Lately, I've been thinking a lot about the importance of making connections. We all really need them but it seems that people are more disconnected than they've ever been.
Recently, I had a conversation with the psychotherapist Megan Bruneau, for my Ruthless Compassion podcast. She's also noticed how people are more lonely and alienated these days.
In her practice, Ms. Bruneau has observed how disconnection and isolation lead to problems such as depression, anxiety, even psychosis. Her recommendation was that we make more of an effort to connect with each other on a daily basis.
Sadly, our consumerist society has resulted in people increasingly seeing each other as objects to exploit and take advantage of, when all we really need is to connect with one-another.
More and more, people are being reduced to one basic function: as a source of money, social status, political or career advancement, or sex.
In our society, it's not uncommon that one person befriends another because they believe that this "friend" will benefit them socially, financially or politically. It's not uncommon for a man to date a woman to make him look good to his associates, or a woman to use a man for financial security or social status.
Recent research tells us that it's only through love and compassion that we find real happiness.
Relationships based more on personal gain than mutual affection have always been part of our world, but it all seems more blatant, these days. And, sadly, these types of exploitative arrangements encourage everyone else to keep seeing other people as helpful objects to make use of, rather than as delightful individuals to share and connect with.
In his book, Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life's Most Important Skill, Matthieu Ricard, the French writer, Buddhist monk and "happiest man in the world" talks about why so many people are deeply unhappy today.
Ricard says that in part, it's because they "instrumentalize" one-another. This is another way of saying that people too often see each other as objects to use, instead of opening their hearts to one-another and enjoying being together.
Ricard would like us to make more of an effort to access our empathy and compassion for other people. He says that loving and caring about others are the only real ways to create happiness.
Recent research tells us that it's only through love and compassion that we find real happiness. In her new audio book, The Science of Compassion, the health psychologist Kelly McGonigal describes how doing for others changes our physiology, improves our mood and deepens our sense of connection.
Studies show that being generous makes us happy, while being selfish or insensitive toward others increases our loneliness and unhappiness. Using others, no matter what we gain from these transactions, leaves us even more miserable than we were before.
Connecting to other people and being kind to them raises our levels of endorphins -- the chemicals that cause us to feel happy and improve our overall well-being. It boosts our oxytocin, the bonding hormone. So, the more we connect, the more we want to connect.
Loneliness and disconnection, including acts of greed or selfishness, will increase our levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, which promotes anxiety and depression, causes us to keep weight on and lowers our ability to fight off infections, heart disease and cancer.
People these days use each other to boost their self-worth.They maneuver to be the "top dog" and get everyone in the group to do things their way. They show off their flashy possessions or brag about their exploits. They compete with one-another for who's the most wealthy, attractive or successful. They post endless pictures on social media, demonstrating how great they are, but all of this is just making them more lonely, alienated and sad.
When we're disconnected, we become isolated and miserable. And when we're miserable, we isolate ourselves further. Conveniently, society offers us an alternative to creating meaningful connections: we can be a consumer. We're actively encouraged (by businesses that offer goods or services) to overeat, drink excessively, gamble or medicate ourselves to fill up our emptiness and soothe our feelings of alienation.
We're constantly encouraged to go shopping. Advertisers promise us that having more "stuff" will compensate for the loneliness and distress we're feeling. Unfortunately, all this consuming just creates a vicious circle of more misery and alienation, more attempts at using people and things to try and feel better, and more unhappiness and emptiness.
Using people or things isn't a valid solution to our feelings of loneliness, emptiness and alienation.
More of the wrong solution doesn't become the right solution.
Consuming things -- or other people -- has never made anyone happy. That's why someone who uses other people or things in order to fill the void is compelled to keep on being a user. It never feels like enough.
If we're suffering from disconnection, the only answer is to connect.
When we're disconnected, we're unable to value other people or respect their lives. It's easy to be rude, selfish or hurtful. We become, in a sense, "antisocial."
Feeling disconnected makes it easier to behave badly toward others, and a vicious circle is created because our bad behaviour will end up pushing people away. When these people get angry or withdraw from us, it will reinforce our sense of alienation and encourage us to be that much more antisocial.
The more disconnected we feel, the more insensitive and self-centered we become, the more isolated we become and the more alienated and empty we feel.
Instead of a vicious circle of increasing disconnection and turning to consuming to compensate, we can begin to create a positive spiral of empathy, compassion and growing connection.
More of the wrong solution doesn't become the right solution. The answer to our loneliness, emptiness and unhappiness isn't to exploit more people or consume more things. The answer is to open our hearts, love more, care more and try to connect more. That's what we need most, right now, as individuals and as a society.
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Listen here to my latest podcast. Therapist Megan Bruneau talks about how women's friendliness is often interpreted as flirtation.
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Also on HuffPost:
"Work makes you happier. It provides routine, structure and self-worth. Make sure you are in a job you enjoy. If you are not, make finding one that you do a priority for this year."
"Personal control in work makes you happier; there is better life satisfaction for those earning less but in control of their working practice than those who are richer but have less control."
"Those with close relationships are happiest – try to see friends and family more in the New Year. Research shows the closer people live to their friends, the happier they are – make new friends close to where you live. Get to know your neighbours better, try joining sports groups or taking up a hobby close to your home."
"Identifying your strengths and focus on developing these, either in work or a hobby. This will encourage you to become immersed in what you do and find life more gratifying."
"Altruism is proven to help focus beyond ourselves and enable us to be more connected with the world around us. In 2015, find local charities, sports clubs or community organisations where you can donate your time - you might even start new friendships with local people."
"Set yourself a weekly target for acts of kindness for friends, family, colleagues and strangers on the street. This will further increase your connection to the outside world."
"Improving happiness levels can depend on how we focus our attention – being attentive and focusing on one positive task helps us to enjoy the moment."
"Those who are happier remember bad events in a more positive light – it is possible to focus on particular aspects of a memory to notice the positives more than negatives."
"You can retrain your mind to focus on the good things that happen rather than the bad. Stop taking your blessings for granted by keeping a gratitude diary. Every day for 6 weeks jot down 5 things that happened that day for which you are grateful."
"Regular meditation can help with positive mental health."
"Expressing your gratitude for someone’s actions is the single most effective exercise in positive psychology. Saying thank you to even small acts and gestures will help improve gratitude levels."
"The less time you spend on using technology, the more you can carry out activities that help you engage with the world around you.”
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