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Alone but not lonely: Mindfulness during COVID-19

COVID-19 has reshaped the face of work. While remote working is now old hat, unrelenting remote working with a stay-at-home order under penalty of law and virus is new.

This environment uniquely affects employees who live alone -- more than a quarter of U.S. households -- leaving them stuck in sustained solitude. While society faces great uncertainty with the coronavirus’ strength waxing and waning, the “new normal” has included extended periods of lockdown. 

One major outcome of sustained solitude is being stuck in loneliness. Human beings are inherently social creatures, and the experience of loneliness can cause profound damage, including impairments in well-being, productivity, creativity, focus, as well as psychological harms and shortened life spans. Statistically, loneliness is more harmful to health than smoking. 

Even as our future portends sustained solitude, there is one possible response already available in the present. Being alone doesn't mean that one will become lonely. In fact, individuals have some control on whether solitude turns into loneliness. While there are many ways of managing loneliness through external means -- video calls, visiting with social distance, etc. -- one of the most powerful ways, ironically, doesn’t involve connecting with anyone but yourself: being mindful. 

What is mindfulness? Mindfulness is simple: just being present. However, many struggle to be mindful. Built for survival, we tend to replay our past actions and anticipate what may be coming next so we can avoid problems and threats.

Surrendering to solitude

Why does solitude translate into loneliness? Our minds have surprising influence on whether the context of COVID-19 translates into the experience of loneliness. Humans on average spend up to half of their waking hours engaged in such mind wandering!

On lockdown, we might ruminate on a social mistake we made at work, amplifying a flicker of disconnection into a chasm. Or we might worry about what will come: Will the lockdown last forever? Will I be cut off from the people and activities I love? Both types of thought process can turn solitude into an experience of loneliness that feels wrenching and never-ending.

Being mindful, on the other hand, might help us feel comfortable or even appreciate solitude. As context, consider that an integral component of mindfulness training for millennia is solitude and silence: Think of monks meditating in the mountains. We are so hyperconnected to the external world that meditating might give us a unique pause and connection to ourselves.

In the current environment, amidst a busy schedule of emails and memo deadlines, being mindful may help us to find greater appreciate the quietness of being alone. It might help us connect to aspects of our home environment that we normally miss, much like a beautiful picture we hung up years ago and have since glossed over. It also may bring pleasure to the simple tasks of work and life that we usually disregard -- doing the dishes, brushing teeth or making lunch -- all of which improves our ability to survive in or even appreciate solitude. 

This portrait sounds nice, but how can we be confident that mindfulness can really help? Increasingly, evidence links mindfulness and mindfulness-enhancing practices such as meditation to  reduced loneliness. Among elderly people, mindfulness training helped to reduce their sense of disconnection. In a robust, randomized trial of a mindfulness training program, performing mindfulness practices helped to reduce loneliness. The quality of being generally mindful, regardless of whether one is meditating, has also been linked to less loneliness.

Given the growing empirical concerns about loneliness harming work performance, and the fact that sustained solitude is not going away anytime fast, what can single individuals remote working at home do to protect themselves?

Finding mindfulness amid the pandemic

We suggest a two-pronged strategy: connect and be present. One approach is obvious: Do what you can to remain connected to others. Loneliness is clearly a result of social disconnection, and the intuitive response to this is connecting with others when we feel lonely.

But finding social connection in these times may not always be possible. Being mindful in those moments may help to transform our experience of solitude into peaceful silence. How do we practically do this? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Planned meditation practice. Schedule a daily meditation and stick to it. When alone, the only excuse for not doing this is your own discipline. Any amount of time is helpful, even a few minutes. Apps, guided meditations and timers may all be supportive.
  • Conference call practice. Return to the now periodically when on Zoom calls. Rather than ruminating about this, when you find that you are either judging yourself or others, take an intentional breath, feel your back against the chair you are sitting in, and bring your attention to the sound of the speaker's voice.
  • Contemplative context. Try to design your living space to help keep you in the moment. The chyrons of 24-hour news and the incessant pings from a smartphone likely do not help us to tune into the moment. After doing a brief meditation, why not look afresh with a “beginner’s mind” at your home? See what things support you in being present and what things drag you into the past or future.

Despite all this, you might find yourself nonetheless feeling stuck in loneliness. You might feel hopeless or desperate that the lockdown will continue forever, you’ll be isolated and ignored, and you miss the people who bring joy and meaning to your life. In these moments, tuning into the present can be a sweet release. It could be very simple, such as the breath, or something external, like the wind in the trees outside your window.

This is what life offers right now, and we can feel connected to this experience, even if it is in solitude. We may wish we were at the office with our friends, but until the virus is defeated, our best friends may be whomever -- or perhaps, whatever -- we can see and hear right now.

 

Darren Good, PhD, is associate professor of applied behavioral science at Pepperdine Graziadio Business School. Good’s research is interested in the nature, integration and impact of mindfulness in the workplace. His work has been published in multiple academic journals, including the Journal of Management, the Journal of Psychology, the Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, and the Journal of Leadership and Organizational Studies. 

Christopher Lyddy, PhD, is assistant professor of management at Providence College. Lyddy and his colleagues have developed evidence-based theory regarding the workplace integration and impacts of mindfulness. His ongoing studies explore the diverse impacts of mindfulness interventions in organizations, including customer service, engagement, feedback, and leadership.

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