How to be alone without being lonely

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“You can’t be lonely if you have learned to love the person you’re alone with”

We are living more separately now days than we did 30 years ago when social connection was a lot more common and science is now proving the impacts this has on our health. Loneliness is one of the top reasons people see a therapist in the US now and a recent study suggests that over 25% of Americans feel they don’t have any close friends with which they’d share a problem. In the age of social media when we may have hundreds of friends on facebook we are actually getting increasingly lonely.

Whilst it is true that social connection is vital to our happiness this is not to be confused with co-dependency, this is fear of being alone that results in seeking our happiness in somebody else and relying on having another half to make us complete. Over the last year I’ve learned that often we seek out others to plug holes in our own self and that no-one is designed to make us happy. Sometimes our fear of not wanting to be alone is a way of avoiding ourselves by being with someone else.

It is nearly 12 months since I left a long term relationship and I’ve learned so much about myself since being single, about who I am and what I want. I think it’s crucial for everyone to spend time on their own at some point in their life and this can be a positive thing. Having said that though, as a singleton, I am aware that as I progress through my thirties the longer I am single the more likely it is that I will acquire cats!

I’ve gone through the lonely nights, the closing of a door that was such a big part of my life, the fear of the unknown and worrying about the future. But I enjoy cooking what I want for dinner and nobody complaining there’s no meat, not having turned the TV on for days, playing my own music at my own volume, spending lazy weekends doing as I please and most importantly having half a bar of chocolate and knowing the other half will still be in the fridge when I return to it.

It takes courage to leave a relationship and for some the prospect of being alone is too scary to handle which is why so many people remain in unhappy relationships. However, I’ve learned that there is a difference between being alone and being lonely. When I took the time to be alone I found I had the solitude and freedom to enjoy my single life, learn about myself and spend time with me. It helped me develop the capacity within to make my own way without needing a companion or a guide.

As I adjusted to being on my own my fear of the unknown has become an excitement about the possibilities that exist, but I needed time on my own to figure this out. For a while it felt like a void, a nothingness, this is the gap between what we knew and felt familiar and what is yet to come. Often engulfed by the fear of the unknown, we hang in this space of nothingness between the past and the future and sometimes despair at the uncertainty. But rather than being a big black scary hole of nothing, this time in between what was and what is yet to be is full of potential, full of opportunity. It is the beginning of the rest of your life, it is not a void at all but vibrant with absolute potential.

I have learned that we can be on our own without being lonely and that we can be alone but not empty. When we are lonely we are missing something or someone, it is a negative emotion and we feel a hole inside that needs to be filled. But when we’re alone, we are not lonely but in the presence of ourselves and can enjoy the freedom our solitude brings.

Pet Therapy

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We are living more separately now days than we did 30 years ago when social connection was a lot more common and science is now proving the impacts this has on our heath. Loneliness is one of the top reasons people see a therapist in the US now and a recent study suggests that over 25% of Americans feel they don’t have any close friends with which they’d share a problem. In the age of social media when we may have hundreds of friends on facebook we are actually getting increasingly lonely. Studies are now suggesting that social connection is as important to our health as diet and exercise and that social isolation is having a detrimental impact on our health.

Anyone who has owned a much loved pet will attest to the benefits, the smiles they bring to us, the comfort and companionship. Pets can ease loneliness, reduce stress, encourage exercise and studies now show they may even help you live longer. Most notably;
• Pet owners are less likely to suffer from depression.
• People with pets have lower blood pressure in stressful situations.
• Playing with a pet can elevate levels of serotonin and dopamine, which calm and relax.
• Heart attack patients with pets survive longer than those without.
• Pet owners over age 65 make 30% fewer visits to their doctors.

The use of pet therapy is becoming increasingly popular for the sick and elderly, this involves organisations bringing specially trained animals to visit those who are sick, depressed and lonely by bringing a smile to their face, providing companionship and calming anxiety to aid recovery.

But what if you are not able to have pets of your own? The Japanese have found the answer to this in Paro the therapeutic robot seal being used to help treat the sick and elderly. Designed to look and move like a real pet and respond to interaction, it is thought to help combat loneliness, make people smile, help keep them calm and is also used to help dementia sufferers. Paro has already been a real hit in nursing homes across the globe.

The studies seem to show more health benefits with dogs rather than cats probably due to the fact that a cat couldn’t care less about your health, aslong as you feed her, let her out and let her sit on your knee, bed, book, coat, desk, sofa and whenever else she wants. My family have had dogs and cats for as long as I can remember and the love, affection and company they have provided over the years for anyone who has visited the house has been immeasurable.

I have always admired the unconditional love you get from a dog, partly due to having less brain cells as cats will testify, cats will only love you when it suits and usually if there’s something in it for them. But what dogs lack in brains they make up for in heart (and appetite if they are Labradors)! I love both cats and dogs and animals in general but have noted that cats will tolerate us whereas dogs worship us but both bring benefits far beyond their company;

• The dog makes me feel safe when I am sleeping alone in the house
• He immediately cleans up any food I may have spilled on the floor
• The cat keeps me warm when she’s curled up on my bed
• She also keeps the mice population down in the garden shed
• The dog makes me exercise, even on the coldest days when he needs his walk
• When I am sick or sad they seem to know and come and curl up bedside me
• They have replaced the alarm clock as my morning wake up call
• They think it’s ok to go to sleep in the afternoon, in fact they encourage it
• They listen to you, even when you say the craziest things, and they never argue
• When I come home from shopping they great me as if I’ve returned from a six month expedition across the dessert.

I have grown up with animals around and I think it’s great for kids to learn how to look after something from a young age, even if it is a goldfish or a hamster, it also teaches kids lessons about life and death but the impact of pets goes much further than that. For me I am happier when animals are around and I always feel special when I come home to pets.

Tis the season to be grateful

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So the ‘stress’ of Christmas is over, the presents have been opened, we’ve filled ourselves with an abundance of food and we hopefully are now able to relax and breathe, at least until the credit card statement arrives! It can certainly seem a lot more complicated these days than it used to be.

For me Christmas is about family, living overseas this is one of the few times I get to be with my family and as we sit having Christmas dinner pulling crackers across the table I can’t help but feel grateful for the time we have together, the abundance of things that really matter and how fortunate we are in a world where so many others are not. At this time of year I am also reminded of Christmas’s past and those family members who can no longer be with us and wish that I’d really taken the time to appreciate the big Christmas gatherings we had when we were children, the joy of Christmas and being with those we love, those times can never be repeated and during the moment we often overlook this.

“Enjoy the little things, for one day you may look back and realize they were the big things.” Robert Brault

I look at the fridge bulging with food and the presents under the tree and I’m grateful, but it’s so easy to take these things for granted in our overdeveloped world, we run the risk of forgetting it’s not like this for everyone and we are in fact very lucky. This Christmas I travelled home through Thailand where I volunteered with under privileged children. Seeing how happy these kids are when they have so little made me think long and hard about gratitude.

We have a habit of focussing on what we haven’t got instead of all the things we’re lucky to have, even the basics like food, warmth, health, education, freedom. It is human nature to focus on the tiny bits that are not right rather than the large chunks that are. We overlook the good stuff and tend to concentrate on what could be better. This leave us feeling dissatisfied and always wanting more but that is a never ending journey, you’ll always be left wanting more.

A monk spoke to me recently about his upbringing in a hill tribe village in remote northern Thailand where he had to learn to cook, clean, plant, harvest and how to navigate life, as a result he tells me he learned where things come from and to appreciate what he has, he told me “as a kid in the hill tribe if I wanted to play with a toy I had to make one so I would carve a gun out of wood from a banana tree. Rich kids, if they want something it is given to them, they grow up having no idea how to live and they don’t appreciate what they have”.

“Happiness isn’t about getting what you want it’s about loving what you have”

We have put too much emphasis on having many things. It is true that if we are out in the cold in a forest with no food and no clothes we will not be happy but if someone gives us shelter, a blanket and something to eat we will be happy. So if a little of something is good then it follows that more must be better but a person with $2M is not twice as happy as a millionaire. You can also have too much of a good thing (as I have found with Mum’s mince pies)!

It’s easy to make the mistake of thinking that if you have something you love or desire you’ll be happier with more, as a result of this mantra we struggle in the modern world with debt, obesity and addiction.

We feel we have to ‘have’ things to be free when in fact it’s the opposite, our struggle to hold onto things brings the very pain we are trying to avoid, we are terrified of letting go for fear we’ll have nothing but this is the true path to living. I look at those who live simply and can’t help thinking they know the secret, they have mastered the art of living. After all, everything material we have can be lost tomorrow and the irony is if you’re asked what you most value it’s likely to be the things money can’t buy and put under the tree, things like love, your health and your family. So this Christmas take a few minutes to think about all you have in your life and be grateful and remember those who are not so fortunate.

 “That man is poor, not who has little but who hankers after more” Seneca