The Beatles song “Eleanor Rigby” is a poignant vignette of loneliness in later adulthood. (“All the lonely people,” the singers lament. “Where do they all come from?”) In surveys, about a third of middle-aged and older adults report having experienced loneliness in the last month. This is a serious issue, because loneliness is linked to all sorts of psychological and medical problems. Clearly, good health and longevity depend on a supportive social network. However, the advice we usually give lonely people—to go out and meet new people—just doesn’t cut it. That’s because loneliness, like all human experiences, is a complex phenomenon.
Korean psychologists Yeeun Lee and Young-gun Ko have studied the relationship between feelings of loneliness and the size of a person’s social network, and they’ve found the two are only moderately correlated. So you don’t necessarily cure loneliness by making more friends. In fact, a surprising result from their study was that people with very large social networks often report high levels of loneliness.
Just like other emotions, loneliness serves both informational and motivational functions. The experience of loneliness tells us that there’s something lacking in our social life. And the discomfort it produces motivates us to seek out new social opportunities.
At least that’s how loneliness is supposed to work. But modern life is so alien to the environment in which we evolved that our emotions don’t always work the way they should. Our prehistoric predecessors lived in small, tight-knit groups, and pangs of loneliness were no doubt meant to keep them from straying too far from the safety of the group.
In today’s urban jungles, some of us will interact with more people in a day than our evolutionary ancestors did in a lifetime. Meanwhile, plenty more of us will pass days or weeks on end without any meaningful human contact. Neither situation, whether vast-but-shallow networks of friends or social isolation, bodes well for human health or happiness.
In the end, the size of your social network doesn’t determine whether you will feel lonely or not. Rather, the key is to have a few meaningful relationships. But what exactly does a “meaningful relationship” entail? In their research, Lee and Ko found that mutual self-disclosure was the essential ingredient in a loneliness-abating social exchange.
In other words, if you and your conversation partner each have the opportunity to reveal something about yourselves, each of you will walk away from the encounter with a sense that you’ve met an important social need. You’ll feel better—and less lonely. After all, we chit-chat to “get to know each other a little better," and the only way you can do that is if each of you discloses something the other person didn’t already know.
With an understanding that mutual self-disclosure is the essence of a satisfying social exchange, we can analyze a number of interaction styles to see why loneliness occurs. For instance, many people with limited social networks are prone to loneliness simply because they have fewer opportunities for meaningful interactions with others. But even people with restricted social circles can still lead fulfilling lives.
Consider a retired couple who move to a new city to be close to their grandchildren. They may have had to forsake old friends, and now their number of social contacts is small, but all of them afford ample opportunities for mutual self-disclosure. In fact, the extended family has been the basic social unit throughout our evolutionary history, inoculating against loneliness in old age—and for all other age ranges as well.
In Western society, with its emphasis on the nuclear family and individual autonomy, loneliness in later adulthood is far too common. Without transportation, elderly people who live alone simply have few opportunities to interact with other people. This is why senior centers and church activities for older adults are so vital in maintaining health and happiness in old age.
Many lonely people suffer from a lack of social skills, and they quickly undermine any attempts other people make to get to know them. Typically these people engage in one of two types of social self-sabotage.
On the one hand, tight-lipped loners keep all social exchanges “strictly business.” They never reveal anything about themselves and convey through their body language and tone of voice that any self-disclosure from their conversation partner is unwelcome. These people tend to experience high levels of anxiety in social interactions, and they eject themselves from the unpleasant situation as quickly as possible.
On the other hand, loose-tongued loners reveal too much too fast, and usually with an overly negative tone. These are the people who will tell anyone who will listen about their bad back, their kidney stones, their heart problems, their nagging wife, their lazy husband, their ungrateful children, their incompetent boss—and the list goes on and on. These people tend to be self-absorbed and extremely unhappy, and their conversation partners eject themselves from the unpleasant situation as quickly as possible.
The good news for both the tight-lipped and the loose-tongued loners is that basic social skills can be learned at any age. Oftentimes, just a few behavioral changes in your social interactions can yield significant improvements in your relationships. Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People is still a classic in the self-help literature, and you can find plenty of useful advice here at Psychology Today as well. Cognitive-behavioral forms of psychotherapy are also quite successful at teaching social skills.
As we’ve already seen, though, it’s not just people with limited social networks who are prone to loneliness. Even people with lots of friends can feel lonely. This is because loneliness signals a lack of meaningful interactions with other people, not a lack of social connections.
Some people serve as social hubs in society. They’re highly extraverted, and they have far more social connections than most people. If you need to find someone, you go to them. They know which plumber is honest, which butcher has the freshest meat, which supplier will give you the best deal, and which landscaper does the most professional work.
Social hubs are also great organizers. They’re the ones who rally the neighbors to pull the weeds and plant flowers at the entrance of the subdivision. They’re the ones who get everyone in the office to pitch in for a charity. And they’re the ones who organize the yearly neighborhood cookout.
Because of the important role they play in getting people connected, social hubs often feel a strong sense of accomplishment. They enable other people to engage in meaningful social exchanges. But all too often they fail to make any meaningful social opportunities for themselves. After all, there are only so many hours in a day, and time spent broadening your social network is time lost from developing deep relationships.
Interestingly, other people rarely recognize the internal isolation these social hubs feel. This is especially true when the social hub is good at making people feel comfortable about self-disclosing. The conversation partners leave the exchange feeling it was meaningful to them, not recognizing they never gave the social hub a chance to self-disclose. (Social hubs also know that most people are fairly self-centered, so they forgive you.)
The bottom line for lonely social hubs is this: Take some time from your extensive networking to develop a few deeper connections. You can do it—you already know how.
And if you’re a lonely social isolate, here are a few tips for improving your social interactions:
Even conversational exchanges at this level—where each of you has self-disclosed something relatively minor—are sufficient to stave off loneliness. And sometimes as you get to know each other, you’ll find you want to take the relationship to a deeper level.
Lee, Y. & Ko, Y. (2017). Feeling lonely when not socially isolated: Social isolation moderates the association between loneliness and daily social interaction. Journal of Social and Personality Relationships. Pre-published June 7, 2017. DOI: 10.1177/0265407517712902
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