Human beings are naturally social creatures, and healthy social relationships boost our wellbeing and bring out positive aspects of those around us. This is why it can be really discouraging to feel lonely. You can often see people on social media hanging out together, going out together, and having adventures together. Meanwhile, when this happens, it’s very common to feel lonely, or afraid that you might be missing out on something. Loneliness is defined as an absence or loss of intimate attachment and feelings of emptiness or abandonment that rise from disappointment in our expectations in regards to our relationships. There are three interrelated yet distinct concepts recognized as social, emotional, and existential loneliness. We will be going through their differences and similarities as we move forward, but first, let’s get into some numbers.
Statistics have shown that loneliness is problematic across the globe, with heterogeneous prevalence according to age groups, countries, and regions. A survey performed by the American National Family Life in 2021 showed how frequently each generation feels lonely. Interestingly, the numbers added up to 39% in Gen Z, 35% in Millenials, 29% in Gen X and 17% in Baby Boomers who felt lonely for at least once per week to as frequently as every day.
Loneliness isn’t something that appears out of the blue; many different factors contribute to feelings of loneliness. Let’s have a look at a few of them.
What Can Cause Loneliness?
Loneliness is mostly attributed to a general lack of social communication. Several factors can play into this: living alone, being unmarried or not in a relationship, not having friends to turn to in a time of need, and not participating in social groups.
Another common factor is feeling unsupported by or disconnected from friends and family. Supporting each other through good times and bad is crucial to our social health. The lack of proper support can lead people to struggle with their mental and physical health due to an increasingly low sense of belonging.
In general, feeling lonely can signal:
- A lack of intimacy.
- Feeling lonely in a relationship.
- A lack of companionship.
- Feeling left out or isolated.
To be more specific, loneliness can be expressed in three different concepts:
- Social loneliness, the most researched type, expressed through dissatisfaction with the quality or number of broad relationships, feeling isolated and the lack of a sense of belonging and connectedness to others.
- Emotional loneliness, which is related to social loneliness in terms of experiencing the loss of valuable relationships. However, it is distinct in regards to the feelings of sadness, fear, anxiety, and worry that can emerge even when surrounded by people, along with a sense of abandonment, detachment or withdrawal from people and places. Positive emotions can also be experienced in this case, such as freedom and a sense of comfort in being alone.
- Existential loneliness, that is interpreted by the feeling of separation from the world and being left behind in different life events, such as aging, divorce, trauma, mental or physical illness, or death.
It should be noted that loneliness does not mean objective social isolation; instead, loneliness is how we perceive our social isolation. There are people who can live solitary lives and not feel lonely at all, whereas others might have objectively rich social lives yet still feel lonely. Therefore, loneliness is measured by the way in which a person’s social needs are met as well as the quality of a person’s social relationships. That being said, there are a multitude of reasons why people can feel lonely, and these can vary from person-to-person.
Since the 2000s, there has been a heavily increased use and dependence on social media and similar technologies. This has resulted in an increased amount of time spent online, as opposed to the previous generation who were mainly dependent on social communication in real time. Since then, everything has changed. Even dating has changed, shifting from meeting people sporadically in real life to playing a game of swiping left and right on various dating apps.
A culture of individualism has emerged among societies worldwide. Individualism culture is the phenomenon of people focusing on themselves and their own achievements rather than focusing on being together as a community and achieving goals as a group.
The Effects of Loneliness and the Benefits of a Plentiful Social Life
Here’s the thing about loneliness: Despite the fact that it is not a physical state of being but rather a subjective emotion, prolonged isolation and loneliness can lead to problems such as sleep issues, cognitive decline, heart disease, obesity, anxiousness, and depression. However, society has grown to become more understanding and empathetic, and searching for external help can provide numerous benefits for our overall health.
By addressing feelings of loneliness, you can improve your overall quality of life. Fending off feelings of loneliness and nurturing a plentiful social life has various benefits for you, such as:
- Increasing your sense of purpose and belonging.
- Boosting your overall happiness and reducing your stress.
- Improving your confidence.
- Helping you cope in times of need, for example dealing with trauma, the loss of a loved one, or a serious illness.
- Encouraging and helping you to adopt healthier habits.
How to Address Feelings of Loneliness
Feeling lonely does not have to be a permanent state of mind for anyone. Research has shown that loneliness can be combated with effective coping strategies. Accepting and reflecting on your own wants and needs, for example, can help address your feelings and allow you to recognize where you want to improve and why. It’s the first step to improving feelings of loneliness.
It has been shown as well that social support is crucial to our health as it helps give us a sense of purpose and self worth. Additionally, there are other various steps you can take to combat feelings of loneliness. For example, sitting with yourself and learning to enjoy your own company, turning to spirituality for a feeling of belonging to a higher power, and turning to a professional for assistance. It’s important to remember that there’s no shame in asking for help.
Increase Your Overall Mental Health
Adopting certain practices in your life — such as meditation, yoga, and even tai chi — can help increase your personal wellbeing and have promising benefits in alleviating loneliness. Oftentimes, you can even do these sessions in groups — taking yoga classes, for example. These settings improve both social and personal wellbeing.
Turn to Your Existing Social Network
In today’s world, it’s easy to get caught up in our personal lives. As we tunnel through our daily routine, it can become easy to overlook the other people in our lives. If you’re struggling with feelings of loneliness, take a moment to reflect on the current people in your life. Is there anyone who you haven’t reached out to in a while? Take the first steps towards reinitiating the conversation; send a message, invite them for coffee, or watch a movie together. Whatever it is, reaching out can be a great way to keep social relationships alive while reminding yourself that you’re not as lonely as you may have initially felt.
Join a Group of Like-Minded People
Another option is increasing your opportunities for social interaction. Joining groups of like-minded people can encourage growth and improvement. Taking classes — like fitness, art, or dance — can expand your circle as well. Volunteering, either in person or virtually, can also help you step out of your comfort zone and get to know new people. All of these ideas allow you to get out of your own shell and interact with other people while doing something that you enjoy!