Our American lifestyle can sometimes be a precursor to loneliness, if we are not careful, especially among those in the terza eta’. Midlife often brings with it the threat of isolating illness; the care of aging parents (which leaves little time for socializing); empty nest syndrome, job layoffs or retirement; and maybe even the devastating loss of a spouse through death or divorce. When I recently asked a group of American baby boomers what their biggest challenge in this stage in life is, “loneliness” was the resounding response.
The traditional Italian lifestyle has a built-in loneliness immunization booster: becoming Becoming a “regular”, or frequenting the same places in your quotidianita’ , your daily or weekly rhythm. In more collectivistic cultures like Italy, social interaction is a priority, and serves as an antidote to isolation. Whether the famiglia is in close physical proximity or not, Italians enmesh their lives with the community in which they live, and this supports them as they roll with life’s punches.
As the theme song to the television show Cheers, reminded us: “Sometimes you just want to go where everybody knows your name.” Italians build healthy social habits around taking their afternoon coffee break at the same coffee bar each day, shopping for their evening supper supplies at the same grocery store, bringing their shoes to the same shoe repair shop, and building a lifelong relationship with the barber who has cut their hair for years. People build familiarity and mutual caring though this kind of repeated contact. A sense if community can get lost in more individualistic societies, where the spirit of independence can be both a blessing and a curse. We often dedicate disproportionate amounts of time to individual work tasks, and lone responsibilities, while putting little energy into our social network, which ultimately may even help us to live longer.
To an Italian, that monthly trip to Pasquale’s barber shop where Pasquale’s wife greets you by name while pouring you an espresso, is more important than checking off the next item on a to-do list. Going to the same places over a long period of time is a comforting ritual that assures you are never alone.
When was the last time you opted to frequent the small mom- and- pop shops in your neighborhood, or the independent coffee houses where people actually still smile (like in the photo above of Roberto Begnini) and make eye contact? What about going to the neighborhood market instead of the large supermarket once in awhile? While everyone is trying to cut costs, the cost of loneliness can be steep on your physical and emotional health. Your assignment this week is to become a regular at a new place in your neighborhood. Gradually, get to know people’s names. Smile at the person next to you. Make positive small talk. We all need a little cheer in these hard times. Introduce yourself and start a conversation. Staving off loneliness takes some effort but the reward of feeling like you belong somewhere pays off big when it comes to your well-being.
(adapted from an article I wrote for The Italian Tribune) Your Dolce Vita Assignment: Write down a few places that have possibilites for YOU to become a regular this week. It starts with only one visit! And so share this post with friends, so they can enjoy this self-help tip with my characteristic Italian perspective. Mille grazie and do come back for more great posts! Also, please tune in to the Faith Middleton Show on NPR March 30th at 3 and 9 PM. We will be talking about my dolce vita approach to self-help and a happier life!