- Loneliness is a biological warning signal that one is failing to meet a basic human need: connection.
- Studies show that performing acts of kindness can make a person feel happier and less lonely.
- Research shows people who start meditating for 20 minutes a day are significantly less lonely after just 14 days.
Feeling lonely? You’re not alone. A 2018 study done by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 22 percent of U.S adults reported they often or always feel lonely and, perhaps not surprisingly, new research shows that people have gotten even lonelier since the start of the pandemic.
The good news is that the key to unlocking loneliness is in your hands. You don’t have to wait for your social circle to grow, or your social calendar to fill. There are simple steps you can take today to feel less lonely and more connected:
1. Understand the nature of loneliness.
As I described in an earlier post, loneliness is a biological warning signal that lets us know we’re failing to meet a basic human need—the need for social connection. Much like hunger motivates us to eat, loneliness drives us to strengthen our social relationships. In this way, loneliness is good for us.
The problem is that the brain interprets perceived isolation as a threat to survival. As a result, your brain enters a self-preservation mode when you feel lonely. Your subconscious mind becomes hypervigilant about distinguishing friends from foes, causing it to perceive threats even where they don’t exist. For example, the lonely brain might interpret an innocuous behavior (a friend forgetting to return your call, for example) as a personal attack.
An important first step to tackling loneliness is to understand this biological warning signal and bring conscious awareness to the ways that loneliness may have distorted your thoughts about other people.
2. Don’t deny your feelings.
You’re not ashamed to admit when you’re hungry or thirsty, right? Why should it be any different with feelings of loneliness? Remember that loneliness is simply a biological response to perceived isolation. It’s not a sign that something is wrong with you.
3. Dismantle the warning signal.
The signal of loneliness doesn’t have an “off switch,” but you can help your brain reset itself. Try engaging in practices that evoke the body’s relaxation response, such as mindfulness meditation, or yoga. In one study, people who started meditating for 20 minutes a day were significantly less lonely after just 14 days.
4. Get social.
People who have felt lonely for an extended period of time tend to withdraw from social interactions, causing them to miss out on valuable opportunities for social connection. This tendency to withdraw is another natural consequence of the brain’s readiness to defend you against potential threats.
The next time you feel the temptation to withdraw, don’t give into it. Make an extra effort to be social—even if you’re an introvert.
5. Expect the best.
After a bout of loneliness, people often have negative expectations of social encounters (ranging from “this conversation is going to be awkward” to “I think they hate me”).
When you enter a social situation, check in with yourself: Do you feel anxious? Are you concerned that others will reject you? If so, consider that your brain may be overreacting. After all, most people—even strangers—are benign and open to the possibility of connection.
6. Use solitude to reframe your negative thoughts.
If you’ve become jaded about your social life, spend some time in solitude before interacting with others. Spending time with yourself—without the distraction of your phone—provides an opportunity to reframe your negative thoughts, which will help future interactions go more smoothly.
7. Talk to strangers.
If you’re like most people, you think that talking to strangers will be awkward or unpleasant. Yet, research shows that conversations with strangers often go much better than expected. In fact, most people feel happier and more connected after talking to someone they’ve just met.
So strike up a conversation with the barista, bank teller, and other people you encounter throughout your day.
8. Make eye contact.
If the idea of talking to strangers is too much, start by making eye contact with them. Research suggests that acknowledging the people you cross paths with (using eye contact or a smile) can help you both feel a little more connected.
9. Be kind.
Studies show that performing acts of kindness can make you feel happier and less lonely. Try it: Perform five random acts of kindness in a single day. You can do something small, like writing an online review of your favorite restaurant, or something big, like assembling a care package and delivering it to your neighbor.
10. Call an old friend.
In a recent study, researchers asked people to reach out to an old friend—either by calling them or sending an email. The people who made a phone call felt much more connected to their friend than those who sent the email. Trade convenience for connection, and make the call.
11. Have deeper conversations.
People feel happier and more connected when they skip the small talk and engage in meaningful conversation. Invite some of your colleagues or friends to try out the Fast Friends technique, which involves answering questions such as, “For what in your life do you feel most grateful?"
12. Put your phone away during conversations.
Researchers invited people to have a meal at a restaurant with friends or family and asked them to keep their phones on the table or put them away. Which group do you think enjoyed the experience more? Participants who put their phones away felt less distracted during the meal, and their ability to be fully present enhanced their enjoyment of it.
13. Use social media wisely.
There’s some evidence that using Facebook, Instagram, and other social media sites contributes to depression and loneliness. Of course, the effects depend on how you use it. If you use social media to connect with existing friends or make new ones, the technology can help you feel less lonely. However, mindlessly scrolling through others’ carefully crafted posts will probably leave you feeling disconnected and dissatisfied.
14. Go for a walk in the woods.
Research shows that being in nature strengthens your sense of social connection, even when you’re experiencing it alone. So go for a walk in the woods—or just pay attention to the natural beauty you encounter in your everyday life. Doing so may remind you that you’re part of a larger whole.
15. Get a pet.
Science has confirmed what many pet owners already know: Beloved pets are good for our social well-being. A pet can help stave off the negativity that arises from loneliness. They can also be a catalyst for social interaction. Get into a positive mindset and take your dog—or cat, rabbit, or lizard—to the park.
16. Get warm.
A fascinating line of research shows that our bodily states can influence our thoughts and feelings (a phenomenon called embodied cognition). Being cold can increase feelings of loneliness, whereas being warm can create feelings of social warmth. (Are you reaching for your blanket yet?)
17. Practice loving-kindness meditation.
Loving-kindness meditation, a practice that cultivates a caring attitude toward yourself and others, can increase your sense of social connectedness. Check out this short practice.
Volunteering is a great way to shift your focus from yourself to others. It’s also a great way to make new connections. In a recent survey of over 10,000 volunteers, 68 percent of respondents reported feeling less isolated as a result of their volunteer work.
19. Get connection on demand.
You can generate feelings of connection with just your thoughts. Try it: When was the last time you felt a strong bond with someone? What made you feel connected to them? Spend a few minutes thinking about this experience—savoring the feeling of togetherness—and notice whether the practice leaves you feeling a little more connected.
20. Treat your depression.
Research shows that there's a reciprocal relationship between depression and loneliness; one fuels the other. If you're depressed, keep fighting it until you find something that helps.
And think optimistically about the future: one in which you grow increasingly connected to yourself and others.