- Loneliness has been shown to be detrimental to happiness and health and is on the rise in teens and younger adults.
- Mindset theory and research illuminate how to combat loneliness and develop new relationships and deepen existing ones.
- To develop relationships, create a growth action plan of moderately challenging steps that bring you closer to your goal.
- Identify fixed mindset thoughts, feelings, and actions that undermine you and replace them with growth mindset responses.
The ability to have authentic human connections is vital to happiness and health. Edward Diener (aka Dr. Happiness) and Martin Seligman (2002) documented that people ranking in the top 10 percent of happiness have the strongest connections with friends and families.
Moreover, loneliness may kill you. Loneliness is defined as the discomfort felt when you perceive a gap between desired social connections and experienced connections. The U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy (2020) described loneliness as a public health crisis underpinning problems such as obesity, drug addiction, depression, and suicide. Loneliness has been likened to smoking 15 cigarettes per day (Holt-Lunstad et al., 2015)
Although older adults have been shown to experience a high level of loneliness, recent studies indicate that loneliness may be an epidemic on the rise in teens and younger adults. (Lee et al., 2020).
Much has been written online about what to do if you suffer from loneliness:
- Volunteer (giving back to others has been demonstrated to decrease loneliness).
- Get involved (join a club, get active in a sport, or local government).
- Learn something new in a group setting (take a course, join others with similar hobbies).
- Reconnect with friends and family (show gratitude and deepen your relationship with them).
If you feel lonely, you may receive such advice from others. Combatting loneliness sounds simple: follow the above recommendations and live a more joyful and healthy life. But just like advice to get more exercise or eat more healthfully or stop smoking, there are many steps and many obstacles to increasing your social connectedness. Potential obstacles may be driven by economic inequalities, lack of resources, and social marginalization. Another potential obstacle is a fixed mindset about loneliness.
Mindset theory and research (Dweck, 2006) shed light on the natural and understandable emotion of loneliness. It provides a path to become more connected when you are mired in what may feel shameful – being lonely.
Mindset research has shown that people hold two views of their basic qualities: a fixed mindset or a growth mindset.
A fixed mindset is a view that your qualities are unchangeable. You have a certain amount of ability or attribute – perhaps high or perhaps low – and there is little you can do to increase it. When you pursue something important, and the going gets tough, you begin to worry that you don’t have what it takes.
When you’re trying hard to make new relationships and experience a disappointment or feel you have made little progress, you begin to worry that you’re “not enough.”
Fixed mindset asks, “Am I a social loser or winner?” “Am I acceptable or not?” “Am I interesting or not?” “Am I attractive or not?” Fixed mindset utters, “If you struggle to cultivate new relationships, it means you don’t have what it takes, so why bother?”
Fixed mindset observes others with friends and declares, “If you had the talent-making new friends and having meaningful relationships should be a piece of cake.”
When it’s not easy for you – someone appealing turns down your invitation or social media photos shout you didn’t get the party invitation – you worry that you may be a loser. You take your foot off the accelerator in taking the chances required to develop relationships lest you demonstrate your deficiency.
Paradoxically, the fixed mindset belief that you’re a winner may restrict your relationships, too. It limits you to safe relationships where others see you as a star and causes you to avoid potentially closer, enriching relationships for fear of disclosing that you’re not.
The key to pursuing what you value – genuine social relationships – is maintaining a growth mindset. It's a belief that although you start out with a certain amount of an attribute, you can increase it through effort. A growth mindset says, if you feel disconnected and lonely, stretch yourself to become more connected.
Growth mindset asks what relationships do you value? A growth mindset accepts hard work is required to develop the relationships that you hope for. As you attempt the steps to expand your social relationships, difficulty is expected. Authentic relationships take time and progress may be slow.
Frustration, anxiety, and disappointment are expected as you extend yourself to acquire new relationships and strengthen existing ones. Growth Mindset says your struggle means you are striving to make important changes and so you persist, increasing the odds of new friendship.
To combat loneliness with a growth mindset and tackle the fixed mindset trap:
- Develop a growth action plan with series of somewhat risky steps that bring you a bit closer to forging new relationships or deepening existing ones.
- Visualize the first step in your plan and put it in your calendar. For example, set up a specific time to attend that meeting of a volunteer group or invite an interesting neighbor or colleague to meet up for lunch so that you may get to know them better.
- When you experience a rejection, or when you are disheartened about the amount of effort your expending to build relationships – pause. Ask yourself, “Do I view my efforts to develop my relationships with a fixed mindset?”
- Begin the shift to a growth mindset by telling yourself, “Effort and difficulty are anticipated as I make changes that are important to me.”
- Expect frustration, anxiety, and disappointment as you attempt to make connections. These are the signals of a fixed mindset.
- Tolerate these fixed mindset feelings and take the next growth step to move closer to the relationships that you desire. These feelings are likely as you reach for connections that are significant to you. To feel them means you’re challenging yourself and tackling the very human condition of loneliness.
Diener, E., & Seligman, M. (2002). Very Happy People. Psychological Science, 13(1).
Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY: Random House.
Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T. B., Baker, M., Harris, T., & Stephenson, D. (2015). Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for mortality: A meta-analytic review. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10, 227-237.
Lee, C.M., Cadigan, J.M., Rhew, I.C. (2020). Increases in loneliness among young adults during the COVID-19 pandemic and association with increases in mental health problems. Journal of Adolescent Health. 67(5):714–717.
Murthy, V. H. (2020) Together: The healing power of human connection in a sometimes lonely world. New York, NY: Harper Wave