Loneliness: why you need social interaction

loneliness digital nomad

I recently met a depressed nomad spending most of his time consumed in VR games and midnight gambling apps who told me with complete certainty that he's a loner and doesn't believe social interaction will solve his problems.

When I asked him why, his answer was less than convincing, “I've always been a loner, I'll always be a loner.”

“But what if social interaction is the thing you need?” I asked.

“What do you mean?” He replied.

“What if being a loner is something you've been holding onto your whole life because you struggle to talk to new people?”

“What if you're preventing yourself from making friends because you continue to tell yourself that you'll always be a loner?”

Loneliness often sits atop the list of psychological side effects from frequent travel. Researchers from the University of Surrey and Lund University (Sweden) investigated how frequent, long-distance travel has damaging side effects such as stress, loneliness and detachment from community and family networks. 59% of participants in the study claimed that loneliness is the most stressful factor.

UCLA professor Matthew Lieberman writes that the need for social connection is as basic as our need for water, food, and shelter. And while gossip might seem like a massive waste of time, it may (I hate to admit) actually serve as a basic human need.

"Mammals are more socially connected than reptiles, primates more than other mammals, and humans more than other primates," Lieberman writes, "What this suggests is that social connection is essential to our survival. In a sense, evolution has made bets at each step that the best way to make us more successful is to make us more social."

But, it ain't always easy.

I spent the past 2 years of my life as an INFP (introverted personality type).

But since breaking free from the traditional 9 to 5 life, I've become an ENFP (extroverted personality type).

During my years of introversion, I found it difficult to be around people, often explicitly refusing to go on nights out or attend parties with my friends even though I knew (somewhere in my head) that I’d be better off out there with them.

The pain of missing out on nights where my friends met some of my favourite underground punk bands made me realise that being alone was harming not just my mental health, but also my personal life.

So, how do you go about removing loneliness?

In how to win friends and influence people, Dale Carnegie teaches that showing genuine interest in others is essential in getting people to like you.

If you’re at a party and some guy is talking to you about his “cool” new dropshipping business but you’re continually looking around the room for a more interesting conversation, then you’re not showing genuine interest.

Listen intently and try to respond positively. If you’re genuinely not interested, don’t fake it. Find a way to ask another question when the time is right. Failing that, move on, not everyone’s a perfect match.

Whatever you do, refrain from talking about yourself.

“You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.”Dale Carnegie

Carnegie also said that most people loosen up even in tense situations if they start talking about what they know. Namely, themselves.

So how do you go about finding social interaction as a nomad?

Coliving

The easiest way to connect with other nomads is through coliving.

Nomads come together from across the world to live together in one house. Some people are there for a week, some a month, some much longer.

mtv real world, loneliness

The houses are set up to ensure a comfortable stay right from the beginning. This includes making an effort to connect guests.

I've found this to be the most effective way to connect with other nomads, (due to instant connections with similar people, the closeness that sharing living spaces brings and an abundance of communal events) and one I'm happy to pay a premium for.

And it can come at a premium. Outsite, a global coliving beast with 13 incredible mansions from New York to Bali, charges upwards of $2,000 p/month in peak season.

You're paying for instant connections with well-matched people. It’s worth every penny!

Skype/FaceTime

David recommended that I have my Mum on Skype in the background for hours at a time even if we’re not speaking, in an exercise to make me feel like she’s in the room with me.

At first I thought he was mad but, I trust him a lot, so I gave it a try and, well, f*ck me. It works amazingly well.

She’s literally just sat there doing work, I’m sat here doing work. We’re not talking (apart from a quick natter here and there) but it feels like we’re closer together.

Sitting on Skype all day while you’re not talking to someone is a little weird at first, but try it out, stick with it and you'll feel the benefits.

Learn to embrace alone time

It’s inevitable that you’re going to spend periods of time alone. Learn to embrace it by focusing your energy on tasks that require focus and creativity, proven to be more effective during times of solitude.

University of Buffalo psychologist, Julie Bowker, who researches social withdrawal, found that creativity is linked to unsociability, stating that “over the years, unsociability has been characterized as a relatively benign form of social withdrawal.  But, with the new findings linking it to creativity, we think unsociability may be better characterized as a potentially beneficial form of social withdrawal.”

I’ve found that keeping busy distracts me from feeling lonely. Couple that with the reward of greater output and it gives me the boost of confidence I need to meet new people when I arrive in a new location.

Set yourself up to cope by preparing a set of creative tasks in advance. Read a book, write a book or blog post, build a website, design something. Anything that triggers your inventive side.

Vilfredo Pareto said that “An idea is nothing more or less than a new combination of old elements”. No need to wait for a serendipitous moment. You can create a process for developing new ideas.

James Webb Young, author of A Technique For Producing New Ideas, teaches that ideas can bloom from using a formulaic process. Use your alone time to develop your work, side projects or future business plans.

A recent BBC article features a quote from Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking -   

“These days, we tend to believe that creativity emerges from a social process, but in fact, it requires sustained attention and deep focus,” she says.   

“Also, humans are such porous, social beings that when we surround ourselves with others, we automatically take in their opinions and aesthetics. To truly chart our own path or vision, we have to be willing to sequester ourselves, at least for some period of time.”

Cain isn't saying we should all f*ck off into the wilderness and live like Chuck Noland. Instead, we should learn to use alone time positively.

Final thoughts

You need social interaction.

It doesn't have to be a lot, but you need it. Inevitably you will spend time alone, but with some preparation you can use that time wisely.

Making friends couldn’t be easier as a nomad. You have thousands of well-matched people condensed into one community.

Which brings me back to the guy I met recently.

My advice to him is to be careful settling on his own presuppositions about himself. Making the assumption that social interaction isn't the answer to his problems is unhealthy at best.

Life isn't a set of rules, you can make up your own as you go along. But after many years of human evolution, the inner need for health and happiness are intrinsically linked to social connection.

Please don’t forget that.

Joe Pack