December 2017 Jamuna Rangachari shares how to use loneliness as an opportunity to connect with yourself and others Man stands in his own shadow and wonders why it’s dark’ is a Zen proverb that has become quite relevant in today’s times. We have numerous so-called friends on social media and all kinds of gadgets to keep in touch with them, but very few genuine connections with people who truly understand us. Recently, I came across an 87-year old man during my morning walk. He smiled at everyone as he strolled, and his personality drew others towards him. After his walk, he went and sat on one of the benches in the colony, and many people, including me, walked up to talk to him. Soon I learnt that he was grappling with Parkinson’s disease. His wife had passed away after struggling with cancer. How then, was he so cheerful? He confessed that though he went through a phase of loneliness after his wife’s death, he ultimately overcame it. He was guided by his church pastor who advised him to connect with people to drive away loneliness. His story brought to mind my late mother-in-law, who, despite suffering from illness and several issues in the family, always connected with everyone around her and tried to help them in whatever way she could. She was never lonely because her focus was on others—never on herself. Hence, she remained a source of happiness to everyone, till the last day of her life. Loneliness demystified Loneliness is an unpleasant emotional response to isolation. At the same time, loneliness can be felt even when one is surrounded by people. Ameeta Shah, a psychotherapist and NLP practitioner from Mumbai, observes how our world has shrunk, thanks to technology, but loneliness persists as a common problem. She says that it is because people have their own beliefs about socialising—online is better than face to face or vice versa. They have high expectations from their interaction with people and withdraw into their shell if they don’t want to deal with others. Surveys about the factors that determine happiness say that people consistently rate love, intimacy, connection to friends and family, and social affiliation, above everything in their lives. This should come as no great surprise. Man is a social animal after all. If one observes the behaviour of chimpanzees, one will realise how they too have the need to connect and exercise the freedom to withdraw. Another interesting observation made in chimp groups is that just like humans, infractions against the social order are punished by some form of ostracism. Throughout history too, one finds that banishment has been the most severe punishment, short of torture or death, imposed by kings and potentates. Even today, in modern correctional institutions, the last penalty is solitary confinement. In the past few years, research has examined the power of our need for contact with others and has, in fact, mapped its physiological roots. More significant is the fact that social environments influence the way cells replicate. Social context also affects immune function. Despite all the persuasive evidence of our need for connection and the clear demonstration of the influence of connection on our physiology, today, there is a worldwide epidemic of disconnection. That, until now, has been regarded as a personal weakness or a distressing state, with no redeeming features. This is not at all correct. We all are born with an innate desire to connect. Even our evolution clearly shows this. It is the need to send and receive, interpret and relay increasingly complex social cues, that caused the evolution of the reasoning part of our brain. After all, it is our ability to think, to pursue long-term objectives, and to form bonds and act collectively, that allowed us to emerge as the planet’s dominant species. Engagement with others
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