Though our need to connect is innate, many of us frequently feel alone. Loneliness is the state of distress or discomfort that results when one perceives a gap between one’s desires for social connection and actual experiences of it.
Even some people who are surrounded by others throughout the day—or are in a long-lasting marriage—still experience a deep and pervasive loneliness. Research suggests that loneliness poses serious threats to well-being as well as long-term physical health.
Whether a person lives in isolation or not, feeling a lack of social connectedness can be painful. Loneliness can be described in different ways; a commonly used measure of loneliness, the UCLA Loneliness Scale, asks individuals about a range of feelings or deficits of connection, including how often they:
Given the potential health consequences for those who feel like they have few or no supportive social connections, widespread loneliness poses a major societal challenge. But it underscores a demand for increased outreach and connection on a personal level, too.
Loneliness is as tied to the quality of one’s relationships as it is to the number of connections one has. And it doesn’t only stem from heartache or isolation. A lack of authenticity in relationships can result in feelings of loneliness. For some, not having a coveted animal companion, or the absence of a quiet presence in the home (even if one has plenty of social contacts in the wider world), can trigger loneliness.
There’s evidence that lonely individuals have a sort of negativity bias in evaluating social interactions. Lonely people pick up on signs of potential rejection more quickly than do others, perhaps better to avoid it and protect themselves. People who feel lonely need to be aware of this bias so as to override it in seeking out companionship
A number of unfavorable outcomes have been linked to loneliness. In addition to its association with depressive symptoms and other forms of mental illness, loneliness is a risk factor for heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, and arthritis, among other diseases.
Lonely people are also twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease, research suggests. The state of chronic loneliness may trigger adverse physiological responses such as the increased production of stress hormones, hinder sleep, and result in weakened immunity.
While a person can’t die simply from feeling too lonely, findings that lonely people have higher rates of mortality and certain diseases supports the idea that, over time, chronic loneliness can play a role in increasing the risk of dying.
Loneliness researcher John Cacioppo argues that just as you can start an exercise regimen to gain strength and improve your health, you can combat loneliness through small moves that build emotional strength and resilience. He has devised techniques for people at particularly high risk for chronic loneliness, such as soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. They may be useful to anyone.
One major challenge within happiness is loneliness. The more I’ve learned about happiness, the more I’ve come to believe that loneliness is a common and important obstacle to consider.
To be happy, we need intimate bonds; we need to be able to confide, we need to feel like we belong, we need to be able to get and give support. In fact, strong relationships are key — perhaps the key — to a happy life.
Of course, being alone and being lonely aren’t the same. Loneliness feels draining, distracting, and upsetting; desired solitude feels peaceful, creative, restorative.
It seems to me that there are several types of loneliness. Of course, not everyone experiences loneliness in the situations described — for instance, not everyone wants a romantic partner. But for some people, the lack of certain kinds of relationships brings loneliness.
Once we’ve pinpointed the particular kind of loneliness we’re experiencing, it may be easier to spot ways to address it.
Here are some types I’ve identified. What have I overlooked?
1. New-situation loneliness. You’ve moved to a new city where you don’t know anyone, or you’ve started a new job, or you’ve started at a school full of unfamiliar faces. You’re lonely.
2. I’m-different loneliness. You’re in a place that’s not unfamiliar, but you feel different from other people in an important way that makes you feel isolated. Maybe your faith is really important to you, and the people around you don’t share that — or vice versa.
Maybe everyone loves doing outdoor activities, but you don’t — or vice versa. It feels hard to connect with others about the things you find important. Or maybe you’re just hit with the loneliness that hits all of us sometimes — the loneliness that’s part of the human condition.
3. No-sweetheart loneliness. Even if you have lots of family and friends, you feel lonely because you don’t have the intimate attachment of a romantic partner. Or maybe you have a partner, but you don’t feel a deep connection to that person.
4. No-animal loneliness. Many people have a deep need to connect with animals. If this describes you, you’re sustained by these relationships in a way that human relationships don’t replace. While I love my dog Barnaby, I don’t feel this myself — but many people feel like something important is missing if they don’t have a dog or cat (or less conveniently, a horse) in their lives.
5. No-time-for-me loneliness. Sometimes you’re surrounded by people who seem friendly enough, but they don’t want to make the jump from friendly to friends. Maybe they’re too busy with their own lives, or they have lots of friends already, so while you’d like a deeper connection, they don’t seem interested.
Or maybe your existing friends have entered a new phase that means they no longer have time for the things you all used to do — everyone has started working very long hours, or has started a family, so that your social scene has changed.
6. Untrustworthy-friends loneliness. Sometimes, you get in a situation where you begin to doubt whether your friends are truly well-intentioned, kind, and helpful. You’re “friends” with people but don’t quite trust them. An important element of friendship is the ability to confide and trust, so if that’s missing, you may feel lonely, even if you have fun with your friends.
7. Quiet-presence loneliness. Sometimes, you may feel lonely because you miss having someone else’s quiet presence. You may have an active social circle at work, or have plenty of friends and family, but you miss having someone to hang out with at home
— whether that would mean living with a roommate, a family member, or a sweetheart. Just someone who’s fixing a cup of coffee in the next room, or reading on the sofa.
It’s important to realize why we feel lonely, because only then can we see how we might address it. If you’re no-time-for-me lonely, for instance, maybe a solution would be to work with people on a project, where you’d be doing an endeavor together, on something you’ve all made time for.
My mother once noted — and I think it’s very true — it’s easier to make friends when you’re working on a project together.
Loneliness is a major factor in unhappiness, so it’s an important area to tackle if you’re working on making yourself happier.
Virtually everyone experiences loneliness from time to time. The feeling can be especially noticeable around the holidays, Valentine’s Day, and times of extreme stress.
The sheer number of adults in the United States who feel lonely is quite large—in a January 2020 survey of 10,000 adults by Cigna, 61% of those surveyed said they felt lonely.1 However, people don’t always talk about feelings of loneliness and don’t always know what to do with these feelings.
Other than being emotionally painful, loneliness can impact people in many ways:
If you’re experiencing loneliness, there are some things you can do about it. Below are nine strategies for how to deal with being lonely.
Whether it’s an art class, exercise class, or book club, joining a class or a club automatically exposes you to a group of people who share at least one of your interests. Check your local library or community college as well as city parks and recreation departments to see what’s available.
Volunteering for a cause you believe in can provide the same benefits as taking a class or joining a club: meeting others, being part of a group, and creating new experiences. It also brings the benefits of altruism and can help you find more meaning in your life.
In addition to decreasing loneliness, this can bring greater happiness and life satisfaction. Additionally, working with those who have less than you can help you feel a deeper sense of gratitude for what you have in your own life.
You probably already have people in your life that you could get to know better or connections with family that could be deepened. If so, why not call friends more often, go out with them more, and find other ways to enjoy your existing relationships and strengthen bonds?
If you’re struggling to find the motivation to reach out to your loved ones, it might be helpful to start slowly. Come up with just one supportive friend or family member who you could imagine reaching out to. It’s also reassuring to know that strong social support is beneficial for your mental health.
Pets, especially dogs and cats, offer so many benefits, and preventing loneliness is one of them. Rescuing a pet combines the benefits of altruism and companionship, and fights loneliness in several ways.
It can connect you with other people—walking a dog opens you up to a community of other dog-walkers, and a cute dog on a leash tends to be a people magnet. Additionally, pets provide unconditional love, which can be a great salve for loneliness.
An easy way to find connections in everyday life is by interacting in small ways with acquaintances or strangers you encounter. In fact, research shows that doing so contributes to our social and emotional well-being.7 So next time you grab a cup of coffee or see your neighbor on a walk, strike up a conversation. You might just find you feel happier afterward.
When you’re feeling lonely, be sure you’re doing what you can to take care of yourself in other ways. Self-care is always a good idea, but especially when you are feeling down. Eating nutritious food, exercising, and getting enough sleep will only make you feel better in the long run. Bonus: Take a workout class or join a running club for exercise and social interaction.
Distract yourself from those feelings of loneliness and make a date with yourself. Do you have a hobby you’ve always wanted to take up or a home improvement project that’s been lingering on your to-do list? Take some time to invest in yourself and your interests and keep your mind occupied in the process.