I came home one day, put on the kettle for a cup of tea, and listened to the stark sound of four walls and nothing between them but me. Loneliness was a feeling that strongly defined my early twenties. My parents had both passed away in a car accident, and I had no home base from college, nowhere to feel I could come back to or belong. I lived in an apartment alone and though I had a few very close friendships, which still thrive today, I didn’t know how to be part of a group, something larger than myself.
With the dysfunction I experienced growing up, I never really learned how to make many friends. My parents never had friends, my mother never called anyone on a holiday or birthday, and often my parents weren’t even home or awake when I left for or got home from school. I missed the key pieces for cultivating a life of connection and social support.
Loneliness was a theme in my life for many years, even through childhood. Loneliness led to depression, which led to further isolation, which led to hopelessness. It was a cycle I did not know how to escape. But then, that day I took the tea off the stove, sat down with a fuzzy blanket and a very important book. It was called Living Alone and Loving It, by Barbara Feldon. I was embarrassed that I had even picked up a book with what sounded like a silly title to me. I felt it marked some sort of social defeat or that I was lacking something fundamental. But the book taught me how even small changes can foster connection when it’s not readily given.
One of the author’s suggestions was to give people random compliments, even strangers. I began striking up mini conversations with cashiers, maybe complimenting their nails. I complimented strangers on things like their shoes, or clothes. And even though I still went home to the empty apartment, I began to feel better. I felt small bursts of joy; I watched other people feel little bits of joy; and I did feel more connected to others.
Today, so many years after that challenging time, after learning and teaching psychotherapy, after earning a Ph.D. and all, I still advise many of my clients struggling with depression, to give compliments and strike up mini conversations and I still practice it myself. Another suggestion I give clients with depression is to volunteer. Volunteering, much like complimenting others, releases a stream of feel-good chemicals in our brains. Helping others is rewarding and volunteer events are structured, where you are expected to be with other people, without having to do the things so many people find awkward, like entering a group conversation at a party.
Often, doing things for others is what makes us feel the best. Across cultures, feelings are contagious. Even one person focused on positive connection has the power to foster connection in others. We see this in everything from the tendency humans have to “catch” a yawn from one another to leaders who have started entire movements focused on helping.
I had enjoyed volunteering since high school, where it was a wholesome diversionary activity for me to get away from home or get away from bullies. And it was my preferred activity because I love to help. And helping others has helped me in so many ways. Helping allowed me to learn about myself, to build a social life, to make like-minded friends, to stay out of trouble as a kid, and even to support myself. Upon reflection, I realized what being of service was really about.
Being of service means fostering connection.
The psychodynamic theorist, Alfred Adler, used the term Gemeinschaftsgefühl, which means “community feeling.” Community feeling refers to human connection – the feeling of unity between people and the drive to build harmony amongst your fellow humans. In effect, being of service benefits those being helped and those doing the helping. Neurobiology research confirms this theory. We are inspired to do these things from an evolutionary drive to belong, and the release of feel-good neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin reinforces this pro-social behavior. Adler believed that one’s level of social interest, or their effort to connect to and benefit their fellow humans, is one of the biggest mitigating factors in depression and anxiety.
Even though service was such an important and long-standing value to me, I used to not know how to lead others in service as well. When I ventured into group practice, from my little solo venture, it felt like I was helping my clients and a couple of people were doing the same thing in one space where I paid the rent. There was no cohesion. When I left the therapy office, however, my life was rich with servant leadership like nonprofit Board of Directors positions, helping committees, and events. I found myself wishing my business could be more like my personal life.
This is when I added Community my practice’s company values and we began cultivating servant leadership as a group. So often, even though our job is helping others, we can feel isolated from each other. Working in rooms next to each other does not equate to working together. As counselors, we can also doubt the effectiveness of our contribution, as most of us are drawn to this profession because we want to help as much as we can. So, we enlisted the best antidote to isolation – service. Each month, the practice participates in some kind of service project so we can help alongside each other, and bring service beyond the therapy room so we can live our values through action.
Service is a value. Service is connection. Service means leading from the heart. Service connects people who might not otherwise interact. Service connects people who might not otherwise feel connected. I’m always amazed by the power of just one person doing the right thing, or by how much we can change lives by extending a hand to just one fellow human. I believe in finding ways to be of service daily, even if it’s something small like holding the door open for someone. You never know whose life you will change through service. It just might be your own!