- Almost a third of us experience periods of loneliness, with younger people, the unemployed, and women more likely to feel isolated.
- The holidays can make us feel especially lonely. Even if others reach out temporarily, we may feel even more alone in January.
- There are four things we can do to prevent loneliness: volunteer, share how we feel, maintain routines, and engage in self-care.
With the holidays upon us, it’s worth pausing to consider that, despite the Hallmark images in advertising campaigns, almost a third of us report a near-constant state of loneliness. In fact, a 2021 survey of loneliness showed that 31 percent of us report feeling lonely often, always, or some of the time.
Those statistics, though, hide an awkward truth: Not all of us are affected by loneliness equally. Younger people feel lonely far more often than older folks. Women report loneliness more than men (though it is likely men underreport loneliness, especially middle-class men in white-collar professions). If you are single or widowed and in poor health or young and renting in a new community, loneliness is likely to be a highly likely and very awkward fact of life.
The statistics are bad enough, but their impact is made worse by our hesitancy to admit that we are lonely, blaming ourselves for a situation that is often not of our own making. The worse part of this is not just the emotional toll loneliness causes. It also undermines our resilience when bad things happen. Lonely people tend to lack the social networks and access to physical supports (like a ride, a job, and a stable home) that make life easier when recovering from misfortune.
Loneliness at the Holidays
And then there are the holidays. At this time of year, more than any other, a lack of social connection can make us feel different from others. Loneliness can become a starting point for a cascade of mental health problems (like depression) and physical health challenges (overeating, lack of motivation to exercise, less willingness to seek preventive care).
While many communities reach out at this time of year to those who are socially isolated, even this small gesture has an unintended downside. There is the danger that once those efforts stop in the new year, those who experience loneliness may feel the sting of their social isolation even more. No wonder that late January is the time of year when rates of depression reach their highest level.
Of course, having your neighbors remember you with a box of shortbread cookies or an invitation to a church concert, or maybe even an invitation to share a holiday meal are all fabulous examples of communities reaching out to those who are alone. And accepting those invitations to join one’s community is not a bad thing, as long as one braces oneself for a likely return to social isolation when January’s grind returns.
Strategies to Combat Loneliness
There are solutions, though, ways to make us feel less lonely and strengthen our social networks. Much of this comes down to finding connections to a neighborhood, family, or community, whether in the workplace or even online. The worse solution is to put all our eggs in one basket and imagine a romantic partner as the best defense against loneliness. That is a tall order for anyone to fulfill (despite what we see in Hallmark holiday movies).
Instead, consider making a commitment to trying these anti-loneliness strategies in the coming year:
- Even if you don’t feel connected at work, or are unemployed, consider volunteering. Even helping a neighbor clean up their yard after a storm brings us closer to our community. Becoming a formal volunteer in a setting where you can use your talents is, of course, even better as it introduces into our lives routines and stable connections with others who need us, but anything we do to help another chisels away at social isolation.
- Let others know that you are feeling lonely. You don’t need to tell them very much, but dropping a hint to your acquaintances about how long the evenings are, or how you have no plans for the holidays, might elicit an invitation to a dinner or at the very least a chance to drop by for a short visit.
- Build routine into your day. This is one of those hidden loneliness-busters that people forget. If you have a dog, walk the dog at the same time each day along the same route. People come to "see" us when we are present in their lives. We are far more likely to receive a wave from a passing motorist if we are in their field of vision every day. We are far more likely to get a friendly "hello" from the person who serves us coffee at the local drive-thru if we arrive each morning at the same time. Those small acknowledgments help sew together a community, one that helps us feel less lonely.
- Do self-care. Exercise. Challenge yourself to show gratitude every day for a small thing that went well. Get outdoors. Each of these small acts of self-preservation has the potential to elevate our mood. People who feel happier and are physically healthier are more likely to have the emotional resources to reach out to others when there is an opportunity to feel included.
It's not easy to beat loneliness in a society that values independence. But it is possible. The more we change the opportunities around us for social interaction and challenge negative thinking, the more likely we are to experience the holidays as a time of connection.