People go to extreme lengths to counter loneliness. They hug clothes in a closet, talk to themselves and toys, fall in love with an avatar in a game, and also avail sex work for companionship. Even Uzumaki Naruto battled with loneliness and disrupted the hidden leaf village to get some attention.
Most people experience loneliness at some point, with over 30% experiencing crippling levels of it. Like not hugging anyone for a year. Loneliness is a widely recognized health concern that increases the chances of many illnesses and unhealthy brain function. For some, like in the Hikikomori phenomenon in Japan, it became an unhealthy lifestyle choice of extreme social withdrawal and staying locked up inside a room for months.
Even in a hyper-connected world, there is a loss of touch. Standard touch-based activities like sex and hanging out are also more “lonely” because of digital alternatives. In fact, improving the feeling of touch in sex robots is an active, work-in-progress agenda in the industry. Online communication is more planned and asynchronous instead of real-time and organic, so that reduces the sense of connection even though the opportunity for connection is high.
Lockdowns and social distancing accelerated the transition between not lonely and lonely. A survey conducted in Oct 2020 revealed that 36% of Americans were always or often lonely. 61% of young adults and 51% of mothers were lonely, with 43% of young adults getting more lonely because of the pandemic. Another report suggests over 30% of Americans are frequently lonely and 40% are rarely lonely. Many other countries including Brazil, India, and Italy have over 40% of their population feeling lonely. A general tendency in loneliness is: Young adults are the loneliest, followed by middle-aged adults, and then older people. Those in individualistic societies are lonelier than those in collectivistic societies. And men are generally lonelier than women. Instances of children getting lonely are likely on the rise too.
- What is loneliness?
- How do you know if you are lonely?
- The loneliness loop: How it starts and ends
- How does loneliness spread?
- Short-term solutions to reduce loneliness (immediate actions)
- Long-term solutions to reduce loneliness (requires effort + commitment)
- How can you develop quality relationships as an adult?
What is loneliness?
Feeling lonely means wanting more human connection because you are dissatisfied with your current social and intimate life. It is feeling disconnected from healthy and reciprocal human touch and connection. Loneliness comes with many secondary feelings like a deep desire to be wanted, touched, and loved; to not feel invisible and get acknowledged by others. Touch is particularly important to combat loneliness because we are wired for emotional and physical closeness. Loneliness evolved as a necessary mental state that signals a need to repair or improve social health by changing behavior, similar to how feeling hunger signals behavior to seek food. Like pain which is a signal to avoid damage, loneliness is a signal to avoid death before mating.Loneliness makes us feel unsafe making us hypervigilant and interpret social events with bias. We then become hostile and defensively withdraw in a way that reinforces our loneliness. Social and physical warmth helps counter it. Click To Tweet
How do you know if you are lonely?
Since loneliness is a subjective feeling about your social needs going unsatisfied, you are lonely when you feel you are. However, there are a few other terms that might describe your loneliness state better:
- Social isolation: Staying removed from society or human connection with or without feeling very bad about it.
- Aloneliness: The feeling of wanting more alone time and being dissatisfied with how much extra you put in for social activities. This is the opposite of loneliness but also similar to it because there is dissatisfaction with the nature of social connections. Instead of wanting more quality in connection (loneliness), there is wanting more me-time (aloneliness).
- Social rejection: Feeling you are rejected by society and feel like a pariah (outcast, ostracized), this may occur before feeling lonely.
The loneliness loop: How it starts and ends
Humans have many needs like a need for belonging or a need to feel safe. Loneliness indicates a deficit in those needs. Similar to how thirst indicates a need for water. But like hunger turning into malnutrition, the body goes into a new state where feeling alone turns chronic, leading to feeling loneliness. We are wired to seek social connections because those connections kept us alive throughout history. In fact, connecting with humans is an instinct.
Researchers describe loneliness as a self-fulfilling prophecy “loop”. When an individual notices they are lonely, it makes them feel unsafe. Feeling unsafe leads to being hypervigilant and increases biased perception. This makes them more prone to notice social threats and negative events, and expect loneliness-confirming situations. These are negative social cognitions that continue dysfunctional thinking about relationships and society. For example, someone who hasn’t had human connection for a long time might remember moments without connection more often than moments with connection, and they may start expecting others to keep their distance and not have meaningful connections. This leads to behaviors that may put off others because of a negative outlook toward people and relationships. Lonely people may even withdraw themselves from society pre-emptively and blame others for distancing. All of this might increase feeling lonely and continue the loop. In some cases, the distancing might make them feel they have no control over their loneliness and so they feel helpless and give up on building healthy social connections. The loop generates negative emotional states like stress, negative thoughts, aggression, low self-esteem, etc., and starts a series of biological and social mechanisms that lead to poor brain and body functioning – less restorative sleep, increased blood pressure and vascular resistance, diseases, low attention span, mental health issues, daytime loss of productivity, immunity problems, etc. These lead to more problems like poor grades, low work output, difficulty taking social opportunities, etc., because most of the body and brain’s systems are compromised.
Studies show that chronic loneliness increases the likelihood of morbidity (illness) and mortality (death). Loneliness is associated with a wide range of negative effects like reduced life-satisfaction, poor coping with mental illness, increased chances of mental health issues, increased negative thoughts, and an increased risk of Alzheimer’s. A lack of social support creates practical problems – there isn’t anyone to keep dysfunctional behavior in check. For example, a lonely person might not take their health issues too seriously whereas a non-lonely person might have a partner who helps them seek medical help. Mechanisms like these increase morbidity and mortality. A lonely person might have no support during a crisis which leads to more damage – more stress at best, more accidents at worst.
One might ask – if loneliness feels so bad, why don’t people engage in loneliness-avoidance behavior all the time? Like pain-avoidance behavior? People do go to extreme measures to fight loneliness, but in many cases, they feel helpless. Consider loneliness as a powerful aversive stimulus – a feeling we want to avoid as much as possible. Research shows that continuous exposure to aversive stimuli evoke the default unlearned response of helplessness – the more prolonged negative stimuli you experience, the more passive you are likely to become. This response is not learned or conditioned by thinking “no matter what I do, I’ll feel lonely,” the body defaults to a thoughtless feeling of helplessness. A few people then learn that they can control how lonely they feel so they overcome helplessness. This is typically the time people start building their social capital.
How does loneliness spread?
A study suggests that loneliness is contagious like a virus, but occurs slowly and in clusters. Within a population, there will be groups of lonely people that extend up to 3 degrees of separation – that is, a lonely person’s friend of a friend of a friend will probably also have some degree of loneliness. Loneliness being contagious alerts many people that their group can have lower average loneliness – one person overcoming loneliness means another person might also overcome it ensuring mutual benefits. Effectively, loneliness is a non-zero-sum game – everyone wins, or everyone loses.
Short-term solutions to reduce loneliness (immediate actions)Seeking warmth of any kind can reduce loneliness because our brain equates social and physical warmth with each other. Click To Tweet
- Hug someone or something
- Have a warm bath
- Use weighted blankets and snuggly pillows
- Wear snug clothes, particularly socks
- Listen to background audio of people conversing
- Watch drama shows (or any genre you like a lot)
- Try chatbots like Replika (You’ll feel like you can talk with someone)
- Get a hot drink in a warm mug you can sip on
- Play games with strangers
- Sit in sunlight
- Listen to music that speaks to you
- Play with animals
- Immerse yourself in nature
- Visit places by yourself where other people go: music shows, museums, cafes, parks, gyms, etc.
- Opt for a massage
- Read books/stories
- Follow a fandom or vision toward a special interest that aligns with you
These are the most basic things you can do to improve your mood or trick your brain into feeling less lonely. Seeking warmth of any kind can defend against loneliness because our brain moderately equates social and physical warmth with each other. Heat, social warmth, heart-melting conversations, wholesome media, brightness, loudness, warm soup, bathing, cozying up, tea/coffee, sauna, etc., can substitute for social warmth like intimacy friendship and romance via a process called cross-modal correspondence. All kinds of “warmth” share the same neural circuitry, so they are interchangeable for the brain. Similarly, it also equates things like cold, isolation, rejection, and being unemotional. So avoid things that feel cold when you are chronically lonely. Doing things that bring out metaphorical or literal heat can help for a while.
People also show social surrogacy. They develop relationships and feel a sense of belonging via surrogates and substitutes (called parasocial relationships) – things that aren’t necessarily social directly. Relating to TV characters, YouTube/TikTok celebs, immersing into stories, reading books, playing and listening to music, and playing games can increase one’s sense of belonging, which reduces loneliness. These surrogates also let the person build their identity, which can defend against loneliness. For some, this becomes fandom for a celebrity, like being a bro, barb, or a kpop stan.
Long-term solutions to reduce loneliness (requires effort + commitment)
Most studies speak of 4 ways to reduce loneliness in the long term:
- Improve social skills: The most common area for concern is whether the lonely person has sufficient social skills. These include everything from maintaining small talk to understanding when it’s a good opportunity to engage in meaningful conversation. Micro-skills in this include educating people about cultures, norms, body language, knowing when to be vulnerable and connect, contexts, and personal grooming.
- Reduce bad social cognitions: Most research suggests that loneliness creates cognitive biases (warped ways of thinking). These biases enhance threat perception, change how we blame others for denying us social benefits, and inner talk that goes into self-blame for feeling socially inadequate or unlovable. Other biases also make things worse – like thinking a certain group of people is hostile or malicious when they aren’t. These biases lead to withdrawal from society, lack of seeing opportunities, negative interpretations, ascribing good things to luck and bad things to the self, negative judgments, etc. Reducing these biases is then central to overcoming loneliness.
- Create opportunity/widen the circle: Many people don’t get the opportunity to interact with others due to their lifestyle, niche preferences, or health. For them, creating reliable access to social contexts like shared exercise activities, music shows, instrument learning, parks, hobby tutoring, etc., can help build new connections. One can actively search for shared interest groups to find more opportunities for social success.
- Enhancing social support: People have different social needs and sometimes, having just a few people to connect to might help. These include professionals who offer social support as well as friends/family you can talk to. Enhancing social support means increasing the quality and quantity of people who you can reliably talk to and the frequency of people who reciprocate and talk to you without reaching out to them.
Basic ways to start building these are:
- Make small talk with any person when the agenda is not friendship – at a store counter, while asking for directions, cab rides, etc.
- Welcome conversations and unexpected social engagement from others.
- Share personal details that others can relate to.
- Offer help to create a foundation for conversation.
- Visit socially active places and simply greet others.
- Listen to others’ stories and take interest in them.
- Hold off judging others’ motivation to engage with you, take it for what it is.
- Attempt dating or finding mentors, study buddies, and event partners
The hardest part is building meaningful social connections and belonging with someone. That takes time and courage because chronic loneliness often makes people feel helpless. The only real solution is to take control of how you connect with people and do everything you can to build a connection.
The tricky part here is to ease into new social connections unless you want to overwhelm others making them withdraw. Some people may feel satisfied sitting in a crowd but not engaging with them. Some would feel better by doing small talk. Some would need to find a relationship. Everyone has a different threshold to feel connected with others.
How can you develop quality relationships as an adult?
This is a short summary of another article I’ve written about how adults can initiate friendships and maintain them.
9 Ways to initiate a friendship as an adult without a direct romantic interest
- Find something specific you can do with someone and do it a few times. Start slow, be welcoming, relate to them, have a fun time.
- Spend quality time and have conversations. Then connect and stay in their awareness.
- Scout people based on a common interest. If you don’t find any, then take a chance on someone at random.
- Meet people and share something more than pleasantries.
- Remember details about them from your social media connections and reference them in conversations.
- Get them excited to share and talk about something they like.
- Let them help you and appreciate it, they will feel good with you and rationalize helping you as liking you.
- Break the tension of formality so you feel comfortable and less threatened with each other. Goof around.
- Do people favors and help them to become familiar, useful, + likable.
These behaviors invoke 2 psychological phenomena that automatically help us socialize.
- The Ben Franklin effect: The Ben Franklin effect describes a tendency to believe you helped others because you liked them, even when that’s not true. So accepting friendly help can work in anyone’s favor if they want to initiate a friendship. Helping is also not threatening to them – offering help, in some cases, can emerge from pure altruism or a way to restore one’s self-esteem/self-worth and feel powerful or useful. Essentially, offering help can be a self-affirmation. So taking it can benefit both parties.
- The mere-exposure effect: The mere-exposure effect states that repeated exposure to something makes us like it more. So seeing the same people over and over again, by chance or purpose, can make us like them. Similarly, appearing in front of others repeatedly can make them like us too.
9 Reasons its difficult to make friends as an adult
- You are hard to relate to, or they are hard to relate to.
- Your actions make people uncomfortable.
- You are trying too hard and overwhelming others.
- You aren’t taking enough initiative.
- You are prioritizing the idea of being friends more than the actual things you can do with a person before becoming friends (like games, coffee, date, sports, music, books, etc.)
- You pursue unavailable people and ignore those who try to be your friends.
- You aren’t helping or doing any favors. That’s how some people give you a chance at meaningful interaction.
- You are missing opportunities that reinforce friendship – hangouts, home invites, references, etc., are good opportunities to see if a friendship sparks up.
- You aren’t giving others something exciting or important to remember you by – considering many are busy with adulting, there may not be enough cognitive capacity to idly make friends. You may want to give a strong reason to stay in their awareness so you pop in and create a sense of familiarity.
Keep these in mind while working on your social health to reduce chronic loneliness.
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Hey! Thank you for reading; hope you enjoyed the article. I run Cognition Today to paint a holistic picture of psychology. My content here is referenced and featured in NY Times, Forbes, CNET, Entrepreneur, Lifehacker, 10-15 books, academic courses, and research papers.
I’m a full-time psychology blogger, part-time Edtech and cyberpsychology consultant, guitar trainer, and also overtime impostor. I’ve studied at NIMHANS Bangalore (positive psychology), Savitribai Phule Pune University (clinical psychology), and IIM Ahmedabad (marketing psychology).
I’m based in Pune, India. Love sci-fi, horror media; Love rock, metal, synthwave, and pop music; can’t whistle; can play 2 guitars at a time.