John lives alone but is very social. He has many friends with whom he spends a lot of time and sees frequently. However, he feels sad and disappointed because his friendships don’t seem to meet his needs. He doesn’t derive a sense of connection to others and a feeling of satisfaction. Despite his busy social life, he feels alone and lonely.
Albert lives alone and has two close friends whom he sees occasionally. When he meets with them, he has a good time talking about current events and sports as well as each other’s thoughts and feelings regarding their lives. When he is not at work or in the company of others, Albert does not feel lonely because he spends time engaging in activities that interest and energize him.
Generally, loneliness is a negative condition resulting from a state of aloneness. People who desire more interpersonal relationships than they actually have can develop feelings of loneliness. How much social connectedness a person needs influences how much aloneness they can tolerate.
However, it is not the number of social relationships that determines whether people feel lonely. Rather, it is the emotional and cognitive reactions the individual experiences in relation to these connections that play a role in experiencing loneliness. For example, social interactions where an individual feels the following are associated with loneliness:
- Emotional conflict
- Lack of social support
John and Albert both live alone and have friends; yet, the one with the more active social life feels lonely. Why? Being alone can result in negative reactions related to loneliness (e.g., sadness, hopelessness) or it can have positive reactions related to solitude (e.g., spiritual and creative growth, restoring one’s health and energy). John’s relationships don’t seem to provide him with what he needs or wants—enjoyment or meaning—and so he feels bereft of connectedness, and perhaps wanting relationships that are more fulfilling. On the other hand, Albert seems to benefit from the interactions he has with his friends, and also happens to enjoy his time alone. In addition, Albert doesn’t seem to want more interpersonal connections.
We don’t know much about John and Albert; that is, who they are characterologically. However, we do know that the following characteristics related to the individual are associated with loneliness:
Feeling lonely is normal; for some, it can be very frightening and destructive. At minimum, it hurts. Loneliness also can become a pervasive and chronic condition with serious mental and physical conditions, including:
- Social isolation
- Substance abuse
- Poor sleep and appetite
- Suicidal thoughts and behavior
- Impaired immune and cardiovascular functioning
The treatment for loneliness is directed toward increasing the person’s social interactions as well as giving them the social skills and opportunities to do so. Some of these are as follows:
- Group therapy for lonely people
- Community events for people who are or feel alone
Research has found that cognitive behavioral therapy that focuses on modifying the negative thoughts the individual has about others and social relationships can be very helpful. The degree of loneliness can be decreased by educating the person on how their beliefs are irrational and harmful to themselves as well as perpetuating their problems. In addition, it is important to evaluate and treat (including the use of medications, if indicated) any underlying psychological conditions that may be contributing to or resulting from the person’s loneliness.
Humans, because of necessity, evolved into social beings. Dependence on and cooperation with each other enhanced our ability to survive under harsh environmental circumstances. Although the survival threats of these circumstances have lessened in today’s world, people continue to have a need to affiliate with others. Indeed, the lack of such connections can lead to many problems, including loneliness.
In our advanced digital age, one of the prevalent concerns regarding the increasing emergence of loneliness is how we have become less caring of others. At one time, our very survival depended on trusting and supportive relationships. Fundamentally, it doesn’t matter how technologically sophisticated we become; emotional connectivity remains a core part of being human. We need each other—maybe not in the ways that characterized us evolutionarily, but for a need that remains essential for psychological survival.
1. Cacioppo, S., Grippo, A. J., London, S., Goossens, L., & Cacioppo, J. T. (2015). Loneliness: Clinical import and interventions. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10, 238-249.
2. Heinrich, L. M., & Gullone, E. (2006). The clinical significance of loneliness: A literature review. Clinical Psychology Review, 26, 695-718.
3. Peplau, L. A., & Perlman, D. (1982). Perspectives on loneliness. In L. A. Peplau & D. Perlman (Eds.), Loneliness: A sourcebook of current theory, research and therapy (pp. 1–8). New York, NY: Wiley.