This article was written for Dr. Kelly Starrett’s The Ready State Blog. You can read it there alongside many similar articles at www.thereadystate.com/blog
Covid is a terrible pandemic, but an even more sinister disease lies beneath it. This disease plagues millions of people around the world, and affects some 40% of Americans.
This disease is called loneliness.
We don’t often think of loneliness as a health condition, but it raises your risk of early death by 25%, raises your inflammation levels, damages your heart, and increases your risk for depression.
From an evolutionary perspective, this all makes sense. To feel alone meant you’d been abandoned by your tribe. Humans don’t survive long on their own, and your subconscious treats these feelings like a death sentence.
Now’a’days, despite being more connected than ever, many people feel alone. The dynamics of tribal life are much different than modern society, and though our world provides us protection from death by injury, starvation, and infectious disease, it also runs counter to some of our deepest social needs.
That’s not to say finding true community is impossible in the modern world. There are incredible communities where a little effort can go a long way towards feeling true belonging. Hell, one of the best I’ve ever found is my Crossfit Box.
Covid-19 may bar us from the gym, and keep us from the few sources of tribe we have left, but we can still find community.
By understanding our ancestral needs, and navigating modern pitfalls, we can do this. There is no need to feel alone. This is how to find tribe and defeat loneliness in a post-Covid era.
The Health Effects of Loneliness
As I mentioned earlier, loneliness is one of the worst things a human can feel. We evolved as social creatures. Typically grouped together with 50 to 150 humans, most of our history involves a small but hyper-cooperative group of interdependence and mutual reliance in order to survive.
The modern world, by comparison, promotes almost total self-reliance. Grouping up with other people is promoted only to an extent, and we are expected to “go-it-alone” in our pursuit of power and material gain.
This is almost entirely at odds with our evolution, and we feel it. Though we have access to millions of other human beings through the great-and-powerful internet, many of us feel alone. We lack true and deep connections, the kind which only form among small groups of humans that truly need each other to achieve a common goal.
What are the implications of this? After I tell you, you might be more afraid of social distancing than of Covid (not a suggestion to stop social distancing. We’ll address how to do both later.)
1 in 12 people are affected severely by loneliness. These people are at a high risk of many health issues. Among these are:
- Loneliness is associated with a 26% increased risk of early death
- Loneliness is tied to feelings of social-isolation even in those who have access to other people
- Loneliness predicts increased blood pressure and heart disease risk
- Loneliness is associated with Obesity
- Loneliness correlates with an increased risk of Alzheimer’s
- Those who regularly participate in social activities are less likely to suffer from chronic disease
- Loneliness is associated with increased inflammation which may raise risks for chronic disease
This is nothing to mention the effects on depression and suicide risk. Loneliness is a big deal, but addressing this problem means facing almost every social norm and choosing to do things differently. Understanding the roots of loneliness means understanding the social structure we evolved for. Let’s talk tribe.
To understand what causes loneliness, we should look to our roots. Although we have lived in large, agricultural societies for thousands of years, humans have lived in tribal bands for hundreds of thousands of years.
We are better suited for these small groups than for large societies. Some of the strongest evidence can be seen in the behavior of settlers who were kidnapped by Native Americans. Kidnapped settlers rarely tried to return to civilized society.
Often, these people described tribal life as more simple. Sure, it was full of risk, but there was a sense of place and purpose difficult to find in the civilized world.
Sebastian Junger writes about this topic in detail in his book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging. Junger set out to understand the root causes of PTSD, depression, and suicide. His book is a profound study of what causes social isolation.
Among many other things, Junger discusses how there is no case in recorded history of a Native American voluntarily leaving their tribe to join white society. On the flip-side, Native Americans forced or raised in the modern world often tried to return to their tribes, and many European colonists fled for tribal life as well.
What did tribal life have that civilized Christian society lacked? Occasionally, big cities come together and find palpable community. Junger observed that deep and powerful crisis often brings community where there was otherwise none.
Residents of London found great community in the face of the horrible German air raids, or how peace corps volunteers go through similar feelings as PTSD upon returning from assignments, there are many elements in play.
Having a cause to band together against seems to bring people together. When the stakes are so high that you can’t afford to be anything less than a contributing member of your immediate community, the best comes out of people.
As tragic as it is, being attacked by a foreign invader, facing a terrorist attack, or saving each other during an earthquake often leads to people to a sense of unified community.
This may be a larger version of the reasons soldiers tend to miss their days at war. In their small platoons, every man has to watch out for and take care of each other. There isn’t much room to look down on one another because everyone is reliant on everyone else in order to stay alive.
While this is stressful, it also satisfies the sense of true purpose and value so many of us struggle to find.
Tribes provide this, not by forcing their people to face war, but by facing the hardships of the natural world.
I myself have experienced this feeling. Though nothing like war, I spent 30 days backpacking beyond the wilderness boundary in Wyoming. On this trip, 11 students (including myself) and 3 instructors trekked over 100 miles over 30 days. Our only bathing was done on one occasion in a lake. Food was horsepacked in. And our only communication with the outside was an emergency satellite phone that, thankfully, never had to be used.
During this excursion, we went from wary strangers to the closest group of friends I have ever had in my life. By the end of that trip, I’d die for any one of them. I cared more about these people than anyone else in my life back home.
It’s not that life back home was bad. I have a great group of friends that I’ve built up over many years. My family is awesome and I’ve never suffered abuse.
But by comparison, I slept literally shoulder to shoulder with these backpackers. I worked hard and they did too. We made food, set-up our shelters, supported each other on bad days, and saw a beautiful world together.
The people I knew back home were no different than my backpacker friends, but the society is. Very little about normal life asks us to be close with other people. Living in the woods for 30 days gave me a strong sense of family, community, and for lack of better word, tribe.
This is all well and good, but short of joining the military, dedicating our lives to the peace corps, or trekking into the wilderness, it may sound impossible to find this kind of tribe
Not so. It’s difficult, and requires you to go out of your way, but you can absolutely build tribe at home. I have found many amazing communities throughout my life. I know many of the readers here have too. By far, the strongest community I have is that of my Crossfit Box.
The Role Of The Gym
One of the biggest reasons my backpacking crew became so close is because backpacking IS HARD. I don’t care who you are, trekking 4 to 6 miles a day with up to 60lbs on your back, sucks.
Sure, it’s beautiful and rewarding, but it definitely sucks!
This meant everyone on my trip had the approval you give someone who does hard things. When you do hard things around other people who do hard things, you start to respect each other. You might not even like them personally, but you know they are going through the same pain as you.
I believe this is the key factor in why my Crossfit gym is the best community I’ve found back home.
I’ve never slept shoulder to shoulder with my fellow WOD-mates, nor relied on them to cook food for the group or help set-up a tent.
But boy have we suffered together.
Since age 14, I’ve done almost every kind of physical activity under the sun. 10 years of mixed martial arts, along with swim-team, water polo, rock-climbing, P90X, and even cross-country, Crossfit is by far the hardest.
Every WOD allows you to reach the edge of your ability. There is no hiding, no way to avoid pushing yourself. Even if you try to “go easy” the anaerobic demands of a WOD always kick your butt.
This creates an environment of intense mutual respect among athletes. It doesn’t matter if you’re fat or fit, merely showing up for a WOD means 30 minutes to an hour of obvious suffering. Everyone in the box sees that.
You might never have to depend on these people with your life, but you look around and see people voluntarily doing something hard. I believe this is the backbone of deep human connection.
There are definitely places of community in the modern world. The Crossfit box is a great one, but others work too. Though Crossfit is the closest community I’ve found, cross-country is a very close second. Of all the sports I did in high school, Cross country gave me the most genuine friendships. Similar to Crossfit, cross-country is plain-and-simple hard.
Running, for 12 kilometers per day, at 6 in the morning, every day, sucks. The people who group up to do this voluntarily can’t help but bond with each other.
If you can, join a box-gym or a running club. As long as it’s hard work, and you do it with other humans, you should be able to find a level of community and connection. Now, obviously right now Covid makes this kind of training harder. You may not have access to your gym, but I think you’d be surprised how much is still available. As following are some guidelines. I’ve also included quarantine-specific tips.
To find community through athletics:
- Workout in a group setting
- Do something hard like Crossfit or long-distance running
- If your gym or group doesn’t already do this on their own, set up group hang-outs with the members
- Train for events like the Spartan Race with members of your gym
- Go on trips with your gym. Members of my gym in Dallas went down to Austin Texas last year to see the Onnit headquarters and spend time floating the rivers.
Quarantine Tips. Some of these are purely virtual but not all. Participate at your own risk, and be careful to be clean and sanitary regardless.
- Find a zoom-class style gym. Many group gyms are doing workouts on large zoom calls where you can see other members
- Keep an eye-out for outdoor “social-distanced” workouts. Some gyms are still doing group classes by going outdoors and having members space themselves out.
- Do group activities with a small number of your gym members. This could mean a 3 person hike, zoom call “dinners,” etc. Do this weekly or bi-weekly and maintain your connections.
It may seem like Covid cuts your access to group fitness, but there is plenty of opportunity still out there. Most gyms have adapted and are offering means through outdoor exercise or zoom-style classes. I strongly recommend looking for such a community, even if you haven’t done group classes before.
The Role Of Social Media
Social media should make it easier to find connection, but it seems to make us more lonely.
The internet acts as a sort-of shadow world where interactions are often faceless. We use instant messaging, comments, and email, but our brain and body rely on a host of other factors when it comes to communicating and forming bonds.
At the most rudimentary level, we rely heavily on voice inflection during communication. Body language is a big factor as well, and smell plays a huge role in your attraction to other people.
Finally, Oxycontin receptors in our skin mean that physical touch is a major component in relationship building and feelings of wholeness.
Lastly, we are best suited for groups of no more than 150 people. Social animals such as primates have a limit to the number of other members of their species they can maintain stable relationships with. Robin Dunbar set out to discover this number in humans, and the figure he arrived at (about 150) is now known as Dunbar’s number.
Social media, on the other hand, connects you with potential thousands and millions. This strains our social abilities. On top of this, most of our interaction is through text.
How do you combat this hyper-connected world? For one thing, you can be more cognizant of your device use. The relationships you form and maintain online are not providing you the same power as face-to-face interactions. Now, we currently live in the era of Covid, so we’ll have to make due with some level of device-based interaction.
However, to improve your relationships and lower loneliness, I suggest following these tips.
- Call as much as possible. Avoid texting whenever you can. Sure, it’s very convenient, but you miss out on voice inflection which is a major component of communication. Try using phone calls as much as possible.
- Put your phone on airplane mode. A common practice among the highly efficient is to put their phones on airplane mode except for a few set times during the day. Basically, they cut off access to the internet except for a couple times for “batch” emailing and calling.
- Have a technology “Sabbath.” Another great practice is to have one day a week when you don’t use any phones or devices/screens. I know it sounds scary, but this technique is only difficult until you experience it. I also suggest having a week long sabbath at least once a year, if not once a quarter. I offer one exception to this rule, for the sake of planning meet-ups: You can use a landline or a flip-phone, which brings me to my next tip.
- Go back to a flip phone. Sebastian Junger, author of tribe, uses a flip-phone. Over the years, I’ve met many people who have returned to the simple, app-less device. Some of them don’t even have the ability to text. Using a flip phone as your main device is a great way to maintain your ability to communicate for work, etc. without the distraction of the world wide web.
Altruism & Compassion
Having access to group fitness is a great way to find community, but this alone is not enough to truly combat loneliness. Altruism, compassion, and for lack of better words, love, are huge factors in your health and wellbeing.
Love is one of the strongest shared traits of Blue Zones peoples. For those who don’t know, the blue zones are 5 regions where people tend to live inordinately long lives. Dan Buettner, who identified these zones, writes extensively about the common habits of these peoples.
While things like diet or genetic factors play a role, Dan noticed all of these people had much stronger community practices than most of the world. Furthermore, within these communities, those who actively participated in deep relationships, helping others, and had a faith-based practice lived much longer.
Joining a gym is great, but having true connections goes beyond the groups you spend time with. It has to do with the way you interact with other people.
Research has shown that those who focus on helping and supporting others live longer lives than those who do not.
Basically, altruism is good for your health, and who is honestly surprised by this?
When do any of us feel better than when we genuinely help someone else? I once read a story about a Doctor who had Multiple Schlerosis. This disease causes pain, fatigue, and nerve problems. One day, during a very chaotic shift, he realized he’d gone the whole day without feeling any pain.
He was so focused on helping his patients that he didn’t notice any of his own suffering.
Cultivating love is fundamentally about helping people. The only caveat is this: It’s gotta be genuine. If you go out of your way to help people just to be healthy or live longer, it won’t work.
Thankfully, you can probably fake-it-to-make-it in the beginning. In my experience, doing truly altruistic work quickly overrides any selfish motives. I quickly become lost in the work of helping people. This kind of work can be anything from volunteering at a food pantry to buying someone’s coffee.
It reminds me of something I read in the famous business book: Rich Dad, Poor Dad.
Rich Dad, Poor Dad is the first major influence on many entrepreneurs, including myself, and mainly concerns learning how money really works for wealth building. However, Kiyosaki (the author) says the biggest tip for a happy life is to give to others.
He says the biggest factor in becoming wealthy is to generously give. Now, you might think he’s just buying future favors, but Kiyosaki makes a point that you cannot give with future gain in mind. He says it only works if you give genuinely.
Interesting that a highly successful real-estate mogul’s main tip is to give without expectation of gain.
Let’s look at this more closely though. According to Dr. Jordan Peterson, money only makes people more happy to the extent that it keeps the bill collectors away. Once you can afford your basic needs (somewhere between 40k and 70k a year for most people) more wealth does not correlate with increased happiness.
In fact, according to Sebastian Junger in his book Tribe, the highest suicide rate in the United States is affluent white men and the highest depression rate is among affluent white women.
Perhaps Kiyosaki so strongly recommends generosity because it is so easy to become estranged from the world when you’re rich. In pursuing material gain, many of us focus less and less on things that don’t directly increase our wealth. I can attest to this. I stopped volunteering when I made a big push to create a business.
I think we must learn to see time given to others as a necessity rather than a luxury. This life is not made up of workdays and 9 to 5s, but of time spent with friends, projects to help the poor, and gifts generously given.
According to Bronnie Ware, these are people’s top 5 greatest regrets of Dying:
- I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
- I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
- I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
- I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
- I wish that I had let myself be happier.
These are in order of most common to least common. I think you’ll notice many of these run parallel with what I’ve been saying.
Covid is a trying time. In Tribe, Junger describes how crisis brings community together, but specific elements of Covid cause this pandemic to be divisive rather than unifying. It is more important now than ever to find ways to support other people.
The Selfishness of Covid
Crisis often brings communities together. London during World War 2 experienced low rates of mental illness, and profound stories of people coming together. War, earthquakes, famine, and other crisis litter history. Despite how terrible they are, many people remember these times with nostalgia. Though it was terrible, they stood up for each other and helped their neighbors and friends get through it.
Covid-19 is a crisis on a global scale. Literally every country in the world has had to face this disease. Yet unlike other major catastrophes, Covid seems to be divisive rather than unifying.
This may be due to the selfish nature of our action to combat the disease. Yep, selfish. No, I don’t mean that it’s selfish to avoid other people and try to flatten the curve. I mean that these methods are isolated.
We cannot feel the effects of our work to support each other. Rather than digging through rubble to save a buried child, risking life and limb to shuttle family across a war torn border, or banding together to repair the ruins of a terrorist attack, we face Covid alone.
This makes for a scenario where we cannot see the fruits of our labor. We cannot risk our neck in any obvious way. Instead of bringing us together, Covid just isolates us even more.
How do we face this? How do we avoid loneliness and find community during a pandemic? We’ve discussed a couple ways already. You can stay in touch with your gym group by doing socially-distanced, outdoor workouts, or by going on hikes or excursions with no more than 2 or 3 people.
There’s more than just staying connected to people though. There’s also supporting people. So far, it seems that those with better metabolic health and a better Body Mass Index are less susceptible to dangerous Covid symptoms. Optimal Vitamin D status is also a major factor.
As follows are a list of ways you can support people during Covid. There are things here that will expose you to other people, so help at your own risk. That said, these are things that absolutely need doing and if you are willing, can go a long way for helping people. I’ve stuck with only things that are absolutely necessary as well as many that require little human contact.
Level 1: Zero Human Contact
- Donate To Charity, Fund Research, Buy Masks: Something is always to be said for sending your money to where it’s needed. Though this is the least interactive, simply knowing $10 a month is helping fight Covid is still better than nothing. This also doesn’t put you at any risk of catching the disease for your efforts. Many charities are under strain due to Covid. Pick a favorite and support them.
- Buy Local: Big chains are going to survive the pandemic, but smaller businesses are dropping like flies. As much as you can, support local business. If you order all your things online, use services like Postmates to access local markets.
- Get Your Meat From Regenerative Farms: Covid puts strain on the meat supply chain due to choke points at the few large slaughterhouse operations in the U.S. Regenerative farms, on the other hand, supply sustainable beef that is butchered and frozen on site. This supports a more healthy and resilient meat supply chain. Some amazing farms are those such as Belcampo in California, White Oak Pastures in Georgia, and Joyce Farms in Texas. You can also look for local grass fed beef via butcher shops in your area.
- Check-in On Friends & Neighbors: Once a week, call a friend or a neighbor. You can set up regular calls if you’d like, but try connecting with someone different each time for a few weeks. People are struggling right now, for connection above all else. If you can, do a video call, and consider creating a weekly or monthly virtual dinner party.
- Lead Virtual Clubs or Groups: Have a special skill? Use it to teach others. If you can’t find a virtual workout group, make one yourself. Teach guitar, or have a book club. Provide things online that have been stopped by Covid. Ideally these should be via video calls to imitate real interaction but it’s up to you.
Level 2: Minor Human Interaction
Until robots take over or the pandemic ends, there are things that just need people. If you are healthy or just altruistic, consider doing more direct work (at your own risk.) There are plenty of ways to do this without having much interaction with people.
- Deliver for Doordash, Grubhub, etc. In order to support restaurants and local businesses, we need to provide means of transportation for online ordering. Services like postmates, doordash, and grubhub form the backbone of such services. Consider giving some of your time by driving for one of these groups. You will only interact with people minimally. Most orders are left at the door and restaurants have practices in place to minimize contact.
- Prepare Meals For Your Neighborhood: Have a bit of a chef bone? You can prepare meals for your neighbors and friends. Covid has resulted in a sharp increase in the consumption of junk food. This is despite the fact that metabolic health and BMI are factors in your safety from this disease. One of the best things you can do for those in need is provide healthy food. You can even cook it for them using their groceries. If you feel safe interacting with a few people here and there, preparing meals is a great way to help others.
- Watch People’s Pets: Though many people are staying at home, essential workers often still have pets that need caretaking. You can offer services locally or go through groups like petsitter.com. This is a small and low-interaction way to help many people.
- Low Interaction Volunteer Services: There are many volunteer services that don’t require much interaction. These can be things like cleaning up trash in your local park or helping put up flyers to support local businesses. You can get creative and offer a little of your time beautifying your city.
Level 3: Moderate Human Interaction & Above
The things in this list can expose you to more interaction than just dropping off some food or walking a dog. As always, this is a “participate at your own risk” scenario, but services like homeless shelters and food pantries don’t just go away because of a pandemic. If you are willing to expose yourself, getting boots on the ground is still very much a need.
- Volunteer At Food Pantries, Homeless Shelters, Etc. : Like I said, the need for volunteer workers doesn’t go away just because there’s a pandemic going on. People still need access to these services. If you feel healthy and are willing, participating in these types of groups is extremely rewarding.
- Put On “Social Distancing” Events For Your Neighbors: My neighbor is a jazz musician. In late may, he got his band together in the culdesac and threw a free 1 hour jazz show. Masks were provided and people were encouraged to stay 6 ft apart. Sure, it wasn’t necessary, and I know someone is going to read this and consider the whole thing a risk, but tell that to each smiling face listening to a Sinatra cover. The joy of remembering life’s joys, occasionally, cannot be overstated. I don’t recommend doing stuff like this all the time, but offering one good event for your neighborhood can be an incredible light in these dark times.
- Drive for Rideshare Services Like Uber & Lyft: Rideshare services will expose you to many people in close proximity, but they are still needed. Many people don’t have access to a car, but still need to work or travel. I never considered driving for uber a charitable deed, but right now it kind-of is. Being someone who can offer clean and professional rideshare services during this time may not sound glamorous but it’s something that many need.
Remember that the world did not stop spinning just because of Covid. Leisure activities can fall by the wayside, but there are many things people still need. You can contribute without ever leaving your home, or you can volunteer your time in high-exposure activities that still need someone. The level of risk you want to take-on is up to you. Regardless of your choice, I think you’ll feel a lot less lonely, angry, and bitter if you are truly helping people.
We are social beings. Humans need connection nearly as much as we need water, air, and food. Unfortunately, the modern world seems to be at odds with our nature, and Covid only makes this worse.
We evolved to live in purposeful bands of no more than 150 people. The world was tough, and we needed each other to survive.
Now, we live in a society that connects us with thousands but doesn’t require us to rely on them. We pursue power and material wealth, and the struggles of life happen on paper more often than in the world.
The result of this is a deep sense of loneliness that plagues up to 50 percent of our population, and affects 1 in 12 severely. These people are 25 percent more likely to die early, and face a host of physical and mental health problems.
How do we face this? By finding community and tribe in our modern world. It is difficult to replicate the purpose building tribal world described by those such as Sebastian Junger, but not impossible.
One of the best sources of community we can find is in group fitness. Doing something hard, voluntarily, alongside other people doing that same thing, builds respect. I’ve always had great friends and found community easily, but my Crossfit gym is still the best crew I’ve ever found.
Beyond finding a community, altruism, compassion, and love are the keys to banishing loneliness in your day to day life. Loving connection, selfless action, and care for others is a key factor in the long lives of Blue Zones peoples.
Covid provides more opportunity than ever to practice altruism. While this crisis isolates most people, you can find connection by helping in whatever way you can. For the risk averse or immuno-compromised, simply donating to good causes can be enough.
If you have good health or are willing to stick your neck out, plenty of organizations still need help. You can do anything from simply working as a door-dasher to volunteering at your city’s homeless shelter. People need support, and those who willingly give their time to help others tend to live longer.
I know this has been a terrible year. Covid is unlike anything the world has ever seen. Even though many of us are more isolated than ever, I promise we can still find tribe, community, and belonging in this world. It starts with us.
Thank you so much for reading, and I hope this helps you further improve your Ready State!