Forty-nine percent of Americans are planning to do nothing for Valentine’s Day this year. In fact, as a population our love for Valentine’s Day is statistically declining more and more each year.
Reasons to fall out of love with Valentine’s Day are varied. Here are some common complaints:
- Valentine’s Day was invented by Hallmark to sell cards and junk that we don’t need.
- I can’t get my child to sign 30 identical class valentines by tomorrow morning.
- Valentine’s Day gifts rot your teeth (from my dentist).
But, the two most common criticisms I have heard about Valentine’s Day are:
- Valentine’s Day makes single people feel isolated, excluded and sad.
- Valentine’s Day makes couples feel inadequate when they are surrounded by the images of perfection depicted in advertisements, movies and social media.
However, there is also a growing idea that Valentine’s Day is not just about romantic love, but a time to celebrate all the different types of love we have in our lives. I like to extend this idea further. This year, I am trying to celebrate the love, like, affection and even just non-dislike we have for people around us. Using this day as a way to find connections with partners, friends, family acquaintances and even strangers. Valentine’s day is a day to think about how, no matter how single we are, or have been, or will be, we are never totally alone.
From a psychological perspective, recognizing any kind of connection with others boosts our mood, sense of wellbeing and motivation. From a medical perspective, people that feel connected to others live longer, healthier lives. In one famous study, feeling chronically lonely was shown to be as damaging to our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Loneliness has been scientifically proven to cause or worsen symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Mental health professionals define loneliness as feeling of disconnection, which is actually quite different from being by yourself, which we refer to as social isolation. If you enjoy the time you spend alone, you are socially isolated. If you hate the time you spend alone, you are also socially isolated. But loneliness is the feeling of distress associated with aloneness. We can all think of a time in which we felt “alone in a crowded room.”
So, one way to address loneliness is by being less socially isolated. I tell my patients to nurture old relationships and foster new ones. I recommend joining a club, volunteering, or reaching out to old friends. However, while we are working on that we can also combat loneliness in more subtle ways. In social experiments, things we dismiss as inconsequential, like small talk or a friendly wave, can increase our sense of connection and wellbeing for the rest of the day. Providing help to a stranger, even if just directions to the cereal aisle, surprisingly translates into people reporting that they feel less lonely. In fact, just spending time thinking about the ways in which we are connected to each other, even if only abstractly, seems to translate into fewer feelings of loneliness, and, in some cases, improvements in symptoms of depression and anxiety.
I tell my patients to think about the shared experiences that we all have. We all have a most embarrassing moment or a favorite childhood memory. Most of us can tell you about our worst argument or a great meal. We have all heard the “most amazing song ever written,” and, as someone who talks to people about how they feel all day long, most of us have, at some point in our lives, felt lonely.
So, this year, I encourage us all to think about not just our closest relationships, but the many ways we in which we are all connected. Maybe this will help you enjoy Valentine’s Day a little bit more, or at least hate it a little bit little less.
If all else fails, you can eat a single, sensible portion of candy hearts. I have found that, for many people, helps makes things a little better. Just please do not tell my dentist I presented this as medical advice.
-Rebecca Durkin, M.D.