Loneliness is a killer. It not only hurts emotionally, but triggers the secretion of stress hormones that damage our organs over time.1 In fact, ongoing loneliness is rated as high a risk factor for mortality as smoking.
While most people acknowledge the primal need for love and support in the young, there is much reluctance to acknowledge the need in mature adults. We receive ways to overcome the “want of intimacy”—as psychoanalyst Frieda Fromm-Reichmann defined loneliness—to no avail.
But the need for others is like the need for food. Deny it and you will suffer. Nature has hardwired us to seek connectedness, rewarding those who have it with happiness and longevity while depressing the psyches and immune systems of those who don’t.
Unfortunately, we increasingly isolate: Thirty-five percent of a representative sample of 3,012 people age 45 or older reported loneliness in a survey the AARP commissioned in 2010.2 And the problem is likely much greater than numbers suggest. Because American culture touts independence, there is shame associated with revealing the primitive need to be seen and understood. Some pretend to be well connected: “I am all booked out,” says the adolescent who posts selfies incessantly. Many adults pretend to have transcended this primitive stage, making the rest of us feel defective or unexcelled.
There are other ways to escape the painful, shameful truth of loneliness—to medicate it away, either with prescription and illegal drugs or with various forms of distractions, such as mindless consumption, porn, incessant work, or getting lost in endless entertainment.
Take the latter: Many claim to be perplexed about the recent political success of Donald Trump. Thousands of voters, it seems, not only overlook the insults on the campaign trail and the apparent impulsive behavior, they love it. The entire political spectrum has become more entertaining, with media helping, of course. Politics has become an amusing, a non-stop reality show with the highest stakes in which we get to play a key role.
The other day I listened to a radio show about how video games are going to become an all-engrossing 360-degree experience. In a very sad voice, the radio host concluded, “Who needs reality?”
“We do,” I dare to say. While it hurts to realize when we are disconnected or not connected deeply enough, it is worse to self-medicate, pretend, and give way to obsessions. Fleeing reality is not a solution, but a temporary Band-Aid over a wound that only gets deeper when left unattended. We might not feel lonely while drugged or distracted, but we still are. Our emptiness grows deeper as we lose the will to struggle and the ability to feel empathy.
The other day, I saw a mother in a café struggling to get the attention of her young son. He was playing a computer game that required him to periodically utter certain phrases, which bothered everybody else around him. Every time the mother said something, he looked annoyed, but he did not look up. Eventually, she left him to his device.
Our kids spend countless hours before screens, seemingly with no one able to stop them. In fact, many parents welcome "the cheap babysitter." And instead of warning against too much screen time, many teachers require their students to get their teaching online. The truth is, many kids get minimal time to learn the necessary communication skills to engage in meaningful connections, beginning with basic manners and awareness of others.
Ironically, the means that we have invented to distract us from our loneliness are causing us to feel lonelier than ever before.
What is there to do? While this list won’t reach the world—unless the post goes viral!—there are things you personally can do to reduce, but not flee loneliness:
- Lose your fear of others, if necessary with the help of psychotherapy.
- Learn how to connect by letting yourself be awkward as you talk directly to others about authentic experiences. Be selective with whom to be frank, but be sincere with everybody.
- Educate yourself about how connections work. Connectedness is the most important ingredient to happiness. You might benefit from reading Chapter Six of A Unified Theory of Happiness. It breaks connections down into 10 building blocks, helping us see our blind spots.
- Join a group, such as a church, or a meditation or gym class.
- Speak with God, if you are a theist. According to neuroscience, the brain does not distinguish between talking to a person or God. If you are an atheist or agnostic, pour your heart out to the ocean or existence in general.
- Get a pet. Knowing and caring for a pet while receiving its love reduces your “want of intimacy.”
- Accept that you need people. People do need people, and there is nothing neurotic or immature about this need.
- Accept that you are bound to feel lonely sometimes. Everybody does. Don’t shame yourself for it.
- Stop distracting yourself from loneliness with online activities, work, consumption, or general business. All of these things are fine in measure. But if they prevent you from seeking and relating to a partner or from other meaningful relationships, put your foot down. While feeling lonely is hard, it motivates you to wrestle with the issue.
- Practice compassion. When you feel lonely, embrace and take care of yourself. When another person feels lonely, embrace her or him and find out if you can help. Remember, we are all sitting in the same boat.
Mahatma Gandhi said, “The enemy is fear. We think it is hate; but it is fear.” Look at your loneliness; stare it in the face. It’s hard to tolerate and confront it head-on because we fear getting stuck in permanent isolation. It is not the pain of loneliness that keeps us in an endless loop of numbing and distracting ourselves, but the fear of not being able to come out of it. With or without extra psychological support, losing this fear brings awareness and with it, a more fulfilling and happier life.
© 2016 Andrea F. Polard, PsyD. All Rights Reserved.
Anderson, G. Oscar. (2010). Loneliness Among Older Adults: A National Survey of Adults 45+. AARP.
Shulevitz, Judith. (2013). The Lethality of Loneliness. The New Republic.