There is a lot to understand before one can overcome loneliness and truly be happy. Everybody feels lonely from time to time. When we have no one to sit next to at launch; when we move to a new city, or when no one has time for us at the weekend. Loneliness can be overwhelming, might lead to depression, among other things you just wouldn’t think of.
In the UK, 60% of 18-34-year-olds say they often feel lonely. In the US, 46% of the entire population feels lonely regularly. We are living in the most connected time in human history and yet an unprecedented number of us feel lonely.
Being lonely and being alone are not the same thing. You can be filled with bliss by yourself and hate every second surrounded by your friends. Loneliness is a purely suggestive individual experience. If you feel lonely, you’re lonely.
A common stereotype is that loneliness only happens to people who don’t know how to talk to people, or how to behave around others. Population studies have shown that social skills make practically no difference for adults when it comes to social connections.
Loneliness can affect everybody. Money, fame, power, beauty, social skills, a great personality; nothing can protect you against loneliness because it’s part of your biology.
Loneliness is a bodily function, like hunger. Hunger makes you pay attention to your physical needs. Loneliness makes you pay attention to your social needs. Your body cares about your social needs because many of years ago it was a greater indicator of how likely you were to survive. Natural selection rewarded our ancestors for collaboration and for forming connections with each other. Our brains grew and become more and more fine-tuned to recognize what others feel and to form and sustain social bonds. Being social became part of our biology.
We were born into groups of 50 to 150 people which you usually stay with for the rest of your life. Getting enough calories, staying safe in the home, or caring for offsprings was practically impossible alone. Being together meant survival; being alone meant death. So it was crucial that you get along with others. For your ancestors, the most dangerous threat to survival was not being eaten by a lion, but not getting the social vibe of your group and being excluded.
To avoid that, your body came up with social pain. Pain of this kind is an evolutionary adaptation to rejection. The sort of early warning system to make sure you stop behavior that would isolate you. Your ancestors who experienced rejection as more painful were more likely to change their behavior when they got rejected and thus stayed in the tribe while those who did not get kicked out and most likely died. That’s why rejection hurts and even more so, why loneliness is so painful. This mechanism for keeping us connected worked great for most of our history until we began building a new world.
The loneliness epidemic we see today really only started in the late Renaissance. Western culture began to focus on the individual. Intellectuals moved from the collectivism of the middle ages while theology stressed individual responsibility.
This trend accelerated during the industrial revolution. People left fields for factories. Communities that had existed for hundreds of years began to dissolve while cities grew. As our world rapidly became modern, this trend sped up more and more. Today we move vast distances for new jobs, love, and education, and leave our social net behind. We meet fewer people in person, and we meet them less often than in the past.
In the US, the mean number of close friends dropped from 3 in 1985 to 2 in 2011. Most people stumble into chronic loneliness by accident. You reach adulthood and become busy with work, university, romance, kids, and Netflix. There’s just not enough time. The most convenient and easy thing to sacrifice is time with friends. Then you wake up one day and realize that you feel isolated; that you yearn for close relationships. But it’s hard to find close connections as an adult. And so loneliness can become chronic.
While humans feel pretty great about things like iPhones and spaceships, our bodies and minds are the same they were fifty thousand years ago. We are still biologically fine-tuned to being with each other.
Large scale studies have shown that the stress that comes from chronic loneliness is among the most unhealthy things we can experience as humans. It makes you age quicker, it makes cancer deadlier, Alzheimer’s advance faster, and your immune systems weaker. Loneliness is twice as deadly as obesity and as deadly as smoking a pack of cigarettes a day.
The most dangerous thing about loneliness is that, once it becomes chronic, it can become self-sustaining. Physical and social pain use common mechanisms in your body. Both feel like a threat and so social pain leads to immediate and defensive behavior when it’s inflicted on you.
When loneliness becomes chronic, your brains go into self-preservation mode. It starts to see danger and hostility everywhere. But that’s not all. Some studies have shown that when you’re lonely your brain is much more receptive and alert to social signals, while at the same time it gets worse at interpreting them correctly. You pay more attention to others, but you understand them less. The part of your brain that recognizes faces gets out of tune and becomes more likely to categorize neutral faces as hostile.
Loneliness makes you assume the worst about others’ intentions towards you. Because of this perceived hostile world, you can become more self-centered to protect yourself. This can make you become more cold, unfriendly, and socially awkward than you really are.
If loneliness has become a strong presence in your life, the first thing you can do is to try to recognize the vicious cycle you may be trapped in.
It usually goes like this: An initial feeling of isolation leads to feelings of tension and sadness. This makes you focus your attention selectively on negative interactions with others. It makes your thoughts about yourself and others more negative which then changes your behavior. You begin to avoid social interaction, which leads to more feelings of isolation. This cycle becomes more severe and harder to escape each time.
Loneliness makes you sit far away from others in class; not answer the phone when friends call; decline invitations until the invitations stop. Each and every one of us has a story about ourselves. And if your story becomes that people exclude you, others pick-up on that. And so the outside world can become the way you feel about it. This is often a slow creeping process that takes years and can end in depression and a mental state that prevents connections even if you yearn for them.
So you realize that you are the cause of your own feelings of loneliness.
The first thing you can do to overcome loneliness is to accept that loneliness is a totally normal feeling and nothing to be ashamed of. Literally, everybody feels lonely at some point in their life. It’s a universal human experience. You can’t overcome a feeling until it goes away magically, but you can accept that you feel it, and get rid of its cause.
You can self examine what you focus your attention on and check if you’re selectively concentrating on negative things. Was this interaction with the colleague really negative? Was it neutral, or was it really positive? What was the actual content of the interaction? What did the other person say? And did they say something bad, or did you add extra meaning to their words? Maybe the other person wasn’t really reacting negatively, but just short on time.
Are assuming the worst about others’ intentions? Do you enter a social situation and have already decided how it will go? Do you assume others don’t want you around? Are you trying to avoid being hurt, and not risking opening up? And if so, can you try to give others the benefit of the doubt? Can you just assume that they are not against you? Can you risk being open and vulnerable again?
Are you avoiding opportunities to be around others? Are you looking for excuses to decline invitations? Or are you pushing others away preemptively to protect yourself? Are you acting as if you’re getting attacked? Are you really looking for new connections or have you become complacent with your situation?
Of course, every person and situation is unique and different and just introspection alone might not be enough. If you feel unable to solve your situation by yourself, please try to reach out and get professional help. It’s not a sign of weakness, but of courage.
However we look at loneliness as a purely individual problem that needs solving to create more personal happiness, or as a public health crisis, it is something that deserves more attention.
Humans have built a world that is nothing short of amazing, yet none of the shiny things we’ve made is able to satisfy or substitute our fundamental biological needs for connection. Most animals get what they need from their physical surroundings. We get what we need from each other, and we need to build our world based on that.
Let’s try something together. Let’s reach out to someone today, regardless if you feel a little bit lonely, or if you want to make someone else’s day better.
- Maybe write a friend you haven’t spoken to in a while.
- Call a family member who’s become estranged.
- Invite a work buddy for a coffee.
- Or just go to something you’re usually afraid to go to, or lazy to go to, like a DMD event or a sports club.
Everybody is different so you know what is a good fit for you. Maybe nothing will come out of it, but that’s okay. Don’t do this with any expectations. The goal is just to open up a bit to exercise your connection muscles so they can grow stronger over time, or to help others exercise them.
My name is Richie, and I hope this article helps you understand and practically deal with loneliness. If you feel lonely often, this is the time to stand up to it. Loneliness can be very destructive and so you should take action now. Continue reading…