“We’re born alone, we live alone, we die alone. Only through our love and friendship can we create the illusion for the moment that we’re not alone.”
What Is Loneliness?
What makes us happiest in life? Some people may point to fabulous fame and fortune. Yet hands down, surveys show that friends and family are the real prize. Even though our need to connect is innate, some of us always go home alone. You could have people around you throughout the day or even be in a lifelong marriage, and still experience a deep, pervasive loneliness. Unsurprisingly, isolation can have a serious detrimental effect on one’s mental and physical health. Loneliness is the pervasive feeling of being alone, unloved, or unwanted. It is often tied to, and associated with depression, despair, dejection, social isolation, and sadness. Some of the key descriptions of loneliness include the following:
- You have no choice in your alone-ness. You are alone but don’t want to be
- You no longer have attachments to people, places, or experiences. You feel adrift and disconnected.
- Life changes such as moving to a new location, starting a new job or school can bring about feelings of loneliness.
- Loss can be an instigator- losing a friend, family member, partner, or loved one can create feelings of loneliness.
- Feeling worthless, unlovable, or unacceptable and having low self-esteem may lead to social isolation and feelings of rejection, whether or not they truly exist.
Feelings of loneliness are often driven by the belief that no one can truly understand our experience, and our longing to belong. Some people are better able to cope with the feeling of loneliness than others. It may be described as a painful, dark, or cold experience.
Loneliness is increasing. In 2010, 40 percent of Americans reported feeling lonely on a regular basis, a shocking increase from 20 percent in the 1980s. According to the General Social Survey, an annual report on the country’s social characteristics, the number of Americans who say they have no one they can confide in nearly tripled between 1985 and 2004. Now, the average American reports zero close confidants.
Loneliness is not only getting worse, but its gravity and consequences are becoming increasingly understood. UCLA psychologist Naomi Eisenberger found that being socially excluded activates some of the same neural regions that are activated in response to physical pain. And psychologist Julianne Holt-Lunstad of Brigham Young University has put forth groundbreaking work showing that loneliness is as risky to one’s health as smoking or obesity.
“There is robust evidence that social isolation and loneliness significantly increase risk for premature mortality, and the magnitude of the risk exceeds that of many leading health indicators,” Holt-Lunstad said at the annual national convention of the American Psychological Association in August. “Many nations around the world now suggest we are facing a ‘loneliness epidemic.’ The challenge we face is what can be done about it.”
Common Misperceptions of Loneliness:
There are many misperceptions that others hold about loneliness. Often if we are lonely, it matters what we tell ourselves it means.
- Loneliness is a sign of weakness
- There’s something wrong with me
- No one else feels this way
- I’m unlovable
- No one cares about me
- I’m pathetic
These perceptions may lead to a decrease in self-esteem, or an increase in feelings of worthlessness or depression. Further, entering new situations may create feelings of anxiety, as a person believes that they are unsuccessful socially.
Loneliness is a valid need that every person must satisfy. At some point we will all be affected by loneliness. It is subjective how and what a person needs to feel less lonely, so it is important to understand your own needs. It secondarily requires the knowledge of how to find and maintain social relationships.
Why Do Some People Deal Well With Loneliness While Others Struggle?
A recent study investigated the role of genetics in how we experience loneliness, social isolation and depression. The researchers used data from a longitudinal twin study that has been collecting data on 1116 pairs of same-sex twins born in the U.K. in 1994 and 1995.
Social isolation refers to an objective state in which we have limited social connections and interactions. Loneliness, on the other hand, is an entirely subjective state, in which we feel socially and/or emotionally disconnected from those around us. Therefore, socially-isolated people are not necessarily lonely, and lonely people are not necessarily socially isolated.
Loneliness has been found to be a much bigger risk factor for depression than social isolation and the researchers found that lonely people were much more likely to report symptoms of depression than people who were socially-isolated.
Loneliness tends to create distorted perceptions and pessimistic mindsets that can cause depression. Being lonely makes us judge our friendships and relationships more negatively and respond to others more defensively and even with greater hostility—which can push people away and sabotage opportunities for closeness and meaningful interaction. Unfortunately, these behaviors can lead us to become more depressed and increasingly socially isolated. But what about genetics? Can you be “born lonely?”
This is where your genetics come in. These types of negative responses can be inherited. If we have a genetic predisposition, our ‘default’ reactions might be telling us to respond to feelings of loneliness in ways that are likely to actually increase our social isolation and our depression.
Researchers confirmed these assumptions. The data showed significant indications of genetic correlations between loneliness, social isolation, and depression. They concluded that while not all people who are socially isolated are lonely, those who do experience loneliness are often depressed as well because of this similar genetic influence.
While a specific ‘loneliness gene’ has not been isolated (and might never be, as loneliness might result from a confluence of several genes rather than just one), the findings do reinforce those of other studies that have also found genetic predispositions to loneliness.
The good news is that regardless of whether we are genetically predisposed to loneliness, the power to change this is actually in our our hands. Changing requires us to correct our negative perceptions of our relationships (by assuming people care for us more than we believe they do, and giving them the benefit of the doubt), taking active steps to reach out and connect with others (however emotionally risky it feels), and monitoring our reactions to limit defensiveness and hostility and make efforts to come across more warmly and openly (even if it feels unwise and unsafe).
How To Combat Loneliness:
Those who are lonely are at a social disadvantage. Often they become less daring socially, less willing to put themselves out there for fear of rejection, and they have a harder time with opening up to others. However, there are several ways to decrease loneliness.
Talk to Strangers:
Many of us cringe at the idea of chatting up a stranger on the subway or in a cafe. It might seem scary, but we’d probably get more out of it than we realize.
In a study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, psychologists Juliana Schroeder and Nicholas Epley explored why strangers near each other seldom interact. They hypothesized that either people generally find solitude more pleasant than interaction, or they misjudge the consequences of interacting. They conducted a number of experiments to test their hypotheses, one of which involved recruiting Chicago commuters to talk to people sitting near them on their ride to work. While nearly everyone expected it to be a negative experience, they reported an improved sense of well-being afterward, notably more than those in a control group who didn’t talk to nearby strangers. The unsuspecting passengers on the receiving end of these social volleys also reported increased well-being.
“The pleasure of connection seems contagious,” Schroeder and Epley write. “This research broadly suggests that people could improve their own momentary well-being—and that of others—by simply being more social with strangers, trying to create connections where one might otherwise choose isolation.
Log Off From The Internet/Put Your Phone Down:
What does face-to-face contact give us that online communication lacks? For one thing, it boosts our production of endorphins, the brain chemicals that ease pain and enhance well-being. That’s one reason in-person interaction improves our physical health, psychologist Susan Pinker writes in The Village Effect. Getting together for dinner parties or game nights, or pretty much any social activity apart from, say, a fight club, also keeps our relationships strong, while those conducted online tend to wither over time. “Electronic media can sway voters and topple newspapers, but when it comes to human cognition and health, they’re no match for the face-to-face,” Pinker says.
A longitudinal study by Holly Shakya and Nicholas Christakis, published last year in the American Journal of Epidemiology, confirms that Facebook is bad for our well-being, and points to the questionable depth of interaction on the social network as a primary reason.
“The tricky thing about social media is that while we are using it, we get the impression that we are engaging in meaningful social interaction,” Shakya and Christakis wrote in a synopsis of the study for the Harvard Business Review. “Our results suggest that the nature and quality of this sort of connection is no substitute for the real-world interaction we need for a healthy life.”
Be A Good Neighbor
Some of our most important relationships are with the people closest to us, geographically speaking. The neighbors and co-workers who we regularly cross paths with can serve an important purpose in our broader map of social connection, even if they’re not our most meaningful and deep relationships.
Research points to the value of both “strong ties” and “weak ties” in social relationships and underscores that loose acquaintances, such as neighbors, serve an important role in our overall sense of connection with others. But research shows that we’re neglecting the very relationships that are right under our noses or on the other side of our fences. In a recent survey, a third of Americans said they never interact with their neighbors, while only 20 percent regularly spend time with them. Compare that to the 1970s, when 30 percent reported spending time with their neighbors at least twice a week.
Getting to know your neighbors yields more benefits than access to a cup of sugar when you run out. One study found that higher “neighborhood social cohesion” lowers your risk of a heart attack. So invite your neighbors over for coffee and offer to water their plants when they go out of town. You’ll be happier and healthier for it.
If you’re socially isolated, consider volunteering, doing community service, or an activity you enjoy, as these are good ways to meet people. In addition, try going through your phone and email address books as well as your Facebook and other social media contacts and make a list of people you haven’t seen or spoken to for a while. Don’t psych yourself out and tell yourself they’re not interested. Instead:
Give others the benefit of the doubt:
Once you’ve compiled your list of friends and acquaintances, reach out to one of them each day. Yes, they might not have been in touch for a while or returned your phone call from two months earlier but give them the benefit of the doubt. Invite them to have coffee, a drink, or even a catch-up on the phone and you’ll be surprised by how many of them will happily make plans—especially if you remember to:
Approach people with optimism. It’s perfectly normal to fear rejection, but you have to get yourself in the right frame of mind when you contact people so the vibe you put out is positive and inviting (rather than overly cautious and uninviting). Getting into a positive head-space is also important when you contact people on line. Emoticons can be very useful. “How have you been? :)” is much more appealing than “Haven’t heard from you in two months, wanna get together?
I know, all of this sounds easier said than done, right? Making friends is a big deal and can seem overwhelming or challenging, especially if you’re shy. However, here are some ideas for easier ways to make friends.
- Do what you love, in the normal course of a day.
- Look for ways and opportunities to interact with others.
- Eat with other people.
- Sit with new people in class.
- Join a study/exercise/social group.
- Participate in new situations which make you more likely to meet people.
- Look at campus resources or your work employee program.
- Develop social skills to reduce social awkwardness.
- Don’t judge people or yourself.
In addition to tackling the social aspects of making friends, it is important to work on your self-esteem and your skills.
- Identify your hobbies and interests.
- Get to know yourself.
- Find ways to enjoy spending time with yourself.
- Maintain good nutrition, sleep, and exercise.
- Don’t decide ahead of time how you are going to feel about an activity or situation.
Coping With Loneliness:
Feelings of loneliness can be a bitter battle to fight. Some people shop to get out of the house, some call up a friend, some sit and feel miserable. There are many ways to cope with being lonely.
Active loneliness – This is where you use your alone time to actively engage in activities you like, get to know yourself, or find ways to enjoy your time.
Stop Comparing – stop comparing yourself to others – especially online. The truth of the matter is simple: many people only show off their BEST life and may be struggling in many ways.
Feelings – It is not uncommon to feel things like sadness, depression, or anger. Allow these feelings to exist, but don’t get overwhelmed by them. It is okay to cry or express your feelings. If these feelings are pervasive and begin to affect your life, please call your doctor for some advice
Get Out There – Inactivity is common in people who are lonely because there is the perception that there is no point in doing something because there is no one to do it with. That is why it is so important to get out and get moving but take it as slowly as you need to.
Talk to People: Doesn’t matter where, when, how, but start trying to form connections with other people.
Don’t Overdo It – Oversleeping is a common symptom of sadness and depression. Make sure you are eating and sleeping according to a regular schedule and if you find yourself oversleeping, overeating (or under eating) drinking alcohol to excess, and/or abusing drugs as a means to feel less lonely, please call your doctor.
Ask For Help: If your loneliness is in overdrive, speak to a trusted doctor or friend to see if they can lead you to some options for outreach in your area
Remember that loneliness is a temporary state.
We at The Band love you and will always welcome you with open arms. If you are lonely, share your story with us.
Other Resources About Loneliness:
Loneliness/Rejection – The website of Dr. Tom Stevens contains information about relationships, coping with fear, and factors important to relationships.
Page last audited 7/2018.