Loneliness is a function of the affective need for companionship and belonging, and left unaddressed, it can detrimentally affect a person’s self-worth (Hawkley, Browne, & Cacioppo, 2005). Loneliness can leave us questioning our value to others and where in life we belong.
While most of us spend more time connected to a device than is healthy for our eyes or our hearts, we also spend more time digitally networking than is good for our emotional well-being. One study found that the highest users of social media also reported the highest levels of perceived social isolation (Primack, Shensa, Sidani, Miller, 2017). Loneliness won't be cured by isolating behaviors that connect us to the screen instead of the world around us.
The presence of loneliness reflects the absence of connection, not the absence of people. That’s why a person can feel lonely even in a crowd. In fact, being in the middle of a crowd can make some people feel even lonelier if none of the members of their known support network are present, and they feel unable to connect with others around them.
Individuals also experience loneliness when they feel that their support network isn’t providing the support that they need at a given moment in time.
Three Types of Loneliness
1. Existential Loneliness
From an existential perspective, a little bit of existential loneliness is good for the soul, and it is definitely an inevitable part of the human experience. However, loneliness tends to stir up negative feelings, and while those can be helpful in terms of self-exploration, they are also something to which we are averse and want to avoid as much as we can.
2. Emotional Loneliness
This type of loneliness arises from a feeling that you lack relationships or attachments. You might experience emotional loneliness when everyone but you has a romantic partner in your group. Emotional loneliness can be felt when you need someone to talk to about something going on in your life, but feel that there is no one available to contact. If your heart has broken, you might feel lonely for the person who has moved out of your life. You might be lonely for a close friend, a parent, a sibling, and so on.
3. Social Loneliness
This type of loneliness occurs when you don’t feel a sense of belonging to a group beyond yourself. You might even feel social loneliness even when you’re in a romantic relationship with a partner you treasure. If you don’t have a wider circle of social support, you may feel that you, or you and your partner, don’t have a group with whom you belong. When you walk into a party and don’t recognize anyone familiar, a feeling of social loneliness may wash over you if you don’t typically feel comfortable approaching new people. If you don’t feel that your presence is valued in a wider circle, you might experience social loneliness.
How Long Has Your Loneliness Lasted?
There is a chronicity factor of loneliness that influences the intensity and damage it can do. Loneliness might be a transient feeling, a situational feeling, or a chronic feeling.
Most everyone has experienced a fleeting feeling of loneliness on occasion. Situational loneliness can be a more acute feeling of absence, especially when it’s accompanied by some other significant transition, such as being alone at lunch on a new job, or moving to a new place as a trailing spouse and feeling abandoned when your spouse heads off to work, and you’re left bereft in the new place with no connections. Chronic loneliness, however, can result from unabated situational loneliness that lasts more than two years.
To Combat Existential Loneliness
The saying that you are born into this world alone, and you go out alone, suggests that existential loneliness is an inescapable aspect of life. It can be terrifying for some people to recognize just how alone we all are in this world, even if you have friends and family who love and support you 24/7, no matter what.
Existential fears, including the fears of isolation, death, meaninglessness, and freedom, are experienced by virtually all of us at some point in time. Recognizing the fear and using it as a motivator to live more fully and more in the moment can help us immerse ourselves in the present, which might help us recognize that we are among a vast sea of individuals struggling against these fears just as we are.
To Combat Emotional Loneliness
The lasting solution to emotional loneliness is to establish and maintain a healthy support system. You can’t make “instant friendship” happen or find a “soulmate” overnight, but you can maximize your chances of deepening a friendship by reaching out to friends and being willing to be the one to suggest a meet-up or get together.
Waiting around for someone to make the first move is not taking a proactive stance, and because loneliness already reflects a sense of isolation, if you make the effort to reach out to others, you may be pleasantly surprised at how much better you can begin to feel, even if you just exchange a couple of texts with a friend or have a brief conversation on the phone.
Letting someone know you "need to talk" can open the door to a deeper bond, so long as you don't overburden others with your needs.
To Combat Social Loneliness
This feeling arises when we feel left out of a larger group—it might be the way you felt when you walked into the high school cafeteria the first day back at school in the fall and couldn’t immediately locate any friendly faces to join at their table.
Exclusion from a group can be painful, even if it’s not intentional. An easy way to combat social loneliness is to jump into a new activity or group.
Maybe a new fitness club is opening in the neighborhood, or an “Introduction to Fiber Arts” class is forming at the rec center, or a “Beginner’s Axe Throwing workshop” is starting; volunteer at the animal shelter or at the community food bank; whatever is intriguing to you, show up! If everyone in the room is “new,” it can be easier to strike up conversations and new friendships.
If you and your partner feel like you don’t have a shared network of friends, join a beginner’s rhumba or foxtrot or salsa dance class. Get involved in volunteering together, whether it’s building houses or stuffing envelopes or delivering meals to the homebound.
You’ll know that the other people in the room at least share a similar interest with you and that is one of the surefire ways to spark a new friendship.
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Hawkley L. C., Browne M. W., & Cacioppo J. T. (2005). How can I connect with thee? Let me count the ways. Psychol. Sci. 16, 798–804. (doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2005.01617.x).
Primack, B. A., Shensa, A., Sidani, J. E., Whaite, E. O., Lin, L. Rosen, D., Colditz, J. B., Radovic, A., & Miller, E. (2017). Social media use and perceived social isolation among young adults in the U.S. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 53, 1-8.