Though our need to connect is innate, many of us frequently feel alone. Loneliness is the state of distress or discomfort that results when one perceives a gap between one’s desires for social connection and actual experiences of it. Even some people who are surrounded by others throughout the day—or are in a long-lasting marriage—still experience a deep and pervasive loneliness. Research suggests that loneliness poses serious threats to well-being as well as long-term physical health.
Whether a person lives in isolation or not, feeling a lack of social connectedness can be painful. Loneliness can be described in different ways; a commonly used measure of loneliness, the UCLA Loneliness Scale, asks individuals about a range of feelings or deficits of connection, including how often they:
feel they lack companionship
feel left out
feel “in tune” with people around them
feel outgoing and friendly
feel there are people they can turn to
Given the potential health consequences for those who feel like they have few or no supportive social connections, widespread loneliness poses a major societal challenge. But it underscores a demand for increased outreach and connection on a personal level, too.
Loneliness is as tied to the quality of one's relationships as it is to the number of connections one has. And it doesn’t only stem from heartache or isolation. A lack of authenticity in relationships can result in feelings of loneliness. For some, not having a coveted animal companion, or the absence of a quiet presence in the home (even if one has plenty of social contacts in the wider world), can trigger loneliness.
There's evidence that lonely individuals have a sort of negativity bias in evaluating social interactions. Lonely people pick up on signs of potential rejection more quickly than do others, perhaps better to avoid it and protect themselves. People who feel lonely need to be aware of this bias so as to override it in seeking out companionship.
Solitude, or time spent alone, is not inherently negative and can even be restorative or advantageous in other ways. Research suggests the reasons young people choose to be alone matter—they may do so to relax, create, or reflect, rather than to avoid other people.
Loneliness researcher John Cacioppo argues that just as you can start an exercise regimen to gain strength and improve your health, you can combat loneliness through small moves that build emotional strength and resilience. He has devised techniques for people at particularly high risk for chronic loneliness, such as soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. They may be useful to anyone.
A number of unfavorable outcomes have been linked to loneliness. In addition to its association with depressive symptoms and other forms of mental illness, loneliness is a risk factor for heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, and arthritis, among other diseases. Lonely people are also twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease, research suggests. The state of chronic loneliness may trigger adverse physiological responses such as the increased production of stress hormones, hinder sleep, and result in weakened immunity.
While a person can’t die simply from feeling too lonely, findings that lonely people have higher rates of mortality and certain diseases supports the idea that, over time, chronic loneliness can play a role in increasing the risk of dying.
Feelings of loneliness and isolation affect people of all ages, although adolescents and the elderly may be especially likely to be impacted.
About 40 percent of Americans reported regularly feeling lonely in 2010, and other reports affirm that it is common for people to feel lonely at least some of the time. The high rates of reported loneliness have led some to declare an “epidemic,” though it is not clear that loneliness is increasing in younger generations.