If You’re Feeling Lonely, You’re Not Alone

Research-based hints for feeling more connected.

Posted Jan 04, 2020

Deviant Art image by ArtemZhuravlev, CC BY-ND 3.0
Source: Deviant Art image by ArtemZhuravlev, CC BY-ND 3.0

An interesting study involving 340 San Diego County residents suggested that there may be a 76 percent prevalence of moderate to severe loneliness in American society. This is a shocking statistic, though perhaps there’s some solace in knowing that if you’re feeling lonely, you’re not alone.

A hopeful finding is that people who possessed six components of wisdom experienced less loneliness: general knowledge of life; emotion management; empathy, compassion, altruism, and a sense of fairness; insight; acceptance of divergent values; and decisiveness—the ability to make quick, effective decisions when necessary. 

The authors of the study suggest that more research is needed. But it appears that an antidote to loneliness is to develop a rich inner life. It seems that the wiser we become, the more connected we feel. Here is more from the study, along with my own thoughts about it.

How to Find More Connection

Dr. Dilip Jeste, the senior author of the study and a professor of psychiatry and neurosciences at the University of California, San Diego, has described loneliness as “the discrepancy between the social relationships you want and the social relationships you have.” This invites us to be curious about what needs to happen within ourselves in order to have better relationships.

Meaningful connections appear to flow more easily as we develop wisdom qualities that include empathy and compassion. By extending empathy and understanding toward people, we might find that they feel more inclined to relax and feel safe with us. The more we know ourselves, the more we can extend our compassionate attention and care, while also letting in others' caring.

Another antidote to loneliness is the wisdom quality of emotion management. This suggests that if we want to feel more connected to others, we need the skills of self-regulation and self-soothing. This would appear to involve having empathy toward ourselves, which includes dealing wisely with the instinctual fight, flight, freeze response when we get emotionally activated.

Relationships trigger our fear of rejection or being hurt, or not being lovable. If we don't have a skillful way to deal with the unsettling emotions that relationships often trigger, then we might be inclined to retreat from people as a way to stay safe, even if lonely. Not dealing skillfully with our emotional life contributes to our isolation.

Without wisdom qualities and emotional intelligence, we set ourselves up for loneliness. We’re also prey to the well-documented health risks of loneliness, including high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, depression, and cognitive decline.

Echoing Socrates's dictate “Know thyself,” psychotherapists and philosophers have encouraged us to develop a rich inner life. Investing in therapy or pursuing practices that help us connect with ourselves, such as meditation, yoga, focusing, and other paths toward befriending ourselves can become invaluable resources to foster our physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual well-being. 

Loneliness is nothing to be ashamed of. It is part of the human condition. But the solution isn’t simply to surround ourselves with people; we need to look in the right place. It’s heartening that research is confirming the obvious—that the best antidote to loneliness is developing an interpersonal life nourished by qualities that include empathy, compassion, and caring about others.

Gaining the World, but Losing Our Soul

For me, this study raises important social questions: How can we create social conditions where people feel more connected and less isolated? What needs to happen in our inner and outer lives so that we not only have the right to pursue happiness, as stated in our Constitution, but also have a fair chance at finding it?

Studies have consistently shown that European nations, which arguably have more concern for the collective welfare, have the highest levels of happiness. According to the UN's latest Human Development Report, six of the seven happiest countries in the world are European.

Perhaps one takeaway from this study is that reducing loneliness and increasing happiness is not about pursuing our own private achievements without considering how we’re affecting each other. We exist in a social fabric.

Many “successful” business leaders and politicians have achieved high social status and financial success. But at what price? Are they genuinely happy or feeling isolated? Some individuals with the most polished images are the loneliest among us, which they may attempt to mask through drinking, spending, or other addictive habits. 

What’s the cure for a social condition where so many people feel painfully isolated? Does the increasing gap between the rich and the poor contribute to everyone’s sense of isolation? How can we move toward an economic, social, and political system that fosters qualities of compassion and kindness? How can we pursue our individual and collective lives in a way that increases our chances of living a more secure and connected life? Perhaps this study on loneliness and how to overcome it can be included in our social discourse.

© John Amodeo

Deviant Art image by ArtemZhuravlev 

References

Scutti, S. (2018, December 20). Loneliness peaks at three key ages, study finds – but wisdom may help. CNN. Retrieved from https://edition.cnn.com/2018/12/18/health/loneliness-peaks-study/index.html