We’ve all felt lonely before. And even if you’ve gotten past loneliness before, it can easily come back. Understanding the complex nature of loneliness will help us manage loneliness in ourselves and for others.
The Significance of Loneliness
Nobody wants to feel lonely. In fact, loneliness is a huge threat to happiness according to the longest scientific study on happiness (whereas quality relationships keep us happier and healthier).
To quote the study’s director, Robert Waldinger,
“ People who are more socially connected to family, to friends, to community, are happier; they’re physically healthier, and they live longer than people who are less well-connected. And the experience of loneliness turns out to be toxic. People who are more isolated than they want to be from others find that they are less happy, their health declines earlier in midlife, their brain functioning declines sooner, and they live shorter lives than people who are not lonely.”
He goes on to talk about the prevalence of loneliness:
“And the sad fact is that at any given time, more than one in five Americans will report that they’re lonely.”
I suspect that the loneliness figure is actually higher for two reasons. First, people who feel lonely may not report it because they think it’s admitting “weakness” to themselves. Second, people might think loneliness must be an intense feeling, when in fact there are many forms of loneliness than can vary in terms of intensity and occurrence.
Types of Loneliness
Gretchen Rubin talks about 12 different types of loneliness in episode 110 of her podcast, Happier. She’s an author who studies happiness, and I love how she tackled the concept of loneliness from so many angles because the word “loneliness” has such a broad scope, but people usually have a narrow idea of its possibilities.
Here are the 12 types of loneliness Gretchen mentioned:
- New-situation loneliness (e.g., new location, new job, etc.)
- I’m-different loneliness: being different from those around you in an important way, such as values, interest, or faith
- No-sweetheart loneliness: this one doesn’t apply to everyone, but it’s a big deal to those who feel it
- No-time-for-me loneliness: when you have a lot of friends who’ve become too busy to give you their time like before (e.g., they started a family, they’re working longer hours, etc.)
- Untrustworthy-friends loneliness: you call them your friends and you have fun together, but you doubt if you can really trust them when you need them
- Quiet-presence loneliness: when you just want someone around, not to talk with, but just to hear their footsteps and have another life presence
- No-animal loneliness: not all feel this, but some people really need the presence of an animal in their life
- No-friend-group loneliness: you might have good individual friends, but you lack a group of friends to hang out with
- I’m-alone-in-this-experience loneliness: you’re going through a tough experience that those around you can’t relate to (e.g., a divorce)
- Parent-of-young-children loneliness: new parents (especially mothers) sometimes feel really lonely despite having a new child.
- Empty-nest loneliness: parents feel lonely after their child(ren) leave the house (e.g, for college)
- Everyone-else-is-having-fun loneliness: this one is common during the holiday times. You’re alone not doing anything while others are out having a great time as people are “supposed to do” during that time.
Now the question is, what do we do to reduce loneliness in ourselves and for others?
Managing Our Own Loneliness
If you are feeling lonely, you’d think you’d tell yourself, “I need to spend time with others.” But in actuality, you’re probably going to tell yourself, “I don’t want to spend time with anybody” or “Other people are so annoying and burdensome.”
Why? Because people who report feeling lonely also report feeling more critical, negative, and judgmental, which gets in the way of wanting to spend time with others. Just being aware of this human tendency will help you escape its chains and take that first step to attend that social event or to reach out to a friend.
Another great way to tackle your loneliness is to help someone in need or to simply do something useful for someone else. Maybe that’s volunteering for a charity, researching something for a friend, or visiting parents. It’s hard to stay lonely when you’re making someone else happier.
Here are some suggestions for each type of loneliness:
- New-situation loneliness: make connections with others in your new situation
- I’m-different loneliness: find others who are similar to you in important ways (e.g., values, interests, faith)
- No-sweetheart loneliness: improve yourself to be someone who is worthy of a sweetheart you’d want to have (being in an atmosphere of growth is a great way to boost happiness)
- No-time-for-me loneliness: help out your friends who’ve become so busy, or acknowledge that relationships change and find new friends
- Untrustworthy-friends loneliness: set rules for when and how you’ll interact with those friends, and/or find new friends who are trustworthy
- Quiet-presence loneliness: adopt/get a pet, move into a shared living space
- No-animal loneliness: adopt/get a pet, visit the dog parks in the morning and evenings when other dog owners walk their dogs
- No-friend-group loneliness: join an interest group (e.g., exercise class, reading group, etc.)
- I’m-alone-in-this-experience loneliness: put in effort to find someone who’s gone through what you are going through (there’s probably lots of them out there) and then ask those people for advice
- Parent-of-young-children loneliness: ask for help from family and friends for things like babysitting, getting groceries, and chores. Find and talk to other new parents.
- Empty-nest loneliness: adopt/get a pet. join an interest group (e.g., exercise class, reading group, etc.)
- Everyone-else-is-having-fun loneliness: Just because you usually spend a holiday period alone doesn’t mean you have to. Accept invitations or ask around to see what events you can go to.
Helping Others Who Are Lonely
If you know or suspect someone else is lonely, there are several things you should and should not do to help.
Let’s start with the should’s. You should try to identify the type of loneliness they are feeling and tell them that it’s a common experience. Just knowing that what they are experience is common will already make them feel better. Then educate them on the things they can do as mentioned in the previous section. Tell them it’s normal to feel more critical, negative, and judgmental of others when one is feeling lonely. Then give them specific advice related to their type of loneliness, and give them suggestions for helping others if you can think of some.
Now for the should-not’s. Don’t judge them by saying things like “You should go out more…” or “You should read this book” as if their loneliness is their fault for not doing enough. Lonely people (and people in general) don’t want advisers, they want cheerleaders. Instead of saying what they should do, tell them how you want to hang out with them, to go see a film together, to go try join hobby group together.
Another should-not-do is to be offended if they reject your offer of help. As mentioned before, lonely people feel more critical, negative, and judgmental. If they reject you, tell them you realize that they may feel negative right now, and that’s okay. Your offer to [insert social event here] is still open should they change their mind.
It’s hard to avoid loneliness in life, but it’s certainly not as hard to manage our loneliness now that we understand it better. By reducing loneliness, we help ourselves and others live healthier and longer lives.