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Solutions for the Solitary

Loneliness requires courage and altered perception to escape, but it is possible.

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Early every week brings new evidence of the grievous health effects of loneliness. Reportedly experienced by 40 percent of U.S. adults, chronic loneliness has been shown to depress immune system function, boost inflammation, and significantly raise the risk of cardiovascular disease. As dangerous as smoking or obesity, loneliness poses such a powerful threat to health and longevity that it increases the chance of an early death by at least 14 percent.

In addition to being linked to clinical depression, loneliness affects people's view of their relationships, leading them to believe friends and loved ones care less about them than they actually do. This perceptual distortion is what traps the lonely in their sense of social isolation. Emotionally raw, they are hesitant to risk rejection by reaching out to the very people who could help alleviate their loneliness, which creates a vicious cycle.

Loneliness is not defined by objective measures—it depends solely on the subjective experience of distress that one's social needs are unmet. Indeed, studies have found that over 60 percent of people who report feeling lonely are married and live with their spouse. Conversely, many people who live alone or who have few friends don't feel lonely and exhibit none of the condition's typical psychological or physical symptoms. In other words, it is not the number or proximity of our social relationships that matters, but the internal sense of their quality and depth.

A study published in January in Personality and Individual Differences added to the understanding of how perceptual distortions reinforce loneliness. Looking at the ways people signal their commitment and caring to friends and romantic partners, and the degree to which those signals are accurately perceived, researchers in Japan developed a series of hypothetical scenarios categorized as either high-cost, low-cost, or commitment-signal failures, depending on the level of sacrifice and effort they require. A high-cost signal, for example, is if you call a friend to talk about a pressing personal problem and he cancels a standing plan so he can stay on the phone with you. A low-cost signal is an email of congratulations from a friend after hearing that you've passed an important exam. A signal failure is when a friend or partner forgets your birthday.

The study's main finding was that the higher people rated on a scale of loneliness, the less likely they were to interpret a friend's or partner's high-cost commitment signal as a confirmation of their bond. While both the lonely and the nonlonely are equally likely to perceive something like forgetting a birthday as a disconfirmation of their bond, high-cost signals are significantly muted in the eyes of the lonely, which may make them feel less valued than they actually are and ultimately more socially isolated.

Loneliness can seem intractable to the degree that it's built on a misperception of social bonds. However, people can take steps to break free of the loneliness trap.

Re-evaluate gestures of caring and commitment. Know that when we feel lonely, we are most likely judging our friends and loved ones too harshly. We need to re-evaluate gestures or actions we might be inclined to dismiss as insignificant. Yes, your friend hasn't called in a couple of weeks, but remember that the last time you met, he inquired in-depth about your life. Perhaps it's been a while since your spouse asked about your day, but she did pick up your dry cleaning and make the bed, knowing that's important to you. These kinds of small gestures indicate caring and commitment, and we need to identify as many of them as we can and relabel them. Doing so will make us feel closer and less disconnected.

Reach out with optimism and positivity. To deepen feelings of connection with others, it's imperative to actively reach out without letting your negative mind-set sabotage the effort. Take a moment to remind yourself of an occasion when you felt close to and loved by that person, or when you last had a great time together. Once you feel a smile tug at the corners of your mouth, pick up your phone and reach out to your friend with a positive invitation. Or turn to your partner as you're sitting on the couch watching TV, give his hand a squeeze, and ask about his day. If he squeezes back, keep holding his hand for a bit. The perception of social disconnection often runs both ways, so the other person might need to feel reconnected as well.

Revisit old favorites. One of the best ways to recapture a previous mind-set and reignite feelings of connection is to go places or do things that fueled those feelings in the past. If you and your friend used to go bowling and have pizza, suggest doing it again. If you would watch old movies on rainy days, check the forecast and suggest streaming one together. If you and your partner had a favorite dinner spot, make a reservation there.

Do new things together. Sharing experiences makes us feel closer to the person with whom we share them, especially if the experiences are emotional or meaningful. For example, if your spouse loves a certain TV show, watch an episode with her even if it's not your thing. After the show, tell her what you appreciated about it—yes, even if it was mostly terrible! Cook a meal together, watch your wedding video or your children's (reminding yourselves of more connected times), team up to organize a photo album, or go on a fun weekend excursion or hike. The more excitement you can generate, the more the shared experience will feel like bonding.

Practice taking another's perspective. The longer we know someone, the more we tend to assume we know what he is thinking. However, research indicates that our assumptions make us skip the step of actually putting ourselves in his shoes—making our assumptions incorrect more often than not. Perspective taking is an important tool for enhancing relationships of all kinds and alleviating loneliness. To get an accurate read on a spouse's or friend's perspective, close your eyes and focus for a few minutes on her point of view—even if you disagree with what it might be. Gaining a greater sense of her thoughts and feelings will allow you to feel more understanding, which in turn can deepen your sense of commitment and trust.

The bottom line is that you have to recognize loneliness for what it is—a trap that requires effort, courage, and a shift in perception to escape. Feeling reconnected will be sweet once you do.