We tend to think of loneliness as a negative feeling of being disconnected and alone. But here’s some good news: Loneliness also can be a powerful motivator—even a biological urge—to reconnect. We are social animals, after all, and the urge to have strong bonds with others is a powerful one.
You don’t have to be lonely. And neither do any of your loved ones.
Loneliness is such an epidemic in the US that social scientists have been digging deep to find ways to help people overcome it. Unfortunate fact: The prevalence of loneliness has more than doubled in the US since the 1970s. It now affects an estimated 42 million Americans over age 45.
The truth is, what helps one person leave loneliness behind may be different from what helps another. It may take trial and error to stop feeling lonely or to help someone do so. But there are now evidence-backed approaches that can help many people feel less lonely—and improve their health. To find out more, we spoke with Julianne Holt-Lunstad, PhD, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University.
Lonely in a Crowd
What is loneliness? It’s a gap—between the kind of social relations you want and what you actually have. It’s a perception of social isolation that doesn’t always have to do with how many people surround you. You can be lonely with colleagues, with friends…and in a marriage. If most of our dealings with our friends and relatives are superficial or filled with conflict, we will feel disconnected no matter how big our social network is.
Conversely, you can feel just fine even when you are totally alone—that’s the positive experience called solitude. That’s why, to transcend loneliness, you need to have people who you can trust and who understand you—people who you are working with to manage life’s challenges and truly thrive.
As Unhealthy As Obesity
Loneliness is a hot topic in social science these days because of growing scientific evidence that a lonely life is an unhealthy one. It’s truly a killer.
Sobering finding. A meta-analysis of 70 studies found that loneliness increases the risk for an early death by 26%. That makes it about as great a public health threat as obesity.
Feeling isolated increases the risk for chronic body-wide inflammation, which can lead to a host of diseases including high blood pressure, diabetes and cancer. Loneliness also is strongly linked to increased risk for cognitive decline and, for people with Alzheimer’s, a faster progression of the disease. It’s not just biology, either. Good relationships improve our satisfaction with life and enhance a sense of meaning and purpose—and that in turn makes it more likely we’ll take good care of ourselves. Close bonds also help us cope with stress and minimize the risk for depression.
The Path Toward Lonely
If we have such a strong drive to be socially connected, why are so many people becoming lonely? Research has revealed a common psychological trap that many people fall into.
People don’t start to become lonely voluntarily. Rather, there may be some kind of disruption—moving away, retiring, a death or divorce or even a new marriage—that takes you away from most or all of your social support system. Health issues, such as hearing loss or vision loss, can make it hard to hold a conversation, and injury or poor health can make it hard to get out of the house. And while we tend to associate older people with these risk factors and more isolation, studies show that loneliness powerfully affects all age groups, even college students who are literally surrounded by peers their own age.
Faced with isolation, many people feel a strong need to connect with others. Problem: Loneliness that is deep enough also makes people so desperate for connection—and makes the stakes of social interaction so high—that they become hypersensitive to people around them. Of course, social sensitivity can be a strength, making you more empathetic, which draws people to you. But social hypersensitivity can make you more likely to misinterpret offhand remarks or behavior or worry too much about how other people see you, causing you to feel anxious, act awkwardly, withdraw from social situations and/or ruminate excessively about perceived slights. That can turn into a vicious cycle—less connection, more hypersensitivity and therefore even less connection.
Solutions for Lonely
If you see yourself in some of what’s described above, consider all of the following suggestions…
• Reframe your thinking. If you find yourself feeling lonely despite being around others, your first step should be to reframe/replace negative thoughts that you have about and in social situations—He really doesn’t like me if he walked right past me without saying hello!—with nonjudgmental interpretations such as, He might have been in a rush, so not saying hello doesn’t necessarily mean he doesn’t like me. Reframing your thoughts takes practice—indeed, it’s a key part of the popular and effective talk therapy called cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT. There are many highly qualified therapists who use CBT, so if you want a professional to guide you, consider one-on-one visits or group sessions for people with social anxiety.
• Visit people face-to-face. There is robust evidence that visiting with people in person is particularly powerful—so do what’s needed to make it happen! Using social media isn’t nearly the same thing. Exception: Digital connections can deter loneliness if they help you get together with friends or find like-minded groups to join—especially if these groups meet in the “real” world.
• Lend a hand. When you hear, “It’s better to give than to receive,” whom do you think it’s better for? The answer is—the giver. Evidence shows that volunteering, with the focus on helping others rather than oneself, makes people feel less lonely. It bolsters both social connections and a sense of purpose—you’re helping people, and they’re depending on you.
• Renew bonds that already exist. The friends and family members we’re emotionally closest to have the greatest influence on our health, research shows. Make a special effort to nurture those relationships. Set a reminder on your phone to call those folks regularly, and make concrete plans to get together. If you’ve had a falling out with a friend or family member and think the relationship could be retrievable without too much stress, see what you can do to make amends.
• If you are in a relationship, be more responsive to your partner’s needs. There is a lot of loneliness within marriages—even reasonably good marriages. You may feel a distance between what you want your relationship to be and what it actually is. A love relationship is complicated, no doubt, but one thing that can make a lonely partner less lonely is for that partner to increase his/her responsiveness to the other partner. That means, for example, that you not only listen when your spouse is venting about a looming work deadline, but you also offer to lighten her load at home so she can meet it—and then follow through even if you’re both eating takeout for a week. When partners acknowledge each other’s needs and desires, both of them are less likely to feel disconnected and frustrated with their marriage.
One reason loneliness has become a virtual epidemic is that there is shame and stigma attached to this emotion. We might not hesitate to tell others we are angry, for example, but many people refuse to admit—even to themselves—that they feel disconnected. The realization that loneliness is a health risk as serious as obesity can help change that. We can create a national dialogue around it. Students can learn about the health benefits of good relationships…doctors can talk to their patients about loneliness and do risk assessments…and perhaps workplaces could institute policies that would encourage a work-life balance.
Even government policy can help. Example: We now know that untreated hearing loss puts older people at greater risk of becoming isolated and lonely. And a new federal law allowing hearing aids to be sold over the counter rather than only by prescription—making them more affordable—was passed partly to address just that problem. It’s too early to know whether this law will reduce isolation, but it aims to address one risk factor—and it’s a start.