Loneliness is a common condition affecting around one in three adults. The prevalence of loneliness has also increased over the past few decades. Compared to the 1980s, the number of people living alone in the US has increased by about one-third. When Americans were asked about the number of people that they can confide in, the number dropped from three in 1985 to two in 2004. In the UK, 21% to 31% of people report that they feel lonely some of the time, and surveys in other parts of the world report similarly high estimates.
And it’s not just adults who feel lonely. Over a tenth of kindergarteners and first graders report feeling lonely in the school environment. So many people feel lonely these days. But loneliness is a tricky condition, because it doesn’t necessarily refer to the number of people you talk to or the number of acquaintances you have.
So what exactly constitutes loneliness? Loneliness refers to the discrepancy between the number, and quality of the relationships that you desire and those you actually have. You can have only two friends, but if you get along really well with them and feel that they meet your needs, you’re not lonely. Or you can be in a crowd and feel all alone.
But loneliness is not just about how you feel. Being in this state of mind can make you behave differently, too, because you can feel as though you have less control over yourself, which could make you more likely to act aggressively towards others, be it relational/emotional or physical.
Loneliness can damage your brain and immune system. It can lead to depression and suicide, especially after the holidays and festivities are over. Loneliness can also increase your risk of dying prematurely as much as smoking can and even more so than obesity.
Sometimes people erroneously, (although well intentioned) think that the only way out of loneliness is to simply talk to a few more people. But while that can help, loneliness is less about the number of contacts that you make and more about how you see the world. When you become lonely, you start to act and see the world differently. You tend to feel more stressed in situations in which other people appear to cope better, and even though you might get sufficient sleep, you don’t feel well-rested during the day. You begin noticing the threats in your environment more readily, you expect to be rejected more often, and you become more judgmental of the people you interact with. The people that you do speak to can readily sense this, and as a result may subconsciously, or very willingly, start moving away from you. This of course, perpetuates your loneliness cycle, and in turn, creates a self-fulfilling prophecy confirming your initial feelings.
Studies over the past decade or so have shown that (non-lonely) people who hang out with lonely people are more likely to become lonely themselves. So loneliness is contagious, just as happiness is. When you hang out with happy people, you are more likely to become happy. There is also a loneliness gene that can be passed down and, while inheriting this gene doesn’t mean you will end up alone, it does affect how distressed you feel from social disconnection. If you have this gene, you are more likely to feel the pain of not having the kinds of relationships that you truly want in life.
Although loneliness affects both genders in different ways, it’s particularly bad news for men. Loneliness more often results in death for men than for women. Lonely men are also less resilient and tend to be more depressed than lonely women. This is because men are typically discouraged from expressing their emotions, and if they do they are judged harshly for it. As such, they might not even admit it to themselves that they’re feeling lonely, and tend to wait a long time before seeking help. This can have serious consequences for their mental and physical health.
As depressing as the above may sound, there is light at the end of the tunnel. So how can one escape loneliness? To overcome loneliness and improve our mental health, there are certain things we can do. Research has looked at the different ways of combating this condition, such as increasing the number of people you talk to, improving your social skills, and learning how to compliment others. But it seems the number one thing is to change your perceptions of the world around you.
It’s realizing that sometimes people aren’t able to meet up with you, not because there is something inherently wrong with you, but because of other things going on in their lives. Maybe the person that you wanted to have dinner with wasn’t able to accept your invitation because it was too short notice for them, and they had already promised someone else they would have drinks. People who aren’t lonely realize this and, as a consequence, don’t get down or start beating themselves up when someone says no to their invitations. When you don’t attribute “failures” to yourself, but rather to circumstances, you become much more resilient in life and can keep going on, and have the strength to do so. Consequently, you feel more empowered, less helpless/hopeless, and more in control.
Getting rid of loneliness is also about letting go of cynicism and your mistrust of others. So next time you meet someone new, whether at an upcoming holiday party, in a professional setting, or on a date, try to lose that protective shield around you, and really allow them in, even though you don’t know what the outcome will be. You might just surprise yourself… in a good way.
Miller, G. (2011, January 14). Social neuroscience. Why loneliness is hazardous to your health. Science, 331: 138-40. Retrieved from http://science.sciencemag.org/content/331/6014/138.full?sid=6039e2dc-1bcf-4622-ae54-1e5b2816a98d
Cacioppo, S., Grippo, A.J., London, S., Goossens, L., & Cacioppo, J.T. (2015, March). Loneliness: Clinical import and interventions. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10(2): 238–249. doi: 10.1177/1745691615570616
Masi, C.M., Chen, H., Hawkley, L.C., & Cacioppo, J.T. (2011). A meta-analysis of interventions to reduce loneliness. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 15(3). doi: 10.1177/1088868310377394
Rico-Uribe, L.A., Caballero, F.F., Martín-María, N., Cabello, M., Ayuso-Mateos , J.L., & Miret, M. (2018, January 4); Association of loneliness with all-cause mortality: A meta-analysis. PLoS One, 13(1). doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0190033
Hawkley, L.C., & Cacioppo, J.T. (2010). Loneliness matters: A theoretical and empirical review of consequences and mechanisms. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 40(2). doi: 10.1007/s12160-010-9210-8