I still remember the loneliest time of my life. I had just moved to Knoxville, TN, to live with a couple of friends who were still in college. And though I expected some glorious continuation of my college days, the reality was rather different.
With both of my roommates at school or work for most of the day, I spent a lot of time isolated and alone. We lived in a faceless apartment complex in the northern suburbs of Knoxville, making it impossible to go anywhere without a car. And, being new in the city, I didn’t have very many friends there.
Looking back, I realize that much of my loneliness came from our living situation. But beyond that, the experience has left me curious about loneliness more generally. What causes loneliness? How is it different from merely being alone? And, more to the point, what can you do to feel less lonely?
These are the questions I’ll address in this article. Mainly, I’ll draw on the excellent book Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection by John T. Cacioppo and William Patrick. This book summarizes Cacioppo’s years of research into the subject of loneliness and provides practical advice for becoming less lonely in everyday life.
Given that it shares the same root word as “alone,” it’s easy to assume loneliness is just the absence of contact with other people.
If you look at your experience, though, you’ll realize it’s not that simple. Whether you’re going for a run, reading a book, or battling a final boss, it’s possible to feel quite content spending long periods alone.
On the other hand, it’s equally possible to feel crushing loneliness when surrounded by dozens or hundreds of people. Just think back to middle school or high school, and you can probably recall such a moment.
As Cacioppo explains, loneliness is not merely a lack of human contact, but rather a lack of meaningful connection with other humans (Loneliness, 17). It isn’t about the quantity of relationships, but rather the quality. This is why it’s possible to feel lonely even when you’re in a romantic relationship or have a large group of acquaintances.
But what causes this feeling, at a more fundamental biological level? Why did we evolve to feel lonely, when it seems to be a source of useless pain? As you’ll see in the next section, loneliness serves an important purpose for our survival and health.
If you’re reading this article, I don’t need to explain what loneliness feels like – you already know. But what causes this painful feeling? What purpose does it serve? As it turns out, the roots of loneliness run deep in human biology.
The Pain of Loneliness
To start, when we talk about the “pain” of loneliness, that’s more than just a metaphor. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), scientists have observed that the experience of social rejection activates the same region of the brain that “registers emotional responses to physical pain” (19).
Just as physical pain exists to get you to stop some dangerous behavior such as stepping on a tack, emotional pain (or loneliness) exists to help you avoid harmful social behavior. Being socially isolated might not be as imminently dangerous as a cut or burn, but the consequences can be just as serious over the long term.
The Dangers of Loneliness
In the hunter-gatherer bands of our prehistoric ancestors, the dangers of loneliness were acute. Being isolated from your tribe could mean death from either starvation or a vicious wild animal. It makes sense, then, that humans would evolve to feel pain in response to loneliness as a means of self-preservation (71).
This self-preservation impulse persists in our modern society. When you feel loneliness, your body is giving you “a warning to do something to alter an uncomfortable and possibly dangerous condition” (80). And this “something” you should do is to form deeper, more meaningful connections with humans.
This is easier said than done, however, since loneliness can also make it more difficult to correctly interpret social cues (36). This can lead to a vicious cycle in which our attempts to reach out to others lead to social rejection, further perpetuating the lonely feeling we’re trying to escape.
All is not lost, however. As you’ll see in the next section, there are concrete steps you can take to find more meaning in your social relationships.
While the science behind loneliness is interesting, the ultimate goal is to be “not lonely,” to become “high in social well-being” (22). Fortunately, Cacioppo’s book offers a variety of practical suggestions for increasing your social connectedness. Below, we share six of the most salient points.
1. Don’t Blame Your Social Skills
When you’re feeling lonely, it’s easy to blame it on your lack of social skills. In general, though, a lack of social skills isn’t the issue. Rather, it’s that “feeling lonely makes us less likely to employ the skills we have” (24).
I found this assertion rather surprising, as it seems that improving your social skills would be a great place to start when trying to connect with people. But Cacioppo argues that, when looking at the “broad continuum” of lonely people, the majority of people aren’t lacking in social skills (24).
Instead, loneliness is something that can happen to any of us. It doesn’t mean there’s anything weird or disordered about you – it’s an experience common to all humans. What matters, rather, is how you respond to loneliness, whether or not you use it as a catalyst to improve the depth of your connection with others.
2. Assess How Much Connection You Need
Simply telling people to “connect more with others” isn’t very helpful on its own. This is especially true because each person’s genes predispose them to require a particular level of connection with others. And this needed level of connection can vary dramatically from person to person (31).
Therefore, don’t assume that you need to be super outgoing and have lots of social interactions to feel socially satisfied. You might well thrive with a small group of close friends whom you see once a week. On the other hand, your genes might predispose you to need more frequent social connection, and that’s fine too.
The point is to recognize that “no one way of being is better than the other” (31). Rather, what matters is ensuring that the level of social connection you have matches the level that you’re predisposed to need. When those two levels are out of alignment, that’s when you’ll feel lonely.
3. Recognize the 3 Different Types of Connection
So far, we’ve been talking about “connection” with other humans in a general sense. But when looking at the makeup of your social life, it’s helpful to break things down a bit further. This way, you can more accurately assess if your need for connection is being met.
We can divide the types of social connection into three main categories (78):
- Intimate connectedness – This is connection “up close and personal,” typically with a significant other.
- Relational connectedness – This is the broader (but still close) connection you have with friends and family.
- Collective connectedness – This type of connection describes belonging to things larger than yourself, such as a club, professional organization, or even an entire nation.
In general, we need a healthy mix of the above types of connectedness to avoid feeling lonely. However, note that this isn’t universally true. It’s quite possible, for instance, to feel socially connected without being married (78). Or to be a private person who has little need for membership in a variety of groups (79).
What matters, again, is that the types and level of social connection you have match your genetic preferences.
4. Extend Yourself (Slowly and Carefully)
Once you’ve resolved to become more connected with others, what should you do first? When you’re getting started, Cacioppo recommends finding opportunities “to get small doses of the positive sensations that come from positive social interactions” (209).
Each positive interaction you have gives you further evidence that you can connect with others. This can then help you develop the confidence you need for deeper, more vulnerable forms of connection later on.
One of the lowest-risk ways to get started is through volunteering (210). Whether through tutoring children, feeding the hungry, or providing companionship to the elderly, volunteering offers the chance for small, positive social interactions that can boost your confidence. Not to mention, it’s inherently rewarding and will make you feel better about yourself overall.
5. Have No Expectations
When you start reaching out to people and attempting to connect, not every interaction will be a success. The person in front of you in the grocery check-out line may rebuff your attempt at small talk. Or the passerby you smile at on the street may stare at the ground and keep moving.
Interactions that turn out this way don’t mean you’re a failure, or that no one wants to talk to you. As Cacioppo reminds us, “A million and one factors that have absolutely nothing to do with you can influence people’s moods and reactions” (209).
So don’t use a couple of bad reactions as evidence that you can’t connect with people. Just move on and keep trying.
6. Seek Professional Help
Throughout Loneliness, Cacioppo stresses that loneliness is not a mental disorder (80, 203). At the same time, however, chronic loneliness can put you at risk for depression (192), and social anxiety can make it harder to connect with people in the first place.
Therefore, I encourage you to seek the services of a mental health professional if you’re struggling with loneliness.
They can help you determine if other mental health problems are exacerbating your loneliness. And they can help you use techniques such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to challenge the negative patterns of thought that make it hard to connect with people (207).
Remember that whatever you’re struggling with, loneliness or otherwise, you don’t have to do it alone.
I hope this article has given you a more nuanced perspective on the complexities of loneliness. But even more so, I hope you can use some of the ideas here to find the level of human connection you seek. Things won’t change overnight, but loneliness is not an inescapable fate.
For more advice on connecting with people, check out our guide to making friends in college.
Image Credits: two people touching fists