The most important thing we should know about loneliness, is that we all feel it. Like the fight or flight response, loneliness is an emotion we carry in our biology from our evolution as a species—because living within a group helped ensure our survival. Loneliness is how our body tells us to pay attention to our social and emotional connections with others. And although it’s important to make sure we have an active social life, we’ve also all felt lonely even when we’re surrounded by people.
In fact, we’ve never lived in an era like today’s. We’re living in the most connected time ever, with a multitude of ways to connect with others, from the phone, email, websites online, social media apps and messaging programs. But despite this, we’ve never felt more alone. In the UK, 60% of young people say they frequently feel lonely, and in the US, 46% of all age groups say they regularly feel lonely. Of course, the problem is not the technology itself, as social media can actually be very helpful in finding friends, especially after a move to a new place. The issue is how we make use of these tools that we have access to now. The issue today has more to do with individualism and how we’re distancing ourselves from our communities by being glued to our shiny screens. This process has been happening since we stopped needing the support of other people to survive. We’ve slowly but surely been developing a more individualistic perspective. It has its advantages, but it also takes a toll.
There’s a clear difference between being lonely and being alone. We all need our alone time: moments to enjoy our own company, to gather our thoughts, and rest and recharge our batteries. But feeling lonely doesn’t feel the same as this at all. It feels like a void, like something is hurting in our chest, like something is missing. And it is. What we’re missing is a connection with other people. We all need it—maybe some more than others, but we all do.
Loneliness can turn into a chronic condition and as a consequence, it can be very dangerous to our health. From aging faster to accelerating Alzheimer’s disease and cancer, loneliness weakens our immune system.
And in terms of the social side, the more we get used to feeling lonely, the more we may continue to isolate ourselves socially. We may feel defensive or judged when we do socialize, and as a response, we may isolate ourselves even more. This creates a vicious cycle that can be hard to break.
When we start to feel more lonely, we can stop and notice what’s happening. We may realize we’re isolating ourselves more, or we may notice that we’re feeling more excluded or ignored by our friends and social groups. Here’s some things we can do when we start to feel that loneliness process starting.
· Recognize and accept it
It’s normal to feel lonely. We all feel this way sometimes, and there’s no shame in it. Loneliness doesn’t discriminate, it happens to everyone, even that extrovert person who seems to be always surrounded by cool people—they too have moments of loneliness! Notice the loneliness and see how it makes you feel. Try not to feel aversion to the feeling and only observe it without judgment and remember you are not the only one who feels it.
· Sense of Community
Sometimes we might feel inadequate or like we don’t belong anywhere, but the reality is that this just can’t be the truth. The world has more than 7 billion people. Statistically, so many of them must share common interests with you! With technology today, you can definitely find people who share your interests. You can understand your own preferences, qualities, and difficulties, and search for the people who share these characteristics. You don’t need a thousand friends—you just need a handful of good friends who will love and cherish you for who you are.
· Create rituals and stick to them
Rituals are a common trait in every society. From very traditional ones, like going to church every Sunday, to having family lunch every weekend or having drinks with friends every Friday. It doesn’t matter what your ritual is: just having one can make a great deal of difference in the lives of the people participating. It gives us a sense of acceptance, belonging and especially love. These are things we all need and they’re very effective in diminishing our sense of loneliness.
As always, we would love to know your thoughts on this subject. Do you feel lonely frequently or just sometimes? How do you deal with it? Share your thoughts and strategies with us. Let’s start a conversation in the comments section below.