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Loneliness

Loneliness: Is It All in Your Head?

Is there an easy fix to combat loneliness?

Diego Cervo/Shutterstock
Source: Diego Cervo/Shutterstock

Loneliness, to me, might not feel the same as loneliness does to you — it’s a highly subjective experience, and the same circumstances that cause me to feel adrift in the sea of humanity might not have the same effect on you at all. In a nutshell, loneliness results when we feel that our social support network isn’t providing us with the support that we need at a given moment in time. And while there are times when we absolutely crave “alone time,” loneliness is just the opposite for most people — it’s a hole that we long to fill, not a place we want to embrace.

It’s About Quality, Not Quantity

Loneliness, though, is something that really signifies a lot more than just a person being by herself at some point in time. Loneliness is a function of affective need and reflects the absence of connection, not the absence of people. That’s why we can feel about as lonely as anyone can be when we’re in a crowd. In fact, being in the middle of a crowd can make us feel even lonelier, if we’re there solo and not with members of our known support network, and we are unable to connect with those around us.

Types of 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.

Emotional loneliness is the feeling that you lack relationships or attachments. You might experience emotional loneliness when everyone has a romantic partner in your group, but you.

Social loneliness occurs when you don’t feel a sense of belonging to a group beyond yourself. You might even feel social loneliness when you’re in a romantic relationship with a partner you treasure. If you don’t feel that your presence is valued in a wider circle, you might experience social loneliness.

Lastly, there is the chronicity factor of loneliness. It can be a transient feeling, a situational feeling, or a chronic feeling. Most everyone might have a passing feeling of loneliness occasionally; these transient feelings are normal and natural.

Situational loneliness can be a more acute feeling of absence, especially when it’s accompanied by some other significant transition — being alone at lunch at 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, though, can grow from situational loneliness that is not abated, and it is defined as loneliness that lasts more than two years. That’s a very long time to feel disconnected with no sense of belonging!

The Loneliness Fix?

There are many, many studies that have attempted to pinpoint a simple “fix” for loneliness, as it’s been associated with compromised psychological and physical well-being. And while we also think that loneliness is more of an “old person’s complaint,” today’s young adults are the loneliest generation there is — "Generation Lonely," it appears.

Some of the ways in which researchers have tried to combat loneliness include these four modes (Masi, Chen, Hawkley, & Cacioppo, 2010):

  1. Social Skill Enhancement — teaching people how to interact and be more effective in social settings
  2. Social Support Enhancement — scheduling interactions and arranging social connection
  3. Social Contact Increase — facilitating additional opportunities for social interaction
  4. Changing Beliefs About Social Interactions or Support

Guess what? The most effective method for combating loneliness wasn’t found to be related to enhanced social skills or increased social connection opportunities; the most effective way to combat loneliness is to change our thoughts about social situations and social interaction.

Loneliness May Be a State of Mind

There are dangers that lurk if loneliness isn’t addressed and a sense of belonging isn't realized. Loneliness can transition into depression, and once depression is entrenched, the situation grows worse — one of the symptoms of depression is a lack of interest in engaging with the social world. It can be very challenging to force yourself to let go of negative beliefs about yourself and others if your mind is trapped in a depressive state.

Lonely people often have lower levels of self-esteem, as well as higher levels of social comparison and social anxiety. If a person doesn’t feel confident in their own skin, it can be unbelievably hard for them to venture into a group and attempt to make social connections. However, the research shows that if a person is able to change their thoughts about taking this type of step, they are a lot more likely to begin to chip away at their feelings of loneliness than if they don’t.

Young adults often feel that there is no time for authentic connection, but until they change their beliefs about the value of connection to overall well-being — and, ultimately, to academic success and life satisfaction — they might continue to soldier on as they travel their lonely paths to project completion.

Loneliness Is a Health Hazard, Too

Some recent research has identified loneliness and lack of social connection as a severe health hazard that might be as lethal as smoking or obesity. However, most people underestimate just how important having an intact social support system can be (Haslam et al., 2018). Of those most likely to devalue the role of social connection, men and younger people were at the top of the list. Some of us might think this makes common sense — women tend to be more actively engaged in maintaining social networks. And we also know that we spend more time focusing health education on preventing risky behaviors and negative health choices on young people than we might on pro-social health-related choices.

The thing is, our psychological well-being is connected to our physical well-being, and when you starve your heart and mind of social connection, you are starving your body, too, from something it needs.

  • Remind yourself that there are others who struggle to connect, but if you don’t make the effort to reach out, failure is a sure thing.

  • Remind yourself that the better you feel about yourself, the better that others will feel about you, too. Loneliness is as contagious as positive esteem. When you act as if you’re someone worth knowing, others will believe that you are and treat you that way, too.

  • Remind yourself that you don’t have to find a dozen “best friends” to reap the health benefits of connection; you just need to find one or two people who let you be you, and you let them be them. No, it’s not always easy to make the first move and reach out to potential friends, but it is doable and essential.

References

Haslam, S. A., McMahon, C., Cruwys, T., Haslam, C., Jetten, J., & Steffens, N. K. (2018). Social cure, what social cure? The propensity to underestimate the important of social factors for health. Social Science & Medicine, 198, 14-21.

Masi, C. M., Chen, H-Y., Hawkley, L. C., & Cacioppo, J. T. (2010). A meta-analysis of interventions to reduce loneliness. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 15(3), 219-266. DOI: 10.1177/1088868310377394

Perlman, D., & Peplau, L. A. (1984). Loneliness research: A survey of empirical findings. In L. A. Peplau & S. Goldston (Eds.), Preventing the harmful consequences of severe and loneliness. (pp. 13-46). U.S. Government Printing Office, 1984. DDH Publication No. (ADM) 84-1312.

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