The coronavirus has forced many of us into an indefinite state of social isolation. No more family gatherings, brunches, dinners, and so on, until it's safe to be closer than six feet apart from each other again. While physical distancing is critical to protect our physical health, there are certainly repercussions for our mental health. As the weeks drag on, many humans are apt to feel lonely even if we aren't sheltering-in-place alone.
But even before the pandemic, many Americans were lonely. According to a 2018 Cigna report, an estimated half of Americans reported feeling alone some or all of the time. Recently, loneliness has been portrayed as an epidemic, and it's certainly been a concern among mental health professionals during this pandemic.
Cat Moore, the director of belonging at the University of Southern California, teaches a popular class on how to create meaningful relationships. And Moore has advice for everyone experiencing loneliness, which is that it's totally normal. "It's really important to me that we don't think of loneliness as an epidemic because that language makes us feel like it's a disease and like there is something wrong with us, and that it is contagious," Moore told Salon in an interview. "And neither of those are true."
We sat down with Moore — virtually, of course — to talk more about what loneliness means in the coronavirus age, how she teaches people how to connect, and what advice she has for those feeling extra lonely.
First how did you become the "director of belonging" at USC?
You want the story?
Yes, I want the story.
So one becomes the director by spending the first 24 years of their life in chronic loneliness, trying every possible way to connect and make friends, and then miserably failing, and learning all of the ways it doesn't work to connect. That was my life for the first 24 years, and I struggled immensely to connect at school, in my neighborhood, it was an enormous struggle for me, and probably a source of a lot of trauma as well. It wasn't until I went to college at USC, ironically, that I started studying the conditions for community and how connection works, and what is possible for human life while having zero friends.
It wasn't until I was 28, when I became pregnant with my son and started going to coffee shops in LA, that I started for the first time in my life to be able to make eye contact in public and build relationships. And so it was a very, very long process for me. Even when I had my son, it took me months and months of being in the same space, sitting there, letting people sit down next to me, and I was relearning alongside my son how to be social — how to listen and how to ask questions, and how to care about people and let them care about me.
Wow, that's so brave of you.
Well, what started to happen is people from every walk of life, rockstars, people experiencing homelessness, lawyers and nurses, just the whole neighborhood would be coming through that cafe and through these small acts of being present regularly, and getting to know people slowly over time, this amazing community started forming. By the time my son was one or two, he was rolling his wagon around the cafe, and there would be a line of people at our table waiting to sit down for three minutes while their coffee brewed just to have three minutes for someone to listen to them and care about them. This crazy community started spilling out of the cafe into family-like relationships, and work collaborations, and it took over other cafes and restaurants and other groups started forming out of this.
One of my friends at USC got wind of this happening and came to the cafe to find out what the heck was going on, because one of the things that they were realizing among students on campus, among Gen Z, was a loneliness crisis. All of these other mental health problems, students dropping out, were tied to this common problem of loneliness. So they asked if I could come and take the tools and practices of learning from my years at the coffee shop and see if some of those could translate to their campus culture.
I wasn't sure if I could or not, but what I was sure of is that every single human is wired for connection. We are built for this. Our lives don't flourish until we have organized our lives around each other so I was willing to try. I created this class at USC and became the Director of Belonging because I asked for that title. They asked "Cat, how would you title the work you're trying to do?" And I just said we need a Director of Belonging. We need to take this work really seriously. And they said OK, let's do that.
And what is the class you've been teaching for two years now?
It's called CLICK, and it's open to the entire university. Click is an acronym for the process that I developed through trial and error in the cafes when I was trying to connect and teach my son how to connect. As an acronym, each of the classes is structured around one of the letters: Connect is Listening first, Investigating without judgement, Communicating kindness, and Keep in touch.
I'm wondering if you could share more about what loneliness is? I think people might think it's not having any friends, but in my experience you can have a lot of people in your life and still feel lonely.
One of the things about loneliness is that it's an abstract concept in some ways. Right? You get the statistics, the 2018 study that has broken open the conversation about this, which was one of the pieces of research that made the conversation more part of the cultural conversation. The study said over 50 percent of Americans are experiencing loneliness. And that for them is a public health crisis, and it has profound impacts on our physical health.
So that was their interest in it and that is a high number — it's one in two people are experiencing this. But it's still an abstraction. Here are these scary statistics, and you're like, "loneliness? Where?" It's invisible. People aren't wearing signs around their necks that say "I'm lonely." For the most part, people who are lonely might not even have those mental categories for what they are experiencing. For example, I was chronically lonely for 24 years, but I never once had the thought "I'm lonely." It wasn't a concept in my landscape. I grew up outside of Pittsburgh, we didn't talk like that. So I think there hasn't been that great of language around this emotional state.
You'll see little pieces of literature of this in elementary school, but very little exists after that. So that is a part of the problem that most of us didn't get that explicit training and now as adults nobody wants to admit that they struggle to make eye contact, or [they] just don't give a crap about people around me. Nobody wants to have those conversations about those things because they feel like those are supposed to happen when we're little.
It's really important to me that we don't think of loneliness as an epidemic because that language makes us feel like it's a disease and like there is something wrong with us, and that it is contagious. Neither of those are true. I think we need to recognize that, and if you look up how loneliness is defined, according to psychologists, the experience of loneliness has to do with our perception of not being well-connected.
That's a good point.
Loneliness has more to do with a person's perception of whether they're in enough meaningful relationships. Psychologists say there are thresholds that vary for each person and they aren't related to the number of friends and followers we have on Facebook or the people we recognize when we go out and say "hi" to [them]. It has to do more with relationships reaching a certain level where they really know you and you know them. And that layer of relationship, if that is missing, that is when we get into other mental health problems and physical health problems.
To say "I'm feeling lonely," it can be the same thing as "I'm feeling hungry." And like hunger, it signals that a social need isn't being met. And if we can normalize it, we can invite more voices to share what their experience is like.
How has the pandemic changed your course? What are you seeing with loneliness and your students right now?
With the massive disruption to how students are experiencing schooling now, we had to adapt. They asked me if I thought CLICK could be taught online. Because the way I designed it, it was meant to intentionally be face to face. A lot of research shows that the ways bonding is facilitated is in person connection. The class has all of these physical movement-oriented practices, like using a tape measure to measure the distance between you and another person that feels like the right amount of safe space to you. I had to decide really quickly whether this could work and whether I could adapt the activities quick enough from my syllabus to have creative offerings that could adapt to the digital environment. They were also like, "we'd like to quadruple the size of the class."
I was like, "uh-oh." But I thought, we have to try.
The first session was 25 people, and all we had time to do was say who I am, this is why I signed up for this class, and this is what I'm holding. And that's all we had time for, and it was breathtaking. People were being seen, heard and welcomed regardless of where they were in the world. Nobody knew each other. No prior experience with each other and everyone walked away from that feeling connected. So the next four weeks we continued to meet, and I have never so far had such high engagement in our students. The second class people were sharing their life stories . . . People were sharing that people in their family were dying of COVID-19. We had people sharing it all within two meetings. And I think that COVID-19 has increased people's self need for more connection. A lot of the ways we have been connecting haven't been super deep, but they've been taking up a lot of our time. It's forcing people to get existential and be like, "hey, do I have anyone? Who are my people? Have I checked in on Uncle Joe lately?" It's forcing people to do a relational inventory.
People wonder, "who do I miss? Who don't I miss?" It raises awareness that people are everything. And how crucial relationships are to navigating a crisis.
What do you see differently in people right now?
This crisis has created a natural willingness in people to try new things because they have to. Everyone is in the same boat . . . nobody is wondering if they'll look weird trying an online meetup, because everyone is trying an online meetup at this moment. It's created more willingness to experiment, to reach out, and I've had this enormous outpouring of wanting to reach out and help others. People have become more aware of who the invisible people are in their lives. We are all experiencing what some people have been experiencing for a long time. Like, single parents are the loneliest subgroup of lonely people. But we are seeing all this innovation and creative ways that people are staying connected within physical limitations.
What advice would you give to people who are feeling really lonely right now?
What I would say is that whatever you're experiencing is okay at this moment. And the best way that I know of to try and get out of that loneliness is to start to look at the people around you, whether that's online or people you're sheltering-in-place with, and reach out to them. It's very counterintuitive because what happens when you're experiencing loneliness is that you want to withdraw. People shut down and want to keep people from getting too close. But the number one thing you can do is to reach out to others and realize even when you're experiencing negative emotions, our ability to reach out could simply change someone else's life.