What comes to mind when you think of loneliness? What have you read about it in the news? In my work on social health, I’ve found that there’s often a discrepancy between what the research says and common assumptions. Let’s bust the top five myths.
Myth 1: Loneliness and social isolation are the same.
These terms are often used interchangeably, but they’re actually different. Social isolation is the objective state of being alone. In contrast, loneliness is the subjective experience of disconnection. This means that you could be around other people, yet still feel lonely.
Why might that be? Loneliness can arise from not feeling seen, understood, or validated. It can come from spending time with people who don’t share your values or interests. It can also come from too many superficial interactions and not enough deeper connections.
For instance, 47 percent of people surveyed in a national study reported that their relationships are not meaningful, 58 percent said that no one knows them well, and 61 percent felt like their interests were not shared by the people around them. That’s why it’s not the number of social ties you have, but the quality of those social ties that matters most.
This distinction is especially important during the pandemic. Although many of us may be physically isolated, we do not have to be lonely. Here are some suggestions for how to stay socially connected during this time.
Myth 2: Loneliness is always bad for you.
I’ll be the first to say that loneliness can negatively affect your health, whereas connection promotes well-being. But this isn’t always true.
Everyone feels lonely from time to time; it’s a natural human experience and our brains’ way of letting us know that we’re not getting something we need. We can think of loneliness as an invitation to check in with ourselves, reflect on our social health needs, and take action to prioritize connection. Loneliness can also be a source of creativity, inspiring artists and writers to express their experiences.
Studies have shown that loneliness becomes a problem when it’s chronic. If you feel like your relationships are not fulfilling for an extended period of time, that’s when you may be at risk for developing health issues like inflammation, depression, and heart disease. In the long term, ongoing loneliness stresses out the body and wreaks havoc on health.
Myth 3: Loneliness is an old person’s problem.
This myth may be born out of ageism, not data. It turns out that loneliness is more common among younger generations. One study in the U.S. suggested that Gen Z and Millennials include greater proportions of lonely people than Baby Boomers do.
Recently, many efforts to address widespread loneliness have focused on older adults. For instance, in March the House of Representatives passed legislation that included supportive services and recommendations related to social isolation and loneliness for older adults.
While efforts like this are to be celebrated, policymakers, innovators, and community builders also need to take action to improve social well-being for youth and young adults. As a starting point, this resource includes over 100 connection tools for people of all ages.
Myth 4: Loneliness is caused by technology.
This one’s a bit more complicated. To be sure, unhealthy tech habits like mindlessly scrolling through social feeds can make people feel lonely and miserable, and limiting use can be beneficial.
However, technology can also be a powerful connector, helping us meet new people, organize gatherings, and connect remotely. This is especially true for older adults and other people who may be isolated due to disability or geography; then tech becomes an essential tool for staying in touch and seeking social support.
One study reported that social media use is generally associated with social well-being, but emotional attachment to it is linked to adverse health. Similarly, another study indicated that smartphone use can reduce loneliness if the person is sharing with someone else, but can cause stress otherwise. The bottom line is that using technology in the right ways can help prevent or abate loneliness.
Myth 5: Loneliness means you need new friends.
If you’ve just moved to a new city or don’t feel like you have as many social ties as you want, you may benefit from making new friends. But an alternative way to improve your social health is to strengthen your existing relationships—and we can all benefit from doing this.
One approach is to be more vulnerable. Researchers have studied self-disclosure (i.e., sharing personal information and feelings) as key to developing close relationships. For example, this resource lists apps, card games, and other tools to help you skip small talk and dive deeper into conversation.
Loneliness is a nuanced experience that shows up in different ways for different reasons. Now that we've debunked some common myths, we can focus on improving our individual and collective sense of social well-being.
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