Olivia Remes
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Loneliness can make you depressed. It can lead to early death, and it can make it more likely that you get Alzheimer's disease. I'm sure you would agree that this is so interesting - the fact that loneliness can physically harm you. The problem is that more and more people are lonely today. In fact, it's almost one in three. You'd think that with all of this social media, smartphones, and FaceTiming that allow us to get in touch with one another instantly, that we'd feel more connected. But actually, the opposite is true. We're lonelier than ever, more depressed and anxious than ever, and people are turning to therapy and antidepressants to cope. The reason that loneliness has such serious consequences is that the human being is a social animal, and if it's on its own for too long, it gets sick. Today, I'll be talking to you about how to get rid of loneliness and become happy. Now, you don't have to believe anything I say - just give it a try, and see if it works for you. So I'm a researcher at the University of Cambridge, studying anxiety and depression. And whenever I tell people what I do, many times, they point to themselves and say, "You've got a case study right here." It's almost a ritual now: I say what I do, and people tell me that either they have these conditions or they know someone who has them. And, many times, when you have anxiety and depression, you feel lonely. It's hard enough dealing with, say, anxiety on its own, but it's even worse when you're alienated by other people because you can't talk to them because you feel alone. So they label you as rude, or they steer clear because they think you're weird. And so you become lonely. A little while ago, I was talking to one of my friends, and she was reflecting back on her university experience. When she started talking, you could feel the sadness in her voice when she said that she was always lonely and never felt like she fit in. She would ask herself, "What's wrong with me?" And I thought, you know, to have to ask yourself this question is so painful. But it's the question that many people who have anxiety or who are lonely ask themselves: "What's wrong with me?" So to do something about it, I started researching loneliness. I became immersed. I wanted to find out how we can get rid of it and become happy because this is what we all want, isn't it? The number one thing that connects human beings together is that we all want to be happy and free from suffering. This is the number one human desire that makes you the same as your friends and also the same as the people you don't get along with. The ancient Buddhist monks used to say that happiness and suffering are all in the mind - they're not out there. So happiness is not out there, found through other people or objects. Rather, it's in here. So if happiness and suffering are in the mind, then it follows that the causes of happiness and suffering are also in the mind. It turns out that if you want to stop being lonely, you have to change how you perceive the world. And this is where the difference lies between people who are lonely and those who aren't. People who are lonely - if something doesn't work out for them, they say it's their fault, and they ask themselves, "What's wrong with me?" But if you're not lonely, you don't attribute failure to yourself, and instead, you look at the approach that you took and think about other ways that you can reach your goal of, say, making friends. There's one quote that comes to mind. The difference between humans and mice is this. So if mice see something doesn't work out - you know, in those little experiments when they're put through a maze - if mice see something doesn't work out, they try something else. But humans will go back to doing the same thing they've always done and repeat their mistakes. So how can we stop repeating our mistakes, change, and become happy? These next two tips are key, and I will share them with you. The first strategy to get rid of loneliness is to start talking with as many people as you can. Now, I know you've heard advice like "Get out there and meet people, go to events, because this is how you get rid of loneliness." But let's be honest: such opportunities are limited because it's hard to go to places alone just to meet people. It's forced, not natural. How many times, though, do you go to the grocery store or a coffee shop? Which is a much more realistic scenario because it's part of your weekly routine. And how many times have you been asked something - let's say, directions out on the street - and instead of just answering the question, you also initiated a small conversation or asked the person something about themselves like "Are you just visiting?" or "What city are you from?" Think about how different your day might be if you did that. This can also introduce you to new friends when you least expect it, and you begin to network with people everywhere you go. So start talking with as many people as possible and especially the ones that you normally wouldn't talk to, because these are often the ones that we come into contact with on an almost daily basis. These are people like the bus driver, the cashier, the person preparing your sandwich at your local deli. If you do this, this will really make a difference. The second way to get rid of loneliness is to share about yourself. You might say you're doing everything you can. You're asking questions, which is good for establishing that initial connection, but it's still not working out and you're not creating the kinds of connections that you want to - the ones that are meaningful. That's because when people are lonely, they tend to disclose less about themselves when they talk to others. They reciprocate less. So if you want to take your interactions to a whole new level and create connections that are real with people, then you have to share about yourself and open up. Tell stories about yourself. Say what you like, what you think. For example, if you're talking to somebody and they think social media is a great idea, but you think that, actually, it's doing more harm than good, it kind of - you feel a little bit down when you're looking at other people's pictures of their perfect holidays, the food that they're eating, and perfect jobs that they have - then say what you think. Believe it or not, when we take the risk to say exactly - to say what's really on our mind, that's when we create connections that are real and meaningful with people and people want to come back to us. Now, I'd like to go back to the story about my friend who was very lonely and would ask herself, "What's wrong with me?" She made it a point to talk to everyone everywhere and to open up. She started talking with the person helping her out at the phone store. And when she was in a bookstore and someone asked her what the book she was reading was called, instead of just answering the question, she talked a little bit more. She said what she thought of the book, she recommended some other ones on that same topic, and she talked about how what she was reading tied into the work that she was doing. That day was the first day of their friendship. Who would have thought that just because she had made this small resolve to talk to everyone everywhere, that this would happen - that she would make a new friend when she least expected it? So I would encourage you all to give these strategies a try. Practice using them, and don't think about how much you're going to change in one week or in one month. Just take it day by day. I'd like to leave you with a quote by Martin Luther King: "You don't have to see the whole staircase. Just take the first step." Thank you. (Applause)