to what I talked about in last episode as well, those BOSS dominoes that can lead us towards separation, but that we can address to prevent the fall as well. So, just a little summary. This was a sequence of blaming, over analyzing, naming all those shoulds, and ultimately just as a consequence of the dominoes before, separating ourselves. So head back there if you haven't. I think it'd be helpful to shine a light on this sequence because it maybe got us into that illusion of separation. Into isolation and loneliness. So go check that out in that episode if you're interested.
Henry: Well, I have an example of this that I think a lot of folks can relate to. This is a personal example, but, I also see this kind of thing happening with a lot of my clients and really with other people I know. You've experienced some kind of a ruptured relationship. Just a kind of a confounding end end to a relationship. Where you'd really end up feeling completely cut off from the other person.
And I think this fits, at least my experience, fits with your BOSS dominoes. So this is what happened to me a few years ago, and I think people can probably relate to this. I, I have a, I had a friend who just stopped communicating with me. And I'd never had this happen to me before, at least not that I knew of. Um, it felt abrupt. Uh, there weren't any warning signs that I was aware of. My friends simply stopped responding to my texts, my emails, or really any attempt to get in touch with them. And I had no idea what was wrong. I still don't to this day. At first, I assumed there was something going on with my friend. Just maybe too busy or just having something personal to deal with.
But you know, it went on and I eventually realized that, gosh, this is intentional. I felt hurt.
Henry: It hurt because I took it personally. I assumed then that this was about me. So with a BOSS domino model, B is for blame. And I just put that squarely on myself. And then as often happens, I quickly moved from blame to the O for overanalyzing.
And you know, sometimes being really good at thinking is not thing for, for your mental health. And I am very good at it, especially overanalyzing things.
So, you know, truth be told, I wasn't just thinking, I was obsessing about it. And I tried to understand what did I do wrong. So this is where the shoulds come in.
I should have done this, or I shouldn't have said that. You know, and I kind of go back in my memory banks and mostly I was making things up of course, because I had no idea what was actually going on. But that is what the mind does when we feel bad. And we don't know why. It starts searching desperately for a reason to try to fill these gaps in for us.
And luckily, I know about that, so I still go down the rabbit holes, but I can eventually realize what I've done.
Henry: And you know, honestly, it's still painful to talk about even years later. To me, there's not many things worse than an unwanted separation. You know, it's so easy to turn that in my mind into a rejection.
Henry: So that's just an old belief that I know still can have a hold on me. And it is one that really makes it easy to take things like this personally, which frankly is just a great recipe for bringing one's mood down.
Aimee: Yeah, great example. Loneliness, isolation, or getting ghosted like that.
Yeah. It really just sets the mind up to fill in the gaps, like you said, with that overanalyzing. And you just keep ruminating on it. Usually all that stuff really isn't true that we've created in our minds, which then keeps us separate. Uh, you also noted Henry that it's painful to talk about, and I just wanna highlight that for a moment. Like the real visceral nature, the pain of loneliness. I think that's an important recognition.
We talked a bit about this in episode 28 when we were talking about common humanity and isolation, so you can head back there as well. Uh, but there are two theories that I think particularly relate here. So it's brain overlap theory and social pain theory. And they suggest that social pain, like when you've been ghosted or if you're feeling lonely, that social pain shares the same pain circuitry as physical pain. So, we really do experience a kind of pain when we feel left out, when we feel lonely, separate. And as it crowds that pain circuitry, we're more likely to report more physical pain as well. So our interpretation of pain is heightened.
So just daily pain experiences like tension headache is made worse when we're feeling lonely. It's really interesting. So it kind of explains, right,
Henry: Yeah it is.
Aimee: some of the discomfort, the physical discomfort of loneliness, of separation.
There's also some molecular physiology research that has found eudaimonic wellbeing. sort of the sense of wellbeing that we have in relationship to others and the world, like when we feel connected and of service. That type of wellbeing is associated with a lower expression of pro-inflammatory genes and a higher expression of antiviral genes. So this is a bit of evidence that we are literally programmed to be well with others. That in many ways, our physical health, our wellbeing, our resilience, these things are all deeply tied to our meaningful connections. When we're feeling lonely or we've just been ghosted, sorry, I don't mean to keep pressing that button on you, Henry.
Henry: Yeah, stop.
Aimee: man. But it shuts off a channel for our wellbeing. I'll stop talking about it. Um, but I, we've all been there, right? We've felt it. Or we've done it. Either way you've created that separation and it shuts off the nourishment for us of being connected. And it shuts off the interaction and the monitoring that we expect from being connected. I think that's interesting, right? We are made to interact and monitor our world with others, to navigate much of our suffering with others, uh, to celebrate our successes with others. And when that channel gets cut off, I feel like we just keep looking into that dry channel. The source might be dried up, but we never lose that desire for connection. So let's pivot though, let's get out of this trench, this dry trench. We can open that waterway back up. We can open up that channel again. So let's get into that Henry, like with a key strategy for us. Right here.
Henry: Okay, so you, you talked about this as a visceral experience. And I think that is literally true. I think these kind of things affect us in our gut, in our connective tissue, in our heart. I, I think we can actually use this visceral experience to our advantage. So in that sense, we can see it as a gift rather than something we don't want, a pain that we want to push away.
So to do this, I'm gonna turn to my good, old, reliable, tried and true system to navigate out of these kind of closed off channels. And I like it for myself because it is so simple. All that it takes are two ingredients. One is the ability to be aware of this as a visceral experience. In other words, to feel it.
And two, a willingness to open up again. Which is really our goal, but we, there's an element in which to which we have to be willing to do it. We have to allow the opening to happen. That's a little bit tricky. But here's how it works for me. So first I just tune in to my felt experience. This is physical.
For me, it's in the midsection, somewhere between the neck and the groin, but often it's the chest and the belly. And it feels usually like a constriction, like there's a tightening up in this part of my body, and I have learned to just see this as a signal that this is telling me that something is off inside.
Like I've shut down something or something is, is shutting me down. Now, this is not hard to sense at all. All you need to do is to turn your attention to your chest or your gut and ask yourself, what do I feel in this moment? And then you, if you want to, you can refine that a little bit. Is it a sense of tightening or, or a sense of openness or expansion?
Is there a closing or an opening? Remember, you don't need to think about this. This is not a mental exercise. This is just a tuning in and an awareness. You don't need to figure anything out, just feel it.
And then comes step two, which for me is a fair amount harder, but it's still with practice, it's very doable. And that is to start out you, you don't want to judge anything, so you don't need to say something like, "man, I'm doing it again." "Here I go again." Or my friend betrayed me.
You know, you don't need to find anything wrong with yourself or with the other. So I can simply ask myself then, " am I willing to stay open?"
And just by bringing that awareness, that intention to it, I find that I can, with just a little bit of acceptance and even the tiniest of openings, I can, I can keep myself a little bit more open. And maybe even open them back up again, more than before. So that's all that it is. It's sense and release, notice and accept.
So you let the feeling touch you, but you don't hold onto it. You just let it touch you lightly and then you let it go. Because unless we are truly isolated, you know, really, really just cannot have any contact with people, we do participate in our own loneliness. It is not our fault. We're not do it on purpose, but we are participating somehow by allowing ourselves to get closed off and stay that way.
So all we can do in that moment when we're hurt is to try to stay open. And then if we can stay open. We will find the right steps to take. I think, because you know, probably there are some other things we need to do to change that sense of loneliness or isolation.
Aimee: I love that reminder. If I can stay open, I'll find the right steps to take. When I'm open, I can see the possibilities, I can see folks who might be able to help. I can just practice staying open. Uh, we actually have a nice meditation over at our Resilient Community for this as well, sort of tuning into those sensations, that body awareness.
I'll link it in the challenge, for this episode. So join us in the community. If you haven't yet. We have lots of extra tools to support your resilience and by joining you keep this podcast alive. So we're grateful for that.
Well, to start wrapping us up, um, at the beginning of the episode, I noted that we can be isolated and not lonely. And I said how I really need alone time to kind of recharge. In fact, I did my first silent retreat last year. It was five days of no talking, no devices, and it was amazing. I loved it. So that's what we're talking about next episode after saying how terrible isolation and loneliness can be in this one, we'll talk about how great some conscious isolation, not loneliness, can be in next one. Uh, but there's a different term for that: solitude. Sounds better than conscious isolation. Um, a very conscious choice though to step away from the world.
Henry: Well, I am looking forward to this, Aimee. I am usually very social, but every once in a while I long for solitude. So I just can't wait to dig into this next time.
Aimee: Yeah, I think we all do a little bit. All, even you extroverts, I think you'll resonate with this. It can be powerful. Solitude.
So, to close our time today, I wanna turn to some wisdom from Einstein. He really, in my opinion, understood the science and soul of connection.
Here's what he wrote. "A human being is part of the whole, called by us universe. A part limited in time and space. They experience themselves, their thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest. A kind of optical delusion of their consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and its beauty. Nobody is able to achieve this completely. The striving for such achievement is in itself a part of the liberation and a foundation for inner security."
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