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Susan Mettes is the author of the brand-new book coming out November 2 called, “The Loneliness Epidemic – Why So Many of Us Feel Alone and How Leaders Can Respond.”

Susan has been studying people and their decisions for over a decade. She has experience in behavioral economics, writing, research, survey design and analysis, travel, journalism, public policy, and teaching.

Susan is currently working as an Associate Editor at Christianity Today magazine. Her family alternates between living in East Africa and Washington D.C.

Memorable Quotes:
  • “Loneliness is really when we’re disappointed with our relationship. So sometimes that takes the form of missing a specific person. Sometimes we wish we had friends, more friends, different friends, a specific friend. But it’s always that gap between the relationships we want to have and the relationships we actually have.”
  • “In the United States, the older you are, the less likely you are to be lonely. It is a young person’s problem in our country.”
  • “But sometimes people who are very glamorous are also insecure and also feel lonely. And I think it’s really important to me to remind people that when somebody looks like they have a good life to you, don’t assume that they’re emotionally feeling great all the time.”
  • “You have to start. You have to be somebody who’s kind. You have to be somebody who is willing to reach out. You have to be somebody who’s asking somebody else if they want to do something with you.”
What You’ll Learn:

Research and facts on the loneliness epidemic in the United States and how to overcome loneliness with kindness.

This Episode Includes:
  • Loneliness occurs when we’re disappointed with our relationship.
  • Most people are in the middle of the loneliness spectrum where they feel bad about it and wish it were different, but don’t find it excruciating. Others find it excruciating.
  • Quality friendships help defend against loneliness.
  • The loneliest population is young people who are going through transition periods in their lives.
  • The loneliness epidemic started before the pandemic.
  • Even if someone’s life looks appealing from the outside, they may be struggling emotionally on the inside.
  • Kindness is a tool that we can use, or a building block, to help people get out of their feelings of loneliness.
  • A variety of relationships is important for people dealing with loneliness.
  • Kindness is part of the foundation of belongingness.
  • If you pour gasoline on a fire of loneliness, you get more loneliness. But if you put kindness on loneliness, you can actually transform it.
Three Takeaways from Today’s Episode:
  1. Practice kindness this week by starting a conversation with your neighbor.
  2. Consider the quality of your relationships and if you’re substituting or supplementing your social life with social media.
  3. Choose one person to deepen your relationship with by cultivating mutual regard through acts of kindness.
Transcript:

Dr. Robin

Welcome back to Small Changes, Big Shifts, Building Rhythm and Resilience as many of you know, we just came off a series about loneliness and building community. And now we’re shifting into our Kindness series. And hopefully you’ve been following along the last 14 days as we’ve been doing random acts of kindness for ourselves, for our community, for our neighbors and friends.

And so I’m delighted to have Susan Mettes joining today. She is the author of the new book coming out next week called, “The Loneliness Epidemic, Why So Many of Us Feel Alone and How Leaders Can Respond.”

Susan has been studying people and their decisions for over a decade.

She has experience in behavioral economics, writing, research, survey design and analysis, travel journalism, public policy and teaching.

She’s currently an associate editor at Christianity Today magazine.

Her family alternates between living in East Africa and Washington, DC.

Susan, welcome to the show!

Susan

Thank you so much. Happy to be here,

Dr. Robin

Susan. I’m curious. What does loneliness mean?

Susan

So loneliness? I think most of us understand how it feels. Loneliness is really when we’re disappointed with our relationship. So sometimes that takes the form of missing a specific person. Sometimes we wish we had friends, more friends, different friends, a specific friend. But it’s always that gap between the relationships we want to have in the relationships we actually have.

Dr. Robin

Okay, the gap between the relationships we want to have and the relationships we actually. That’s one of the best, gosh, descriptions I’ve ever heard about it. And you said a lot of us may know what it feels like, but what does it feel like? How would you describe it? From your experience and from your research?

Susan

Yeah. So loneliness is unpleasant for most people, but it’s not excruciating for most people. And that’s one of the things that I asked about when I did this research, was kind of a pain scale for loneliness, from unbearable to barely noticeable.

Most people are kind of in the middle, where they feel it. They feel bad about it. They wish things were different, but it’s more dull, then with you all the time. Some people find loneliness to be really, really, emotionally painful. And I think that if any of you have lost somebody who’s especially close to you, you’ll know what that feels like. Loneliness can also feel every now and then it feels like something that’s not actually loneliness. I still remember listening to my mom tell my brother, my brother would come in and say, I’m bored, mom. And she would say, Honey, you’re not bored. You’re lonely. And she’d say, let’s help you figure out how to solve that.

And we don’t all get boredom and loneliness confused. But some of us do. Sometimes we get it a little mixed up with other unpleasant feelings.

Dr. Robin

Now it doesn’t have anything to do with being actually alone, right? You could be with people and feel lonely?

Susan

Exactly. And sometimes that can even enhance it when you don’t feel like you belong in a group, when you feel like you’re separate from them emotionally, it doesn’t matter how close you are physically. Now that  said, people who have more friends, some way you look at it, friends protect against loneliness. And it’s really just the quality of those relationships. That’s the most important factor and not feeling lonely.

Quality is how much time you spend together. It’s how well you connect, whether you’re talking to each other in a way that’s building each other up. It’s having a video call instead of a chat. But primarily, it’s that, like, in person sense of belonging with that person mutual care, mutual regard. And so in that sense, it’s something that we all look for, where we live, and we all look for in the people that we spend the most time with.

Dr. Robin

So we go back to that word connection. I heard something many years ago. Then we heard it again, studying over the summer with his loneliness. Is that the opposite of connection is addiction. The opposite of addiction is connection. The opposite addiction is connection, so powerful. So what made you tune into the loneliness epidemic?

Susan

I had been looking at opinion research for a while, and what I kept seeing was these echoes that loneliness was playing a really big role in people’s lives and especially young people’s lives. So I started saying, hey, let’s have more questions about loneliness. Let’s explore this issue, but that really came together as the surgeon general declared loneliness to be a national epidemic. And he added things that I hadn’t experienced, which is a lot of the patients that he saw and a lot of patients other doctors are seeing, they go in primarily because they need human connections. They’re lonely. They might have other medical problems as well. But he was seeing this as something that was drawing on our system and on our resources as a nation.

And I was seeing it as something that was playing this underlying role in the lives of many people, especially young people, in transition periods in their lives.

Dr. Robin

What are some of the surprises, or information that came out, as you were researching for this book? What kind of what you went, wow. That’s fascinating.

Susan

Yeah. So for me, it was definitely when we did a survey in the winter of 2020. It ended in March, so right before all of the pandemic shutdowns began. And when everything was shut down in May, I said, hey, can we ask people again? Can we see if they’re lonelier now? And we did. We gave them the same questions and they weren’t lonelier. And it wasn’t just the data that I was working with that said that. A lot of people were finding that loneliness hadn’t significantly increased when people had to stay home. And I think for a lot of us, that was a huge surprise.

And it indicated that loneliness might have some sources that we didn’t realize and that people might have some resilience that we didn’t realize. So for me, that was the big one. For a lot of people it’s finding out that in the United States, the older you are, the less likely you are to be lonely. It is a young person’s problem in our country.

And so I think there are a lot of stereotypes of older adults that they’re lonely. And the case is actually quite the opposite.

Dr. Robin

That sounds like a big AHA on that. I want to go back to what you just said. One of your findings is, and congratulations once again on your book coming out last night, we were talking, you know about it is a birth process. And you are actually writing this book before the pandemic. This was an epidemic before the pandemic. And as you just mentioned, which is surprising to me that the research showed that people didn’t increase loneliness being kind of on lock down, any other big AHA that you just went, wow.

Susan

Yeah. So there are a number of surprises that I came across. A lot of this is because we tend to think that loneliness hits people who are in a bad position in life or who are, you know, kind of having a lifestyle that we wouldn’t prefer for ourselves. And that’s not necessarily the case.

There are a lot of people whose lives look very appealing who are lonely. One of the things that I found that is important is that, for example, a lot of people think if I meet my true love or if my daughter meets her true love or something like that, then the loneliness problem will be solved. But that’s not the case. Love helps. Romance helps. But really, when you see the big division between people who, that does come with relationship status, it is with marriage and not just with finding that person. And I think that’s because of the stability and the longevity that marriage brings, we don’t know all the elements that go into that. But that’s one thing.

It’s not romance in and of itself. It’s not being matched. It’s having a home with somebody that you can rely on for your life.

The age thing is a big surprise. Social media is also a surprise to some people. Social media, we love to blame it on things, but it’s a tool, right? So I have a toddler, one of his first words is “tools.” He runs around with tools, and it’s terrifying because he doesn’t know how to use them. He’s not safe with them yet.

On the other hand, if I have a hammer, nobody’s worried about me, and that’s because I pick it up and put it down at appropriate times. I don’t hammer things that shouldn’t be hammered. Social media is the same. It’s a tool. It is something that a lot of extroverted people can use to enhance real life relationships, and they’re not the lonelier for it.

A lot of people who are interacting a lot on social media are also interacting a lot in person, and that protects against loneliness. So you can’t look at somebody’s social media use and tell if they’re lonely or not.  What you can look at, though, is this person substituting or supplementing their social life with social media. And I think that’s something that is a little harder for people to manage because it’s not an on/off switch. It’s a gradation of how you use this tool.

Other big surprises. One thing that wasn’t such a surprise for me that might come as a surprise for people who haven’t looked at this quite a link with insecurity. So if you feel secure as a person, you’re far less likely to be lonely, and that can come from any sources. But sometimes people who are very glamorous are also insecure and also feel lonely.

And I think it’s really important to me to remind people that somebody looks like they have a good life to you. Don’t assume that they’re emotionally feeling great all the time, and that I think it’s a really important thing, no matter how clever somebody is, they need friends.

I just, I remember looking at the Oprah interview with Meghan Markle and hearing her say that boy how many people thought they wanted to be exactly in your shoes. But we all need that reminder that even people in her position with her level of glamour can be lonely. Very lonely.

Dr. Robin

This is so close to my heart. I’ve been in private practice almost 30 years now, and when I was 30 had this. I finally had success. I grew up kind of in a not poor, but pretty much on the lower class spectrum, moved a lot. And so there were some factors that kind of led to me feeling lonely, plus many other things. But we don’t need to go into all that.

But I remember waking up in August of 1997 and knowing something was really wrong because it was like how this is all there is if I have a successful career and I have a doctor degree and I’m well thought of it wasn’t enough, and that was because I’m glad you said that, because it’s about what’s inside.

So here’s my question for you. And that’s why loneliness is so important to me and people being kind to me, which is the other side of that coin that has helped me really shift my life into a more authentic place of who I really was designed to be. What kind of sets people up to be lonely? You talked about, kind of self worth, self esteem. But what sets people up? And how do we ask parents? You’re raising this young man, young boy, and you’re raising him, what are you doing differently, being a person that I studied loneliness?

Susan

That’s an interesting question. Well, to be honest, there are some things that I can’t, that I can’t really fix in his life. One is that we’re a military family. We move a lot, and that means that we’re all more vulnerable to loneliness because we don’t have the in person connections with loved ones that we would like.

I don’t think that that’s such an insurmountable problem that we should stop. But it is a problem when it comes to loneliness. And I think one of the things I’m coaching myself on, as well as, my son, is to not be afraid to enter new relationships and also to not feel like physical distance is a permanent insurmountable thing.

So, what I found and what many people in my position have found, is that people we cared about and we’re close to in the past, both physically close as neighbors and where you are closer as neighbors and in college, those college friends, pretty often they’ll come back. You can still communicate with them when you’re in the same place, at the same time, you can pick up where you left off.

You also need those relationships that are constant. And so for me, a lot of what that’s meant is making sure that he see the faces of family members, has playdates, these sorts of things that we develop as toddlers, with putting friends, kind of this is a strange way to put it, but early friends in the pipeline to be long term friends. We all need that. And those friendships are extremely important even when we have strong family relationships.

A variety of relationships is important for people’s loneliness as well as lots of other things in their life.

Another thing that I’ve been thinking about for him and for myself is the importance of neighbors. People who live close to you play actually a big role in the belongingness you feel and the loneliness you feel. And we know this from this incredible study that was actually about heart disease that took place in one community over generations. And they had the data to look at loneliness and social networks. And what they found was that the physical closeness of people you care about and whether they’re lonely or not, their loneliness can spread to you if you’re close. And so can their “unloneliness.” So the people who are near to us, there’s this complicated interaction of knowing, being close, fighting their loneliness, and fighting ours in the process. So we say “Hi” to our neighbors. We make small talk. A lot of people hate small talk, but it is how things get started and you don’t have to be shallow. But I think saying “Hi” and introducing yourself and going through those awkward early phases of relationships, that’s the only way to get to the later phases of relationships.

Dr. Robin

Well, you really helped me transition as we’ve been talking a little bit heavy stuff about loneliness. And I believe that most people probably have experienced a little bit of it and some people a lot of it. And some people are experiencing it. And I love the new words. You give us tools, social media as a tool. And I totally agree with you. And you’re right, as young people, they may not realize it’s a tool.

And the pipeline, pipeline of friends, is interesting. I reconnected with a friend recently, our dads were best friends growing up and our parents both got divorced about the same time, and we were different, but we lost connection because our fathers were kind of what was the glue in that relationship.

But out of the blue, literally, 30 years later, I ran into them at a charity event in Kansas City. And then I ran into a sister who was my best friend growing up. And we actually had a chance to dialogue about what happened. And if you don’t dialogue about it you make up stories in your head about what happened. So it really gave us some peace around it. So, a pipeline, is what I would call them, they were my pipeline and they’re in my life now as well.

So let’s get this to kindness. And you talked about small talk with neighbors. What are some ways that you think people come out of loneliness through kindness and how do they intersect?

We said we’re a couple weeks into our 31-day kindness campaign that we do annually. And then we’re going into World Kindness Day, which is a couple of weeks from now. And I do want to give a shout out to our sponsors of the podcast, Advent Health, Community America, as well as our Citywide Facility Solutions for our Kindness Campaign. Thank you for helping underwrite so that I could do this work. And Susan, so that’s a question for you. What other ways can we shift loneliness through kindness?

Susan

Yeah, kindness is part of the foundation of belongingness. It’s something that signals mutual care or at least care on one side. If you’re kind to somebody else, you’re telling them you care about them. You’re not necessarily telling them you want to date them or that you are going to be lifelong friends.

But without kindness, you’re not going to be able to get to a healthy sense of belongingness. So, where we need to go from kindness is still further to mutual regard and mutual understanding, long term, long term knowledge of each other. So kindness is a building block in this.

It’s also one of the ways which people who are lonely or people who are worried about somebody else’s loneliness can start to address that. Loneliness is not something that someone else can solve for you. Where does that sound? It’s this longing for a deep, kind, healthy relationships, but it’s something that somebody else can actually have a relationship with you by themselves.

You have to start. You have to be somebody who’s kind. You have to be somebody who is willing to reach out. You have to be somebody who’s asking somebody else if they want to do something with you. And you also, I think a lot of us have faced grief this year, and if not this year in our lives, you’ve probably realized that even when you’re kind of the chief mourner or the person most affected by the loss of someone, you find yourself often being the comforter, often responding to strange philosophies kindly meant.

And when you respond with kindness yourself, and when you’re able to find it in yourself to talk to somebody about your mutual grief or loss in that way, it can really help a relationship to get to a new level. So kindness has a lot of roles in loneliness.

Dr. Robin

What you made me think about is that if you pour gasoline on a fire of loneliness, you get more loneliness. But if you put kindness on loneliness, you can actually transform that. And as a practitioner, who also does one on one in my wellness chiropractic practice, I’m seeing so much loneliness in young people, and I want to go back really quick.

And I started with the stat, 9 to 40 year old’s, 70% are lonely. Is that what your research also found?

Susan

Pretty similar. So, we asked a slightly different question that people often ask and that’s to build on the body of research about this. So we asked in the past week, how often did you feel lonely? And 47% of people, American adults, 18 and up, said they hadn’t felt only in the past week, but the majority said that they had. And then we asked them, how frequently did you feel lonely?

So what we had is that 14% of American adults said that they felt lonely all the time, 19% said that they felt lonely for part of each day, and 21% said that they had felt lonely at least one day of the week, but not every single day of the week.

So there you get this view that the majority of American adults feel lonely in the week, but it’s really only 14% who feel lonely constantly. And that is very skewed towards the younger end of the group.

So the 40 and under group that you’re looking at, it’s very similar to what I’m looking at when I look at ages and generations.

Dr. Robin

Well, I’m getting some reassurance here that we’re going to be okay. So thank you for that. So I’ve got a few more questions. And once again, thank you for joining me today. Susan, excited about your book coming out, “The Loneliness Epidemic, Why So Many of us Feel Alone and How Leaders Can Respond,” I’d encourage you to pick that up on, where’s the best place? Amazon? website? What’s the best place for the pick it up.

Susan

It’s on a lot of different sites. Amazon Barnes, Noble it’s on Christian book. You can buy it through the publisher’s website, Brazos Press. I will not be handing them out on the street. I live in East Africa. So if you’re reading an American book, you probably won’t get it directly from my truck, my pickup truck or something like that.

Dr. Robin

And I encourage you to check out our local bookstore in Kansas City, rainy Day books. They do a wonderful job of having phenomenal books, especially around self growth and self awareness, and give a shout out to living. And Roger over there. This isn’t a couple final question. What is one of the hardest things for people about kindness?

Susan

I think when I think about difficult things about kindness, it does come more easily to some people than to others. I think it is one of the things that, oddly enough, we have to be taught. And I say that as a mother of a preschooler, it’s a habit of thinking of others, in thinking from their perspective. And I think it can be especially hard when we’re in a bad mood when we’re feeling bad about something.

And quite often that happens when we’re feeling lonely and it draws on our resources in a different way when we’re already stressed in that way. And then somebody who needs kindness, where there is an opportunity to not be kind. I think that’s when it can be really hard for all of us.

Dr. Robin

I’m just thinking about kindness and thinking about all the acts of kindness that people have been spreading around this year. And I believe that a lot of us naturally do it. And this time is 31-days of kindness doesn’t mean just focus right now. It just cuts, shines the light collectively so we can raise the vibration of humanity, which seems to be a little bit desperately needed right now. Susan, I’m curious, what’s the best advice someone has ever given you?

Susan

I’ve gotten a lot of good advice. I’m happy to say so. I don’t know if this is the best advice, but this is advice that I think about. I was an athlete in high school, and I was a swimmer, and my coach gave me a workout that was impossible for me. An Olympian might have been able to do it. I wasn’t an Olympian, so I complained. And, I said you know, this is impossible for me. And he said, I know it’s impossible for you. I made it that way on purpose because this workout is not about you succeeding at getting these distances and these times. This workout is about you trying, even when you know it’s impossible.

And I think that’s one of the things that I carried with me. I don’t do a lot of workouts these days, but I am often faced with a situation where I think I can’t do that either, as well as I want to as fast as I want to, or just at all. And sometimes the important thing is still for me to make an effort and do the best I can now. I am not going to hit that goal.

Dr. Robin

I’ve gotten lots of good advice or good wisdom from you today. I think about once again social media as a tool and just thinking about other tools. I think kindness is a tool. It’s a tool you can use to show people you care about them. It’s a kind of tool that you use for self care and self love for yourself. Once again, I love the pipeline. I think about planting seeds, when I meet someone for the first time.

It’s overwhelming because there’s so much wellbeing knowledge in here that I tell, you know, that’s going to be overwhelming. But, you’re going to pick up the right thing, that’s right for you, right now, and you’ll plant that, and you’ll water that seed, that seed will grow and you’ll nourish it and you’ll reap the rewards.

And I think about building blocks. Kindness is a building block, and I’ve not ever thought about it that way. Once again, I appreciate the conversation today. I’ve had some great takeaway today. I know our listeners have as well. I like to always end with just some fun questions that kind of make it a little bit more personal. Do you have a favorite book that you’re reading right now to inspire you?

Susan

So I read a lot of, kind of, silly books. I read a lot of murder mysteries, but they are not a high quality, but I do think that Nia March, whose a New Zealand writer, who is about the same time as Agatha Christie is well worth reading. My favorite book is, “Till We Have Phases.”

Dr. Robin

And what about, is there a song that helps you get your mojo on when you’re kind of feeling a little bit lonely?

Susan

Yes. So actually, music has played a big part in my own loneliness. It was a piece by Carbon Teer in Central Asia, a long time ago now, and I had a few CDs with me because this was before the Cloud or anything like that. I love Emmylou Harris’ songs and also Dolly Parton’s songs.

But Blue Grass is kind of for me, the soundtrack of loneliness and dealing with it. Well, I also really like the Band, Over the Rhine, and they have a lot of sad songs and sometimes I want to listen to a sad song when I’m feeling sad.

Dr. Robin

Yeah. Great. How about a quote, any quotes that are inspiring you today?

Susan

Yes. I think there’s been a lot of talk about people being sheep in a negative sense. The Bible tells Christians that we are God’s sheep in a positive sense. But the thing that I’ve really been thinking about is that Jacob, the patriarch, who is kind of the father of all the people who became the nation of Israel, told Pharaoh that God is not ashamed to be our shepherd. And he told Pharaoh that when they were about to move away from the center of Egyptian life because Egyptians were so grossed out by their sheep, they wouldn’t even eat with people who were shepherds. And he said, God is not ashamed to be our shepherd. And I keep thinking of that, there are so many reasons that we might have to be ashamed of each other but God is not ashamed of us.

Dr. Robin

Well thank you for shining your light today, and listening today. Go out and be good to yourself. Hopefully you realize the campaign, it’s not a kindness challenge. We don’t want you to feel any stress around it. Just to give you some other tools or blocks of kindness that you can lay out that you may not be doin, and I know that a lot of you are already doing a lot of these. Keep doing it. Keep spreading the good.

Susan, we appreciate you. Congratulations on the birth of your new book coming out next week, “The Loneliness Epidemic, Why So Many Of Us Feel Alone and How Leaders Can Respond.”

And I personally know for me that kindness has pulled me out of my loneliness. And first of all, it was kindness to myself where I was able to really tap into my spiritual essence of who I was designed to be. This is the reason why I do this podcast, it’s a calling for me that I help expose you to thoughts that will help you shift where you’re at to where you want to be. So, Susan, thanks for joining me.

Thanks again to all our sponsors for making this happen. I would love to hear your stories of how kindness is making somebody’s day or making your day. All right. Blessings to all of you.

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