Why You Are Feeling Lonely—and What You Can Do About It
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The Beatles’ 1966 hit Eleanor Rigby famously asked, “All the lonely people….where do they all come from?” Contemporary psychologists are discovering the answers to this important question and finding ways to reduce feelings of loneliness.
Let’s start by getting a feel for our own current state of loneliness by answering a few questions. On a scale of 1 to 4, with 1 being “Never” and 4 being “Often,” how often do you:
- Feel that you lack companionship?
- Feel left out?
- Feel isolated from others?
Your scores can range from a low of 3 (not lonely at all) to a maximum of 12 (very lonely). This scale, developed by Hughes et al. (2004) as an alternate to the longer UCLA Loneliness Scale (Russell, 1996), has a cut-off at 10 for high loneliness.
Did your score capture the way you’re feeling right now?
What Does it Mean to Be Lonely?
Most of us know what it feels like to be lonely. Loneliness hits us in the face with waves of negative emotion. Researchers studying loneliness have gathered descriptions of the experience from lonely people, who use words like “lostness,” “wrong and ugly,” “helplessness and emptiness,” “painful feelings,” and “anxiety and distress” to capture snapshots of their feelings.
It might also be helpful to consider what is NOT loneliness. First, depression and loneliness are distinct states. While it’s true that experiencing depression and loss often leads to loneliness, loneliness can exist without depression.
Loneliness is also not the same as simply being alone. This surprising observation arises from the formal definition of loneliness as a perceived discrepancy between the amount of social contact you want and the amount you actually have.
Loneliness is in your head, not some fixed reality based on the number of friends you do or do not have. Loneliness works like the thermostat in your house. You have a set point for the amount of social contact you want, just like you set a comfortable set point for the temperature in your home. Deficits from that set point stimulate a programmed set of responses, whether that is feeling lonely or turning on the furnace.
For some people, that set point is very high. These individuals might still feel lonely when they outwardly appear to be surrounded by a rich network of friends and family members. Other people seem quite content with a much smaller social circle or perhaps just a friendly pet. The important point is that loneliness happens when you want more social contact than you have.
Loneliness operates at different levels, from intimate to relational to collective.
- Intimate loneliness occurs when a person feels a lack of very close relationships, such as those we typically find with a romantic partner, family members, or intimate friends.
- Relational loneliness refers to a deficit in contacts from a somewhat larger sphere. A student might sit alone in the cafeteria at lunch or coworkers gather for an after-hours drink without you.
- Collective loneliness comes from feeling left out of the larger group, whether that is your community, culture, or even nation.
When I poll my college students, most of whom are in the emerging adulthood stage of life, they overwhelmingly choose intimate loneliness as their most frequent loneliness experience. I know Erik Erikson is a bit out of fashion these days, but his depiction of the major challenge of young adulthood as “intimacy versus isolation” certainly seems to fit my students’ responses. It is likely that intimate, relational, and collective loneliness form complex interactions not just with age, but with many other variables that psychologists are only now beginning to explore.
Who Gets Lonely?
We can quickly set aside the ageist stereotype of the sad, elderly adult sitting on a park bench feeding pigeons as our model of loneliness. The data show us a very different picture.
First, many studies and surveys indicate that young adults report more loneliness than older adults. Loneliness does rise again around the age of 80 years, primarily due to the loss of close relationships. But Gen Z (18-22-year-olds) say they’re lonelier than Millennials (23-37-year-olds) who are lonelier in turn than members of other age groups. College students consistently report more loneliness than retirees.
We can set another myth aside: the idea that social media use produces loneliness. Years ago, a group of students under my supervision conducted a study of loneliness and a variety of measures of social media use. The overwhelming conclusion is that offline and online connectivity were closely related. People who enjoyed extensive offline connections were also very connected online. The idea of the disturbed loner who compensates with high online activity just doesn’t hold up to scientific examination. Subsequent research, I’m happy to say, confirmed our findings.
Age aside, loneliness is an eminently human condition that does not follow notable boundaries. Men and women are equally likely to be lonely. Race and ethnicity do not predict loneliness.
One of the factors that does seem to contribute to a person’s vulnerability to loneliness is mindset. Carol Dweck identifies a “fixed mindset” as one that views an attribute to be unchanging. People who take a fixed mindset approach, such as “I will be lonelier because I’m old” or “I’m going to be lonely because I don’t have a romantic partner,” are in fact, more likely to report being lonely.
For counselors and clinical psychologists, this finding opens a window into possible strategies for reducing loneliness in clients. If you can help a person think differently about loneliness, that is a good starting point.
Why Do We Get Lonely?
William James, our first official American psychologist, proposed a model of functionalism that saw behavior as purposeful rather than random. If James is correct, what possible function can loneliness play? Isn’t it just something terrible that we should get rid of?
One of the clues that tells us loneliness is purposeful is the fact that genetics play a sizeable role in our experience of loneliness. Whether you need large or small numbers of connections to avoid loneliness is about 55 percent heritable. This means that over half of the variability we see in people’s desired connectivity is due to their genes.
Evolution works to sustain traits that contribute to survival and reproductive success. To understand why we might have evolved the ability to feel lonely, it is important to remember that human beings are remarkably social as a species. Individual humans are not very fearsome. We lack claws and fangs, and we’re not all that fast. What makes us formidable is our ability to cooperate to meet goals.
Single humans might not get much done, but groups of humans built the great pyramids of Egypt and put astronauts on the moon. Along the same lines, single humans are not as likely to survive. In our hunter-gatherer days, which comprise at least 90 percent of human history, an isolated human was unlikely to last very long. Obtaining food and avoiding predators would be very difficult.
It’s no wonder, then, that we experience such a strong, negative response to perceived isolation. After all, one of the very worst things we do to other human beings is to hold them in solitary confinement.
We can therefore view loneliness as an evolved response to perceived social isolation. It serves as a yellow alert warning that our social connectivity is at risk, and this can have significant implications for our survival.
What Happens When We Become Lonely?
When we perceive social isolation, we set into motion some conflicting motives. First, we are motivated to approach others and repair our connections.
Unfortunately, we are simultaneously motivated by self-preservation. John Cacioppo referred to lonely people as being “on the outside of the fish ball.” Schooling fish, like herring, form large moving balls when a predator approaches. The fish toward the center, like people within strong social networks, are safer, but the ones on the outside, like lonely people, are at risk.
The irony is that just when we need connectivity the most, self-preservation instincts make us unpleasant to be around. Lonely people do not forget their social skills—they just stop using them. They become hypersensitive to social threats, viewing every happy post by friends on social media as a personal affront. They are selfish.
Roy Baumeister elicited feelings of loneliness in college students, who subsequently donated less money to worthy causes and didn’t help other students who asked to borrow a pencil. Cognitive distortions begin to kick in. The lonely person believes that others are unlikely to help and that the odds of being betrayed are high.
Needless to say, these behaviors can be off-putting to others, who respond by moving even farther away. This confirms the worst fears of the lonely person, who acts in even more extreme self-preservation ways.
Stopping the Loneliness Spiral
Left unchecked, this spiral of self-fulfilling prophecies will work to make the person more and more lonely. The stress of continued loneliness has clear and negative effects not just on psychological well-being but also on physical health. A large meta-analysis (Holt-Lunstad et al., 2010) found that the effects of loneliness on mortality were similar to those of known health risks, including smoking and obesity.
But how do we intervene? The first step is insight. Knowing that what we’re feeling is loneliness, why it’s there, and what it does to our behavior and cognitions are key steps on the way to feeling better. As with all psychological conditions, our tendency to feel like we’re the only ones on the planet with the same problem is a considerable obstacle to recovery. Understanding that what we’re experiencing is normal and well-understood takes some of that fear away.
Next, we can audit our “strong” relationships. These are existing relationships, usually long-term ones, that we might be neglecting. Some might be beyond repair, such as romantic relationships with an ex, but others might be salvageable. Maybe in the flurry of work, kids, and laundry, you’ve failed to stay in touch with a sibling. Taking a little time out to reconnect might be just what you need.
Even if you can’t improve existing strong relationships, we can take heart from research findings that say a few interactions with “weak” connections add up to the benefit of a few strong connections. Don’t let these opportunities go by. Greet your neighbors and compliment them on their flowers while you’re out walking your dog. Ask your barista how her day is going. People in service industries who wait on the public can tell you how meaningful it is to be treated like a real human rather than a latte-making robot.
For people raised to fear “stranger danger,” it might be hard to start conversations with people you don’t know, but cultivating this social skill can bring very positive results. I am not one of those people who insist on conversing with people seated next to me on airplanes, but if someone wants to talk, I’m happy to participate. I’ve learned some very interesting things this way, including what a 30 percent chance of rain really means from a young naval officer who provides his unit with weather data.
I sat next to an elementary school principal from the Los Angeles area, an immigrant from Cuba, who chided me because my university thought training teachers as bilingual meant Spanish/English when most of her families were from the Ukraine. Then there was the Australian man who was most excited about renting a “big American truck” while taking his family on a holiday across the US. These little interactions remind us of our own humanity and our connections with others, which is just what we need to hold off loneliness.
In 2016, a UK Member of Parliament, Jo Cox, advocated for government attention to loneliness. After her tragic murder, her Commission on Loneliness became even more motivated, and the UK appointed the first Minister for Loneliness in 2018. The UK Campaign to End Loneliness presents a wide range of strategies and programs aimed at reducing loneliness.
It is hard to imagine another psychological phenomenon that cuts across so many domains as loneliness does. Whether you are focused on gender-related issues, youth suicide, bullying, substance abuse, cognitive decline, or any number of psychological challenges, loneliness and social isolation are a constant. Addressing loneliness in conjunction with other problems might boost our abilities to improve the well-being of clients.