During the most isolating worldwide pandemic in a century, it’s time take a closer look at what it means to be lonely.
It’s an age-old dilemma that has been brought to the forefront of our attention over the last two years: How do we feel fulfilled and connected in our relationships?
As a species, humans thrive being around others, said Louise Hawkley, a principal research scientist in the Academic Research Centers, NORC, at the University of Chicago. But how much and what kind of contact each person needs to feel part of a community varies among individuals as well as over one person’s stage of life, she added.
A common notion is that the loneliest people are those who are alone, it’s important to separate the two, said Dr. Carla Perissinotto, professor of medicine and associate chief for Geriatrics Clinical Programs at the University of California, San Francisco.
Kids can be lonely because they can’t see their friends at school; people who have been marginalized can feel lonely because the community doesn’t welcome them in; and older adults can experience loneliness through retirement or death of a loved one, Perissinotto said.
With the pandemic exacerbating loneliness issues, many health professionals are concerned about the mental and physical health risks associated with the feeling – like depression, cardiovascular issues and early death, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
That’s why, experts say, it’s time to look more closely at what it means to be lonely and what we can do about it.
Does alone mean lonely?
When it comes to fighting loneliness with social contact, quality is much more important than quantity.
“One of the things that distinguishes between loneliness and isolation is that loneliness has very little to do with quantity, with how many people you interact with, how many groups you belong to,” Hawkley said. “Although there is a relationship (between them), it is not very strong.”
Those who choose to live alone or be single or just spend much of their time on their own aren’t necessarily worse off when it comes to feeling alone, she added.
The key is not looking at circumstances and assuming what feelings should be associated with it, but actually asking yourself if you are lonely, Perissinotto said. If your solitude is a choice and you have people who can support you if you need help, there is no saying you can’t live a happy life with little feeling of loneliness.
And just as solitude doesn’t equate to loneliness necessarily, interaction doesn’t mean fulfilment for everyone, Hawkley said.
“People can be around others and feel lonely anyway or they can be pretty much solitary souls and not be lonely,” she said.
Why do I feel so alone when I’m not?
If your social media feed is filled with snapshots of parties with big groups or everywhere you go you have an acquaintance you can say hello to, but you still feel the sting of loneliness, you aren’t being dramatic, Perissinotto said.
“You could have a ton of social contacts and still be incredibly lonely,” she added. “You can see someone who is very gregarious, and it seems like they are very connected, and yet they have a deep sense of loneliness.”
There are three primary types of connection, and loneliness can stem from a sense of lacking in any of them, Hawkley said.
The first is called intimate connection, when someone like a romantic partner is so close to you that part of your identity becomes intertwined with theirs, she said. Then there is relational connection, which you establish with close friends and confidants, as well as collective connection – or those interactions that make you feel part of a community, Hawkley said.
It is important to identify what kind of loss of connection the feeling is coming from, she said. And then you have to evaluate the quality of those relationships, Perissinotto said.
“I think that those are some really tangible things to ask yourself, is it valuable to me? Do I feel valued? Does it help me to feel like I have a sense of purpose and does it make me feel good?” Perissinotto said.
What can I do about it?
Identifying what kind of connection you are craving and the quality of the relationships you already have are important first steps, but where you go from there depends entirely on your specific context.
“There is no one-size-fits-all,” Perissinotto said. “For some people, having a really deep, meaningful connection with one person is really critical to those feelings of connection, but for others it could actually be contact with a stranger.”
A deep conversation with a stranger at an airport bar, the smile of acknowledgement when you order your usual from your regular coffee shop, a call with an old friend, or establishing more trust and openness with your partner are all ways to decrease feelings of loneliness, she added.
Even talking publicly or privately about loneliness is one way to fight it, Perissinotto added.
If you find yourself having a hard time putting yourself out there to make the connections you need or getting caught in patterns of thinking you won’t be received well, it might be time to seek the help of a mental health professional, Hawkley said.
Other resources are also available to help bridge the gap, said Dr. Matt Pantell, assistant professor in the department of pediatrics and core faculty member of the Center for Health and Community at the University of California, San Francisco.
“For someone who is lonely because they do not have friends or family and wants to meet new people to connect, there are many organizations that help facilitate this either directly, via social connection groups, or indirectly, through shared activities. Many of these organizations are either pandemic-safe or have adapted to become more pandemic-safe,” Pantell said.