Shasta Nelson has spent more than a decade studying loneliness and friendships. Nelson is a healthy relationship expert and author of "Frientimacy: How To Deepen Friendships for Lifelong Health and Happiness" and "Friendships Don't Just Happen! The Guide To Creating a Meaningful Circle of Girlfriends." She is currently working on her next book, "The Business of Friendship: Making the Most of the Relationships Where We Spend Most of Our Time," to be published by HarperCollins Leadership.
"When I started looking at the significance of friendships, I created a survey asking people how fulfilling their friendships felt," says Nelson. "A score of 10 was given for most meaningful satisfaction and one for the least. Of 7,000 people surveyed, about 60-70 percent rated their relationships five or below."
Nelson realized that while people might be in friend relationships or marriage relationships, there was a gap between the kind of relationships people want to have and the kind they actually have. In fact, 80 percent of the complaints about friendships centered around wanting more and deeper connection in these friendships. While we live in a time where people know more people than ever before and are supposedly more connected, they are lonelier than ever.
A 2018 CIGNA study of 20,000 people found that nearly half of Americans report sometimes or always feeling alone. Additionally, 1 in 4 rarely or never feels as though people really understand them, and 2 in 5 Americans sometimes or always feel that their relationships are not meaningful.
According to Nelson, modern-day loneliness is not because we need to interact more with people; it is due to lack of intimacy. "Frientimacy" is a relationship where both people feel seen in a safe and satisfying way. When people say they are lonely, Nelson doesn't believe that answer is to go out and make more friends but to deepen the relationships you have.
"I ask people this question: 'Do you feel as loved and supported as you need at this point in your life?'" Nelson says. "If the answer is yes, that's fabulous, but often the answer is no. When that is the case, I encourage them to consider who in their life they would want to build a more meaningful or closer relationship with, and then make a list. Start prioritizing those relationships.
"Some people say they have no names to put on their list. For these folks, their journey right now is to get out and meet people who have the potential to be future friends. There are a couple of ways you can do this. Going to places you already frequent like school, work, faith-based or civic organizations — proximity and geography matters. Then be intentional about getting to know them better. The second way is to reach out to people you know and ask them if there are people they think you should know. Take advantage of opportunities for introductions to meet new people at their party, book club, discussion group, etc."
If you are saying to yourself, "I have children, I don't have time for friendships," think again. Nelson says the more insane your life is, the more you need meaningful friendships.
"Often when I am speaking to moms' groups, I ask them to write what they remember about their mom and her friends," Nelson says. "A good 70 percent of women have a hard time completing that assignment. I suspect it happens partly because so many moms try to nurture their friendships at a time that doesn't inconvenience their kids. However, 30 years down the road, your daughters can't tell me who your friends are. Friendships need to be modeled. Don't downplay that part of your life. Deep, meaningful friendships make us better."
Once you have identified people on your list, Nelson says to then practice the three things that are the basis of every healthy relationship: positivity, consistency and vulnerability, also known as "the frientimacy triangle." Positivity is about feeling supported, kindness, acts of service, affirmation — all the things that make us feel good. Consistency is the hours logged, the history built, interactions and knowing there is consistent behavior in the relationship. This is where trust occurs.
The third requirement is vulnerability, where we share, reveal, let people beyond the formal living room, talk about what is going well and not so well, history, dreams and where you feel safe to ask for what you need.
When we have high levels of each part of the "frientimacy triangle," we feel seen, safe and satisfied, which is what people want and need. We then have the ability to take existing relationships to a completely different level.
Our bodies are craving this and are literally dying without connections. World-renowned physician Dean Ornish states, "I am not aware of any other factor in medicine (than intimacy and love) — not diet, not smoking, not exercising, not stress, not genetics, not drugs, not surgery — that has a greater impact on our quality of life, incidence of illness and premature death from all causes."
"If we feel lonely, it is as damaging to our bodies as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, the equivalent of being a lifelong alcoholic, more harmful than not exercising, twice as harmful as obesity," Nelson says. "How you answer the question, 'How loved and supported do you feel?' will tell us more about your health 15-20 years down the road than any other factor."
If your relationships aren't where you want them to be, it may be tempting to sulk and feel sorry for yourself. Instead of doing that, Nelson encourages people to take action and make the decision to do something different. Not only do we have the opportunity to make our own lives richer, we have the chance to enrich the lives of others with our positivity, consistency and vulnerability.
Julie Baumgardner is president and CEO of family advocacy nonprofit First Things First. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.