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Loneliness

Why Feeling Lonely Is a Bigger Problem Than You Think

Loneliness is linked to significant problems in physical and mental health.

Key points

  • Loneliness in young people was a genuine problem before COVID-19, but lockdowns appear to have made it worse.
  • Feeling lonely can suppress your physical health and can contribute to depressed mood and the development of dementia.
  • A few simple steps can help people begin socializing again in a comfortable, non-threatening way.
Wikimedia / CCA 4.0 / Ezeileagu Chibisi Chidubem
Source: Wikimedia / CCA 4.0 / Ezeileagu Chibisi Chidubem

Throughout 2020, when lockdown rules went into effect around the globe, most of us became newly familiar with the concept of solitude. We worked from home, left the house only to get groceries, and saw our friends exclusively through screens. We holed up with the closest people in our lives, which itself created a new kind of loneliness—that of being “lonely together,” and facing a collective alienation from others (as Randi Gunther noted).

But loneliness was a problem long before COVID-19. In 2014, a study by Britain’s Mental Health Foundation found that feelings of isolation were four times as common in people aged 18 to 24 than in those 70 and above. Things haven’t gotten better for young people since then: As of March 2022, a search of Instagram for the hashtag “#lonely” turned up almost 9 million posts. Perhaps loneliness among today’s “zillennials,” or Gen-Z teens, has been caused, at least in part, by the major features of their lives: screen time, reduced participation in community activities like church or community sports groups, and an increase in the popularity of single living (as Marie Claire UK reported in 2021). Young people are also more likely to struggle with their personal identities, and this kind of struggle can also make feelings of loneliness more prominent.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with choosing to spend time alone, or enjoying your own company. But chronic solitude and loneliness can actually harm your health—perhaps even to a greater degree than smoking or high blood pressure (Holt-Lunstad, et al., 2010). Lonely people have an elevated risk of suffering from dementia and depression (James et al, 2011) (Cacioppo et al, 2006), and unwanted solitude can create or exacerbate mental health problems like these even at moderate levels (Lee et al, 2019). Put another way, finding ways to feel less lonely can improve your physical health. Developing close relationships may even have a greater, healthier effect than that of genetics; Avrum Weiss suggests say that forming good relationships may be able to extend your lifespan by more than 20%. Even being rich or having all of the material possessions you’ve ever wanted probably won’t offer you as much life satisfaction, as reported in the Boston Globe.

So, if you’re alone most of the time and you’ve been feeling low about it, what can you do? Psychologist Michelle Lim, chief scientific advisor for the Australian Coalition to End Loneliness, gave Marie Claire UK some useful suggestions: First, try not to give in to the temptation to hide yourself away. Loneliness has an insidious effect: It makes us feel socially anxious, which chips away at our confidence and makes it harder for us to take the simple, helpful action of reaching out to others. If you notice this happening to you, try to push back against the impulse to avoid other people. Straighten your posture, make eye contact, talk to strangers, and remember that you have nothing to lose; even a small conversation can help you “turn the page” by introducing something fresh into what might otherwise be a solitary day.

Being lonely can create a self-fulfilling prophecy, in that it siphons away the comfort we might otherwise feel in participating in new activities. Try to work against this. Explore your interests and see if you might want to take up a new hobby through which you could meet people who share your interests. Take on some volunteer activities. Make plans with old friends, too. Be active: Remember to exercise, and try to fill your schedule. If you’ve been spending a lot of long, unstructured hours by yourself, it may also help to create a routine. Go for regular walks outside; take a class; or join a book club. Whatever you do, plan for it in a way that makes it impossible to simply sit around, being alone. Take an active role in your own health by reaching out to other people, and try not to let the isolation get to you.

References

Baker, B. (2017, March 9). The Biggest Threat Facing Middle Aged Men Isn’t Smoking or Obesity. It’s Loneliness. Retrieved from https://www.bostonglobe.com/magazine/2017/03/09/the-biggest-threat-faci….

Cacioppo J.T., Hughes M.E., Waite L.J., Hawkley L.C., Thisted R.A. Loneliness as a specific risk factor for depressive symptoms: cross-sectional and longitudinal analyses. Psychol Aging. 2006 Mar;21(1):140-51.

Gunther, R. (2021, December 31). A new kind of loneliness. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/rediscovering-love/202112/new-k…

Hill, A. (2011, May 5). The quarterlife crisis: young, insecure and depressed. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/society/2011/may/05/quarterlife-crisis-youn…

Holt-Lunstad J, Smith T.B, Layton J.B (2010) Social Relationships and Mortality Risk: A Meta-analytic Review. PLoS Med 7(7): e1000316.

James B.D, Wilson R.S, Barnes L.L, Bennett D.A. Late-life social activity and cognitive decline in old age. J Int Neuropsychol Soc. 2011 Nov;17(6):998-1005.

Lee E.E, Depp C, Palmer B.W, Glorioso D, Daly R, Liu J, Tu X.M, Kim H.C, Tarr P, Yamada Y, Jeste D.V. High prevalence and adverse health effects of loneliness in community-dwelling adults across the lifespan: role of wisdom as a protective factor. Int Psychogeriatr. 2019 Oct;31(10):1447-1462.

Marie Claire, UK (2021, June 14). Dealing with loneliness: ‘Why is it so embarrassing to admit I feel lonely?’ Retrieved from https://www.marieclaire.co.uk/reports/extreme-loneliness-684789

Weiss, A. (2021, November 21). The devastating cost of men’s loneliness. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/fear-intimacy/202111/the-devast…

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