It’s estimated that 120 million Americans feel isolated or alone. To give this number context, imagine standing every lonely American on top of one another. At the top, the highest person would reach halfway to the moon. 1
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In our hyper-connected world, we have more ‘friends’ than ever. So you might assume that loneliness is declining, but unfortunately, the opposite is true. In the past 20 years, America’s problem with loneliness has grown by roughly 80%. 2
This epidemic is alarming when you consider the long-term consequences of loneliness. Researchers compare the effects of loneliness to the harm caused by high blood pressure, lack of exercise, obesity, or smoking. As a result, lonely people die younger and have higher incidents of heart disease and dementia. 3
If that wasn’t bad enough, there is also a strong correlation between loneliness and the onset of depression and anxiety disorders.
I know this story all too well. After my ex ended our eight-year relationship, I spent the better part of two years struggling with loneliness. This period was one of the most challenging phases of my life.
Thankfully, I won my battle against loneliness. Along the way, I learned some of the most valuable lessons of my life.
So in this article, I’ll share those lessons with you. With any luck, the ideas in this article will prevent loneliness from taking over your life.
Living in groups improved our ancestor’s odds of survival. That’s because doing so was safer, made it easier to reproduce, and improved their odds of obtaining food.
In contrast, isolated individuals faced great danger and often did not survive. For this reason, humans evolved to feel the pain of loneliness.
Loneliness is helpful because, like hunger, loneliness motivates behaviors that promote survival. For example, hunger motivates you to eat. While loneliness encourages you to return to the group, form a new group, or find a mate.
FMRI studies show that the area of your brain associated with physical pain is also active when you feel lonely. This connection explains why it hurts when you aren’t invited to a party or your romantic relationship ends.
What’s important to remember is that it’s perfectly normal to feel lonely from time to time. So if you feel alone, resist the urge to believe something is wrong with you, and instead, let that serve as a reminder that you’re human.
You might assume lonely people feel alone because they are isolated. But it’s not that simple. The truth is that many factors contribute to feeling lonely. Here are five.
1. Genetics. Some people are genetically predisposed to feel more lonely than others—just like some people are more sensitive to spicy foods than others. This concept explains why some are comfortable living relatively secluded lives while others are not.
Effectively, we all have an individual need for social connection. When we do not meet that need, we begin to feel lonely.
2. Environment. On top of genetics, your environment plays a significant role in whether or not you feel lonely.
For example, assume your family moved to a new state when you were 12. In that case, the combination of leaving your friends and being the ‘new kid’ will likely make you feel alone. Likewise, outliving your friends or spouse will leave you in an environment primed for loneliness.
It’s important to remember that the effects of your environment are based primarily on context. So while isolation often leads to loneliness, that’s not always the case. For instance, isolation can be beneficial and enjoyable if you’re studying, meditating, or cycling in the mountains.
3. Status. Low-status people are prone to loneliness because they’re often rejected by society. Additionally, many lack the basic social skills needed to connect with others.
In contrast, many high-status people feel lonely because they are not relatable. Furthermore, many millionaires, billionaires, and celebrities struggle to build sincere relationships because many people are only interested in what these high-status individuals can offer them.
4. The three dimensions of connectedness. In their book Loneliness, authors John Cacioppo and William Patrick describe three dimensions of connectedness that contribute to loneliness.
The first dimension, intimate connectedness, defines your closest relationships. Your spouse, best friend, or parents might fit into this dimension.
The second dimension, relational connectedness, defines a wider circle of friends and family. Your cousins, friend group, or co-workers may fit into this dimension.
The third dimension, collective connectedness, defines your broadest relationships. Your affiliation with your university, professional organizations, or favorite sports teams could fit into this dimension.
While your closest relationships tend to be the most important, failing to satisfy any of the three dimensions can lead to loneliness.
To give you an example, married people are typically less lonely. But if your spouse prevents you from connecting with your friends, it won’t be long before you feel alone.
Therefore, to avoid loneliness, you should aim to satisfy all three dimensions of connectedness.
5. The strength of your connections. What’s surprising is that you can feel lonely while surrounded by people. To understand how this is possible, consider patients in a nursing home.
Around the clock, support staff and fellow patients surround these individuals, but many still suffer from loneliness. This example reminds us that the number of relationships does not matter. Rather, it’s the quality of your relationships that matter. In other words, your relationships need substance and depth to combat loneliness.
Because most relationships in a nursing home are transactional, many patients lack the depth of connection needed to feel loved and included. As a result, they feel lonely.
Thankfully, you don’t need many meaningful relationships to make a change. In fact, one strong relationship can help you overcome many of the factors that lead to loneliness. For instance, a strong relationship with your spouse can help you endure isolation, the loss of a friend, or the challenges of starting a new career.
So if you feel alone, building deep, meaningful relationships is in your best interest.
Loneliness is not pleasant to experience, but the feeling is not inherently bad. That’s because loneliness can motivate you to do helpful things.
For example, loneliness can be helpful if it influences you to find a spouse, coordinate with colleagues, or join a professional network. But if your loneliness spirals out of control, it can interfere with your quality of life. It’s at this point that loneliness becomes a problem. Here’s how this issue might progress.
Instead of looking for the helpful message buried inside loneliness, you focus on how bad the emotion feels, which affects your attitude. As a result, people respond poorly to your behavior or avoid you altogether, making it feel like the world is against you.
If this cycle continues long enough, you can fall into chronic loneliness. Unfortunately, that’s when things get worse.
In a rather cruel twist, chronic loneliness alters the region of your brain that processes fear and anxiety. This change can skew your perception of the social world and make people’s faces appear more threatening—which ironically causes you to interact with fewer people. 4
If that wasn’t bad enough, loneliness also makes you less creative, more hostile, and less resilient to stress. As a result, you make poor decisions, damage existing relationships, and are more prone to depression.
Sadly, these problems not only affect your physical health but also promote more of what you fear the most—greater loneliness.
Before I begin this section, I want to emphasize that you cannot eliminate loneliness from your life altogether, nor would you want to. As you’ve learned, loneliness can be helpful, so it’s important to let the emotion guide you when necessary.
That said, you’ll want to prevent chronic loneliness from taking over your life. The following four ideas can help.
Some people get stuck in chronic loneliness because of irrational thinking. Thoughts like, “I’m worthless,” “I’m unlovable,” or “I’ll never solve this problem” make it nearly impossible to escape the pain of loneliness.
You’ll benefit from forming more rational and helpful thoughts if you’re guilty of this behavior. That’s because doing so can change your perspective and how you feel. The following two ideas can help.
1. Change your environment. In some cases, the people around you will bring you down. For example, maybe your parents are hyper-critical, or a particular friend frequently says hurtful things. You’ll want to change your environment if you find yourself in this position.
To do that, you might tell the hurtful person how they make you feel and how you want them to change. If that doesn’t work, you might need to eliminate the harmful person from your life altogether.
2. Test your thoughts. Rational thoughts are typically supported by fact and logic. In contrast, irrational thoughts are not. Therefore, you can test your thoughts by asking logical questions.
If you discover that no facts or logic support your original thoughts, you’ll want to adopt more rational thoughts. Here’s an example.
Assume you feel lonely because you believe you’re unlovable. Perhaps you feel that way because you’ve been unsuccessful with dating.
To challenge this thought, you might ask if you love every person you’ve dated. The answer to that question is almost certainly no. You might then consider if any of the people you’ve dated are loved by others. The answer to that question is almost certainly yes.
Therefore, it’s illogical to think you’re unlovable because the handful of people you’ve dated don’t love you. In contrast, believing you haven’t met the right person is far more logical.
Ultimately, updating your beliefs is helpful because doing so can change how you feel. In this case, it’s easy to feel lonely if you believe you’re unlovable. However, by adopting the belief that the right one is still out there, there’s a good chance you’ll feel better.
Sometimes you’ll have a rational reason to feel lonely. For instance, maybe you’ve recently moved to a new city or lost a loved one.
In these cases, changing your thoughts won’t change the reality of your situation. After all, your thoughts won’t magically make your friends appear in your new city or bring a loved one back from the dead.
If you find yourself in this position, you’ll benefit from accepting your reality. That’s because acceptance gives you the freedom to focus on behaviors that can improve your life. Here’s an example.
Assume you’re single, and as a result, you feel lonely. If you resist loneliness, that resistance will keep you focused on being alone. But, unfortunately, that focus on loneliness will promote behaviors that lead to more loneliness.
For instance, maybe you blame your ex for breaking up with you. As a result, you become bitter, which negatively impacts how you act on dates. Or perhaps you feel frustrated when you see couples in public. So you avoid going out, which decreases your odds of meeting new people.
Sadly, with resistance, you become the victim, which makes it feel like you have no control over the outcome of your life.
The alternative approach is accepting that you feel lonely so you can move forward. Acceptance is helpful because it ends the fight with your emotions. So instead of wasting time resenting your ex, you can focus on things that improve your life—like dating with a positive attitude.
Ultimately, with acceptance, your inner dialogue changes from “I’m lonely, and there’s nothing I can do about it” to “I’m lonely, and that sucks, but I have the power to change.”
Once you accept that you feel lonely, you’ll need an action plan. Your first step is to determine what dimension of connectedness you should address.
This step is primarily a personal decision. So you’ll have to do some self-reflection to determine what type of relationships are missing from your life. That said, I’ll leave you with a few pointers.
First, studies show that married people are typically less lonely than non-married individuals. 5 So, finding a significant other might be helpful if you’re single and feel alone.
If you’re married but still feel alone, that could mean one of two things. First, your relationship with your spouse needs work. Or the other two dimensions of connectedness need attention. For example, you might benefit from focusing on your friendships or joining a meaningful organization.
Finally, if circumstances introduce constraints, you’ll want to focus on your next best option. For instance, assume a soldier wants a romantic relationship, but he’s stationed overseas without women. As a result, his desire cannot be fulfilled, which makes him feel lonely. In that case, it would be in his best interest to focus on another dimension of connectedness—like his relationship with fellow soldiers.
Strong, meaningful relationships aren’t built overnight. Instead, they take time to nourish. Therefore, taking a slow and somewhat systematic approach when forming relationships can be helpful. Doing so prevents you from coming on too strong and can help you get over the fear of rejection.
Keep in mind that the following ideas are guidelines, not rigid formulas. Every relationship is unique, so you shouldn’t expect each one to develop the same way. Knowing this, here are four ideas that can help you build relationships.
1. Start small. In their book The Like Switch, authors Jack Schafer and Marvin Karlins say four factors define the depth of your relationships. Those factors are proximity, frequency, duration, and intensity.
Proximity is the physical distance between you and another person. Frequency refers to how often you see that person. Duration is the length of an individual interaction. And intensity refers to the depth of the interaction, both physically and emotionally.
In the early stages of a relationship, overdoing any of the four factors will likely do more harm than good. For example, getting too close to someone physically or emotionally before they are ready will make them uncomfortable. And overstaying your welcome or seeing someone too often will make them feel smothered.
Therefore, aim to start small in the beginning. Make simple attempts to connect with people. For example, ask your co-worker for their opinion, compliment a teammate, or ask a stranger if they like the book they are reading.
At this stage, it’s important to remember that you’re not trying to find the love of your life or your best friend in a day. Instead, you’re testing the waters to see how people respond.
If you don’t get a good response, that’s ok. Try again in a few days, or move on. But if you do get a good response, be sure to connect again in the future.
Remember, there’s no exact science to be applied here, but it will eventually make sense to increase the four factors. For instance, if you’re building a romantic relationship, you might progress from one date per week to two dates per week. Or if you’re building a friendship, conversations at work might develop into a fun Saturday night out.
2. Pick the ideal environment. In general, it’s easier to form relationships with people who have similar interests, values, or beliefs. For that reason, you can improve your odds of building relationships by carefully selecting your environment.
For example, if you love cycling, you’ll have good odds of meeting like-minded people by joining a local group ride. But if you’re a diehard Republican, it’s unlikely that you’ll find your best friend at a Democratic convention.
Additionally, the right environment can help you feel less anxious about connecting with people, especially if you fear rejection. For instance, trying to connect with people at a wild frat party is probably not a good idea if you’re shy. In contrast, you’ll likely have better luck if you try to connect with people while volunteering at a charity.
Finally, choosing how you interact with a given environment can also be beneficial. For instance, if you want to coach soccer but lack experience, starting as the head coach is a bad idea. That’s because you’re unlikely to be well-received when people recognize you’re unqualified for the job.
In this case, becoming the assistant coach is likely a better idea. That’s because people will expect less from you, and as a result, you’ll be better received when your inexperience shines through.
3. Don’t take rejection personally. People won’t always welcome your attempts to connect, and that rejection can be painful. However, you’ll want to stop rejection from affecting your attitude or preventing you from connecting with others.
To maintain a positive attitude, try not to take the rejection personally. Remember that it’s unlikely the rejection is a judgment of you. Instead, the other person is probably busy, stressed, or not currently interested in a new friendship or relationship.
Whatever their reason, don’t push the issue. Accept their no and move on. That said, consider what you can learn from the experience. For example, if the other person said they felt overwhelmed, that might indicate that you came on too quickly.
4. Expect reciprocation. You might need to initiate most of the interactions when building a new relationship. And because people typically prefer to talk about themselves, it can also be helpful to make most of the conversations about the other person early on. That said, you’ll want to ensure the relationship doesn’t become one-sided.
In a one-sided relationship, one person makes all the effort. This individual initiates every interaction and does everything on the other person’s terms. In fact, if this person stopped putting effort into the relationship, it would cease to exist.
In contrast, the best relationships are mutually beneficial. Therefore, if you’re trying to build a genuine and meaningful relationship, you should expect some level of reciprocation from the other person—like initiating contact, offering help, or asking for your opinion.
Ultimately, it might be time to look elsewhere if you’re trying to build a relationship with someone who isn’t making an effort.
Here are the key takeaways from this article.
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