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  • Ruth Walker

Find your joy


When did being lonely become such a source of shame? In a society where friends are currency and “likes” a measure of one’s success, the value of genuine human connection somehow got lost along the way. If you’re lonely, that must mean you’re unlovable, right?

Yet the US is in the midst of a loneliness epidemic. Nearly half of all Americans say they always or sometimes feel alone or left out. More than half say they feel no one truly knows them.


Loneliness is the number one fear for millennials. Worse than losing a job or a home. Forty two percent of millennial women are more afraid of loneliness than a cancer diagnosis.

The result? Not just an upshot in psychiatric illnesses like depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia. But researchers now recognize that social isolation triggers all kinds of cellular changes in the body that lead to chronic inflammation, making the lonely more prone to conditions including heart disease, stroke, metastatic cancer, and Alzheimer’s. One 2015 paper, which examined data from 70 studies involving 3.4 million people, found that lonely people were 26% more likely to die prematurely.


When Jillian Richardson moved to New York just over three years ago, she was immersed in the improv scene. She had dreams of becoming a comedy writer, creating sketches for late-night TV. But, while she had friends – people she could go out drinking with and joke around with, “I didn't really feel like I had deep friendships,” she says. “I didn't have people I could talk to if I was sick, or if a family member was sick, or if something difficult was happening in my life. I got to a point where I was like, 'I don't feel comfortable talking to any of these people about that.’”


It triggered a search for her people. REAL people, who were self-aware and who could really listen. People who could be vulnerable – and allow her to be vulnerable – and who shared a deep emotional connection, not just a common interest in comedy or wine or tacos.


“I didn't know what I was looking for,” she says. “I just knew that it felt like something was missing.”


The turning point came when she signed up Camp Grounded, a digital detox summer camp for adults.


“The people there were just so open, so playful. I'd never met adults like that before. I was like, ‘Whoa, this is possible! You can be a grown up and have fun and be filled with passion, and move your body and be silly and have connected conversations.’ It was like a type of adulthood I'd never seen growing up, so had no idea that was even a thing.”


Back in the real world, she stayed in touch with camp friends, who brought her into their worlds, and she found safe spaces in group meditations, sober dance parties, dinners – anywhere that conversations were facilitated and the dropping of defenses to connect actively encouraged.


“That totally changed my perception of what was possible in friendship and how vulnerable I could be. I didn't realize that most of my life I hadn't been sharing, because I just didn't have the self-awareness to know.”

“Especially in New York City, there’s the feeling that everyone is busy. Everyone has plans except for me. Everyone has friends except for me. So we never reach out. But 75% of Americans are not satisfied with the friendships they have. And the average American only has one friend, and has not made a new friend in five years.

Why had it taken so long? And why are many of us still not there? “I think it's a fear of rejection,” she says. “In dating, people kind of take it for granted. Of course you're afraid of being rejected. And our culture really emphasizes romantic relationships and puts so much pressure on that.


“The reality is that the same feelings can apply to friendship. And sometimes people feel even more vulnerable because, if this person doesn't want to go get casual tacos with me as friends, what does that say about me as a person?


“Especially in New York City, there’s the feeling that everyone is busy. Everyone has plans except for me. Everyone has friends except for me. So we never reach out. But 75% of Americans are not satisfied with the friendships they have. And the average American only has one friend, and has not made a new friend in five years.


“Most people are deeply lonely. And there's so much shame surrounding it, which is why I love talking about it.”


And which is why she launched The Joy List, a weekly newsletter with some real talk, and events that are aimed at making New York less lonely.


“I wanted some way to show New Yorkers that, if they were feeling alone, if they were feeling untrustful of people [this was post-election, remember], literally every day of the week in New York City there are places you can go, where you can feel like you belong and where you can feel cared for.



“New York City is such a transitory place. It’s a place most people move to, so are super removed from their support network. So it's crucial, even just for the nervous system, to feel calm. And to be able to say, ‘I have people here, or if I'm in danger, if I need support, they're here.’ And that takes time and dedication and consistently reaching out to people, and being vulnerable, because someone could say no.”


The events in any given week could involve meditation, dark dance parties, intimacy workshops, beach games, and garden parties. “Every event in the newsletter has a facilitated moment of connection,” she explains. “Meaning that the person who's the organizer is going to give people permission to talk to each other. It could be as simple as, ‘Hey, we're going to watch this movie, and we're going to have a group conversation about it.’ Or, ‘We're going to have a yoga class. And then we're going to talk about how we felt in our bodies. And we're going to turn to a partner, and share our experience.’ Because it's so easy to just go to a movie, go to an art gallery, go to a class and experience that thing, and then leave. We all have social anxiety. I have this voice in my head. It's like, ‘Oh, people don't want to talk to me. They're here for the gallery. They're not here to talk to people.’ When, really, everyone is there to talk to people. Everyone.”


And let’s not even get started on dating … OK, let’s.


“I've had so many people say to me, ‘Jillian, you should do an event for singles.’ And sometimes I do. But I want to make a point that our culture is so obsessed with romantic love. It doesn't put enough of an emphasis on platonic relationships.


“But also, I feel the best places to actually meet people are the places where it's not a dating event. For instance, I showed up at this monthly meditation club. Everyone was just ridiculously gorgeous. And I tell my friends, ‘If you want to meet cool, single people who are into mindfulness, this would be way better than a conscious singles event.'”


Last month, her book, Unlonely Planet, was published. “It's about how to create spaces of belonging outside of organized religion. Because there is a correlation between attendance in organized religion going down and loneliness in America going up. I argue in the book that, really, it's all of our individual responsibility to create what I call a healthy congregation. Meaning a friend group that is so rich and so deep that it feels like this is your church; these are your people. And there's no one thing that can solve that for us. It's up to us to create it.”


How do we do that?

“We need touch. And for me, as a single person who doesn't have a partner, I like to organize cuddle puddles, to get me and my friends together and just massage and hold and laugh and talk. It's not sexual. It's just what we need as human beings."

“Just investing in friendships, and making them consistent,” she says. “And practicing being vulnerable in conversation, where you're present, the other person is present, and you're really authentically sharing with each other. And that takes skill.”


Also, be a better listener. And find a source of platonic touch.


“I’m trying to destigmatize that,” says Jillian. “We need touch. And for me, as a single person who doesn't have a partner, I like to organize cuddle puddles, to get me and my friends together and just massage and hold and laugh and talk. It's not sexual. It's just what we need as human beings.


“Some people say, ‘That's weird,’ or ‘That’s sad. Can't she get someone else to do that?’ No, it's not sad. There's this idea that we need one person to fulfill everything for us, and that's just not possible.


“Another – and this is probably an unexpectedly deep one – is looking at the trauma in your life. Everyone in their lives has some form of trauma. It could be really minor, or it could be really big. And when that's not resolved, when that's not looked at, it prevents us from deeply connecting to other people. We don't understand ourselves.


“I've had an eating disorder. I've engaged in really self-harming behavior. I've put myself in romantic relationships where I wasn't treated well, because I had all of this stuff that I wasn't looking at. It took me getting into therapy, and going to group healing spaces and women's circles, that I started to understand why I felt like I didn't deserve love.


“So that's a deep one. And it's one that people don't want to hear. It's like, ‘Oh, yeah, I'm just afraid to ask people to hang out with me.’ OK, well, why don’t you think you deserve deep connection? Let's look at that.’”


Her number one hope, she says, is that people reading the book will feel less shame about being lonely, and realize how common it really is.


Second, she wants to encourage people to be gatherers. “There's a lot of fear around inviting people to things, around bringing people together. So I have some really simple ways you can get out of your comfort zone and meet new people.


“And – I save this chapter for last – you can step into leadership yourself. You can create the kind of spaces that you want to see, because that's what the world needs.”


Don’t be shy, people. You’re not alone.


joylist.nyc

thatjillian.com


A version of this interview first appeared in the August 2019 issue of W42ST magazine. Stay in touch with W42ST and be first to read stories like this when you receive our daily newsletter. Join the conversation at w42st.com.



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