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7 Ways to Feel Less Lonely and More Connected

Your people are out there. Here's how to find them.

Americans are a lonely bunch. According to a large-scale survey way back in 2004, one in four Americans reported that they had no close friends at all. More than fifteen years later, I’ll bet you a lonely partridge in a pear tree that the percentage is even higher now.

With so many people feeling isolated, you’d think everyone would be talking about it. But no one does. There’s a stigma to admitting you’re lonely.

But here’s what’s interesting about loneliness: by definition, loneliness is perceived social isolation. It’s “perceived” because you can feel totally alone in the midst of a crowd, or you can feel connected and supported even when you’re by yourself.

But even if loneliness is a perception, that doesn’t mean it’s not real. Therefore, let’s cover 7 things you can do to feel more connected. Expanding (and then maintaining) a social circle takes perseverance and time, but rest assured, your people are out there.

Tip #1: Reconnect with old friends. There’s no need to start from scratch when you have a baked-in social history. Think about the friends you’ve lost touch with and start there. If they’re far away, give them an old-fashioned phone call to catch up (or text, or video chat—the medium matter less than the fact that you’re connecting). If they’re local, so much the better; invite them over or out on the town—whatever strikes your fancy. Personally, I say try to avoid movies—the whole point is to talk, not stare at a screen together.

If you’re hesitant to contact someone after some time away, put yourself in their shoes. How would you react if they called you? Probably delighted. Assume the same for them and make the call.

Tip #2: Rejection doesn’t happen as often as we expect. The lonely among us, it turns out, see the world differently. In a 2014 study, lonely and non-lonely college students watched video clips of lunchtime at college dining halls. In the scenes, there were always both positive and negative social interactions happening at any given time. The study participant might see positive interactions where someone smiles, nods while a friend talks, or leans into a conversation. But they also might see negative interactions, like someone turning his back or ignoring another person.

Here’s where it gets really interesting: researchers used eye-tracking technology to see what parts of the scenes the study participants focused on. Lonely individuals immediately fixated on the negative interactions. They picked up on signs of potential rejection right away, perhaps better to avoid it and protect themselves.

This makes sense. If you’re already feeling vulnerable, you’re naturally on guard for situations that could kick you when you’re down. But zeroing in on threat means that when you’re lonely, you see potential rejection everywhere.

But here’s the thing: the fears of lonely people don’t often play out. Even though lonely people anticipate rejection, actual rejection doesn’t happen nearly as often as they anticipate (assuming the situation isn’t one of targeted bullying or deliberate exclusion.) Instead, their expectation of rejection leads to avoidance or half-hearted attempts at socializing, which in turn makes others believe they’re not interested. Basically, it’s a big misunderstanding on both sides.

So what to do? Tip #3: Expect to feel a little awkward. When you’re lonely, it’s natural to get a little desperate. Add the aforementioned tendency to expect rejection, and we all start acting a little weird when we’re lonely. But rest assured it’s not just you—acting cagey when you’re lonely is so common it has a name: social evasion. When we perceive threat, we stay on the sidelines, where at least we know we’re safe, even if it leaves us lonely. So as you try to chip away at your loneliness, forgive yourself if you catch yourself in social evasion. And then…

Tip #4: Remember you don’t have to be “more” anything. You may worry you’re lonely because you’re too quiet, too introverted, or too shy, and that nudging yourself to be more outgoing, funnier, or even putting yourself more in the spotlight would help Luckily, the opposite of loneliness is not hard-partying extroversion. You don’t have to change your personality to find your people. To quote Mr. Rogers, people like you just the way you are.

That said, the only thing you probably shouldn’t be is passive—not making eye contact, sitting in the corner, or not showing up in the first place. Passivity sends the message that you’re not interested.

But fear not. You can be actively engaged by listening attentively, asking questions, and simply being agreeable. You don’t have to be the life of the party, you just have to be present and pleasant.

Tip #5: Keep going (literally). So you’ve decided to volunteer to try to meet people? Great choice! You reap the rewards of social interaction and altruism in one fell swoop. But here’s the rub. You’re looking to feel better not just by doing good things (if that was your aim, you could just donate money online from home), but by connecting with others. So if you volunteer—or join a group or start any social gathering for that matter—do it regularly, at the same place, same time, with the same people. Rule out one-time events or drop-in meetups where the people change constantly.

And then, keep showing up. Give any new social endeavor at least a season, or around 4-6 months. If, after that, you don’t like it or haven’t met anyone, you can throw in the towel, but hang in there until then. Repetition is key. The biggest reason people are friends? It’s not commonalities. It’s proximity. Again, keep showing up.

Tip #6: Join a group, and then help lead it. It’s cliche, but from mountain biking to quilting, there’s something out there for you. Join a co-op garden, a religious study group, a community theater. Again, a ready-made group where the same people show up repeatedly is your best bet.

Then, once you’ve established yourself, try to take on a leadership role. Having a role to play is a blessing for the shy among us because it requires less social improvising. You’ll have a set of duties and a reason to connect with everyone, even if it’s just to remind them to pay their quarterly dues or encourage them to donate to the food drive.

Tip #7: Use a bout of loneliness as a cue to make social plans. Each time loneliness flares—a weekend with no plans, a particularly sappy holiday special—use it as a cue to plan for the future. Whenever you feel lonesome, take action: email a friend to meet up for coffee on Tuesday or look at the schedule for that bike polo team you’ve been meaning to join. It won’t make company appear in the moment, but you’ll have created a connection to look forward to.

All in all, getting started is the hardest part. It’s not fair that the hard stuff is frontloaded but think of contacting old friends and walking into new social situations as an investment that not only pays off but gets easier—and more meaningful—every time you do it.

More from Ellen Hendriksen, Ph.D.
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More from Ellen Hendriksen, Ph.D.
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