It’s important to establish that loneliness is not a judgement or personal defect. It is, most often, simply an unfortunate outcome: a function of the times we live in paired with a transitional event that separated someone from social connections at a time it was difficult to build new ones. This happens frequently. Even happy events — a promotion, move to a new neighborhood, or a new baby — can cause this. Difficult transitions, such as prolonged illness, death, or divorce, can make it even harder. The individual must build connections in a new and unchosen life zone while navigating an emotional hardship. Temporary disconnections are not abnormal. They happen to most of us at one time or another. There’s no cause for shame, just a big need to fix the problem before it grows chronic.
As a part of my interview series about the ‘5 Things We Can Each Do Help Solve The Loneliness Epidemic’, I had the pleasure to interview Heather Dugan.
Heather is an award-winning author of The Friendship Upgrade: Trade Clickable Connections for Friendships that Matter and Date Like a Grownup: Anecdotes, Admissions of Guilt & Advice Between Friends, and the founder of Cabernet Coaches®, a social access group for women that fosters self-betterment through face-to-face friendships and social connection. Her talks, keynotes, and workshops are structured around building better business, community, and personal relationships. She addresses loneliness on both the personal and community levels and creates larger conversations on creating space for connection and stronger communities. She’s also a fan of the total disconnect, and often disappears with her adult children to hike mountain trails; cell phones turned off and connection switched on.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us? What was it that led you to your eventual career choice?
A couple of weeks ago, someone commented on my “charmed life,” and I had to laugh. While I do feel exceptionally lucky and grateful, it’s always been about the pivot to “Plan B” (or “C”, or even “D”). Our imaginations and personal histories can be so limiting! It often takes a completely unchosen — and even painful! — life event to stretch us in a new and better direction. Learning to recognize and embrace those detours has been fundamental to becoming who I am today.
I sidelined my early career in voiceover and on-camera talent work with the arrival of my third kid. Years later however, during my divorce, I relaunched the voice work, learned production, and over time, grew more focused on content. I found more writing outlets and did features (travel, business, health) and a couple of advice columns (business/personal relationships). A very dark period that included several deaths, the divorce, and would have made for a great soap opera were it not my actual life, led eventually to an appreciation of the meaning we can mine from those types of painful experiences. I love that our worst times can be repurposed into something useful for others! It’s a Midas touch thing — nothing is wasted if we can transform a source of pain into a legitimate resource. This revelation led to writing my first books.
The isolation I experienced during my darkest time heightened my empathy and understanding of how easily even simple life transitions can disconnect us all. Having known that pain myself, I’ve been firmly focused on helping others build the strong interpersonal connections we need for full and healthy lives. This led to the founding of Cabernet Coaches®, a social connection group for women and has fueled my non-fiction writing. I do a lot of speaking to all kinds of organizations and community and business groups to help them identify causes, understand impact, and address the terrible issue of loneliness that carries huge costs for all of us.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
My favorite stories tend to be connection-based. Little coincidences that might seem minor to others but underscore (for me) the lovely and complex ways we are all inexorably linked. For instance, after I recently moved to my new home, I discovered that a newly made friend had my last book on her reading list (What are the odds?!) and that another new neighbor had been very interested in a women’s group she’d heard about on the radio, but couldn’t remember the name….until she met me and found an in-person link to my Cabernet Coaches® group. For me, these two links with new neighbors highlighted how broad the need for deeper connection truly is within our communities.
Can you share a story about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or takeaway you learned from that?
So many to choose from! Let’s go with a more recent, awkward incident from last year: I was speaking to a group of women how to build a friend network and suddenly felt the unwelcome out-of-body sensation that precedes a faint.Sinking down to sit at the edge of the stage, I explained my apparent dehydration while some kind angel brought me some water and attempted to forge on –sadly certain that I’d botched my connection with the audience. I view my talks as prologue to developing a group dialogue that can continue long after I leave and regretted the abrupt abbreviation! However, my very human moment helped open up a new level of conversation that afternoon. Women began sharing very private pain in ways that permitted first steps toward reengaging with life again. My failure to remain on my feet actually allowed them to find their own first steps forward! Lesson learned? It’s only a failure if you block the ending. If instead, I remain open, it just may turn out to be another great Plan B I wouldn’t have planned or imagined.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I’m finishing workbooks to facilitate deeper applications for The Friendship UPgrade and Date Like a Grownup. I’m also making steady progress on a next book (How to Be Happy While Human) that will help men and women recognize some of the misperceptions and misinformation that act as life interrupters and short circuit personal happiness. We need better skills to navigate these turbulent times, so I’m also making the most of virtual and hybrid speaking opportunities to help organizations equip and manage this extended isolation, while planning towards our eventual reemergence into more engaged living again.
Can you share with our readers a bit why you are an authority about the topic of the Loneliness Epidemic?
Against the odds, I survived a terrible time of isolation and loneliness in my own life. I’ve tried to lay out the “before picture” in The Friendship Upgrade and talk freely about the experience in many of my talks, but it was a pretty dramatic transformation. Gratitude and my insatiable curiosity led me to dig into the whys and hows of it all. I’ve spent (and spend) a lot of time researching the studies and have interviewed both the academic experts and the real-life ones –the men and women who’ve shared their private, often painful, personal stories. My accidental founding of the Cabernet Coaches® group is a testament to the great felt need of women (and men!) to be seen, heard, and understood by a few chosen peers. I’m fascinated by the life experiences of others and am always ready to listen. One lifetime will never be enough –I learn something from just about every conversation I’m privileged to have.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. According to this story in Forbes, loneliness is becoming an increasing health threat not just in the US , but across the world. Can you articulate for our readers 3 reasons why being lonely and isolated can harm one’s health?
The research is quite clear. Loneliness, that feeling of not being connected nor having meaningful conversations, harms both quality and quantity of life. Our bodies interpret isolation as an emotional threat, just as harmful as a physical danger. With extended isolated, we perceive an “unsolvable” problem and subject our bodies and brains to an ongoing stress response that, over time, impacts heart health, causes inflammation, and myriad other damaging effects. It’s a rogue version of the Fight or Flight instinct –an amygdala hijack, more or less. Secondly, this also triggers cognitive changes that perpetuate the very condition we want to escape! A negative perceptive skewing completely alters our approach and response to others, and in this state, we quickly lose the ability to help ourselves. Thirdly, lonely people begin to view the condition as a personal defect (rather than the result of an unfortunate set of triggering circumstances) and dwell in a cloud of negative self-talk. It’s difficult to put your best foot forward when your life doesn’t feel ready for company!
On a broader societal level, in which way is loneliness harming our communities and society?
Cigna published a couple of studies in 2018 and 2020 that have highlighted the very troubling growth trend. We were already struggling (pre-pandemic) against an overuse of digital communication that has diluted real conversation, lessened our face-to-face interactions, and removed important social cues such as facial expression and verbal tone. Consider the “simple” changes of the past thirty years such as replacing once-a-day postal mail with infinite email (plus texting and social media) and the switch from tethered landlines to on-demand cell phone usage! We fast-tracked our own lifestyles to keep up and have relied on false efficiencies within our interpersonal relationships that remove us from the real connections we need to thrive. I’m deeply troubled by what we’re modeling to the next generations. Virtually all of our biggest social issues (drug overdoses, mental illness, violence, suicide, the “us” vs “them” mentality…) have a root in loneliness and disconnection. By not properly prioritizing relationships — and rapidly losing touch with some basic conversational skills — we’re actively creating voids that will foster future ills. The pandemic is, of course, nudging us into safe but disconnecting habits that will be difficult to break. We do better together. Our best personal and corporate decisions rarely occur in complete isolation. We need one another’s voices, perspectives, ideas, and experiences to develop our best solutions.
The irony of having a loneliness epidemic is glaring. We are living in a time where more people are connected to each other than ever before in history. Our technology has the power to connect billions of people in one network, in a way that was never possible. Yet despite this, so many people are lonely.
Why is this? Can you share 3 of the main reasons why we are facing a loneliness epidemic today? Please give a story or an example for each.
1) The illusion of connection is strong. Unless out of cell phone range on a mountaintop (which I highly recommend btw!), we’re rarely alone. But we’re grazers, never quite satisfying that hunger for real connection. We snack on social media. With our political divisions, there’s less unity and positive energy to tap into, and passive users simply feel more disconnected as they watch the curated depictions of others’ lives. Also, texting is convenient but will create relational space if it’s the dominant communication form. People think they should feel connected based on the volume of communication received, but connection is subjective — it’s that feeling of being understood and of having ties to the people we spend time with. That they don’t feel this way makes many feel deficient or defective in some way, which quickly saps the motivation to reach out or respond to others.
2) A second issue is what I call “Opportunity Clutter.” We have myriad options for just about everything. Choosing a breakfast cereal, a cell phone plan, a playlist or Netflix program or should we scroll Hulu, Amazon Prime, or HBO, maybe?… Google beats the physical encyclopedia searches many of us did as kids, but so much looks like it might be useful, actual decisions are difficult. Incidentally, I think that’s yet another reason for our exceptionally strong political alignments…grabbing and holding onto a decision can be somewhat of a relief in the face of so much noise. Increased extracurriculars for our kids has been both a blessing and burden to many families. Quick decisions can feel wasteful, as if we’re ignoring or wasting potentially better options. Domo.com publishes a yearly infographic of our 60-second digital usage that is, frankly, mind blowing. No wonder we can’t find time to call an old neighbor or friend!
3) Our response to the clutter has been to maximize our efficiencies. But we take it to the extreme, opting to be efficient for efficiency’s sake. I liken this to being so focused on speed that we often drive past our “destination.” An example might be bringing home a project-based mindset from the office and carrying it into conversations with your spouse or child, which will significantly impinge your ability to listen, absorb, and connect. We also tend to relegate friendships to leftover space rather than make the space to grow them well. There can be a tendency to funnel all social interactions through a narrowing channel which creates undue stress on primary relationships. We postpone our pleasures and rewards as if we’re holding our chosen carrot with a stiff elbow, closing off those release valves essential to good mental health and personal happiness. We multi-task, feeling vaguely more productive, but end up doing less and feeling more stressed and less connected to others and even our own selves.
Ok. it is not enough to talk about problems without offering possible solutions. In your experience, what are the 5 things each of us can do to help solve the Loneliness Epidemic. Please give a story or an example for each.
1) We must grow our awareness of others and remember that there are real people behind the protective masks and oppositional politics. When wearing masks, there’s an instinct to look away when we can’t easily read facial expressions. Our body language changes. Smiling eyes aren’t as obvious, but a nod or a wave can still create a connection. We need these little moments more than ever. Pausing for short (socially distanced) conversations when outdoors is mutually beneficial to passing neighbors. They’re reminders that we’re still a community. When driving, I also like to pause for pedestrians and to let others merge in front of me. In that moment, I’m reminded that the world is larger than the big and small stuff of my world.
2) Half of us were struggling against feelings of loneliness and disconnection, pre-pandemic. I’ve outlined the self-perpetuating factors that can turn a temporary or situational loneliness into a chronic, life-sapping condition. Knowing this, we must make efforts to reach those who’ve been sidelined. Speaking from personal experience, it’s exceptionally difficult to reach out to others when you’ve been alone for any period of time. A woman who lives alone commented at a talk I gave last week that she often fears her voice wouldn’t work! We need to help others practice conversational skills and be aware that the silent ones are often hoping for an outstretched hand. Someone has to go first. Let it be me. Let it be you.
3) It’s important to establish that loneliness is not a judgement or personal defect. It is, most often, simply an unfortunate outcome: a function of the times we live in paired with a transitional event that separated someone from social connections at a time it was difficult to build new ones. This happens frequently. Even happy events — a promotion, move to a new neighborhood, or a new baby — can cause this. Difficult transitions, such as prolonged illness, death, or divorce, can make it even harder. The individual must build connections in a new and unchosen life zone while navigating an emotional hardship. Temporary disconnections are not abnormal. They happen to most of us at one time or another. There’s no cause for shame, just a big need to fix the problem before it grows chronic.
4) We must be better about modeling connective behaviors to our children and grandchildren: prioritizing our friendships by giving them calendar space, utilizing digital detox times to let conversations flow naturally (rather than within a predefined time and space), and pausing for real eye contact within those conversations.
5) Model also an inclusive mindset. What does inclusion mean to you? Share this with your kids. Inclusion is more than simple proximity or access. It’s engagement, respect, and collaboration. Inclusion is living with a community mindset — knowing that we function better as a group and working to make sure all human resources have opportunities for engagement.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I’d love to equip more women (and men) to grow their own Cabernet Coaches-type friend groups. It was such a wonderful accident and totally replicable. All I did was create an access point, a space for women to find and develop new friendships, without pressure, judgment, or shame that they might not already have them. Although we’ve been limited to virtual and more limited outdoor hiking and biking these past few months, our private Facebook group has been an ongoing connection point, and many of the women have had safe in-person connections with a chosen few from the larger group.
Women tell me the group has changed their lives, built their confidence, and helped them create and develop new options for themselves. We need this on a larger and broader scale, and I’d LOVE to help more communities develop similar resources. It was never about the cabernet (that was a quick alliterative choice when I had to give us a name!). It’s about the value of connection and honoring of our friendships.
We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
I love how psychotherapist Lori Gottlieb, author of Maybe You Should Talk to Someone, and the “Dear Therapist” columnist and podcast host (is there anything she doesn’t do?), is actively removing any residual stigmas from the concept of therapy. The fact is, most of us input some wrong information as we’re traveling those early formative years, only to get bumped or burned by a few of life’s “uglies” later on. It is an empowering act of courage and strength to pause and adjust via therapy. But time… insurance… name your excuse!… prevent so many from opting for this life-changing choice! Lori’s book provides that empathetic and funny (you too?!) sort of entrée that enables an unlocking of this portal to better living. Only a well-timed phone call prevented my aunt (also a therapist) and I from sending copies of her book to one another — immediately! — after each reading it separately. Ms. Gottlieb’s personal honesty, resilience, and focus on empowering others to tap into best aspects of self really resonates, and a conversation with her would be quite inspiring.
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Thank you so much for these insights. This was so inspiring, and so important!
Thank you so much for these insights. This was so inspiring, and so important!