Photo: Getty Images/Arman Zhenikeyev
Lately, I've been spending a lot of time alone. This is partly because I'm a freelance writer, which means I usually work by myself. But although I'm outgoing and active, and have a good number of friends, I've found myself alone most weeknights and a good chunk of the weekends. And sometimes, that loneliness can feel overwhelming.
It made me wonder: How many other people are feeling lonely too?
A whole lot, it turns out. A 2018 Cigna study of 20,000 Americans found that most people consider themselves "lonely," based on the UCLA Loneliness Scale, a widely adopted academic measure used to gauge loneliness. Nearly half of those people reported feeling alone or left out, while more than 40 percent of said they feel as though they lack companionship, that their relationships are not meaningful, and that they're isolated from others.
Married adults are less likely to be lonely, while those who are divorced, separated, or single tend to be lonelier—which isn't all that surprising. But the survey also found that retired folks are less likely to feel lonely than students, which goes against conventional wisdom that loneliness is just an "old person's" problem.
What Is Loneliness?
First of all, let's get clear on what loneliness really means. "Feeling lonely is the sense of not feeling connected to others," says Rachel O'Neill, Ph.D., a counselor and Talkspace therapist. (Related: The Best Therapy and Mental Health Apps)
The (sort of) good news: It's completely normal. "Loneliness is pretty common, and most people will experience periods of loneliness," says O'Neill. Although it's usually temporary and gets better once you connect with supportive friends and family, some people may experience ongoing struggles to feel connected and may experience chronic feelings of loneliness, she notes.
And here's one of the strangest things about loneliness: While you can feel it when you're alone, you don't have to be alone to experience loneliness. "You can be in a room with one hundred other people and still feel lonely," explains Jodi J. De Luca, Ph.D., a psychologist at Erie Colorado Counseling. In other words, it's a subjective emotion, based on one's personal feelings and beliefs. (Related: Lady Gaga Gets Real About Loneliness In Her New Netflix Documentary)
Interestingly, loneliness is actually a defense mechanism. "Loneliness developed as an evolutionary adaptation to signal you to seek out tribes," explains Kathleen deVos, a holistic therapist in San Francisco. In our hunter-gatherer times, if you were alone, it meant you weren't protected from the elements of nature or predators, and it also meant you wouldn't be able to procreate. So, just as a feeling of pain warns you to remove your hand from a hot stovetop, a feeling of loneliness warns you to seek out community, she says.
Why Are We Lonelier Than Ever?
Sure, it's easy to point to social media as a culprit of isolated lives, but all the blame can't be on Facebook and Instagram. In fact, the Cigna study found that social media use alone is not a predictor of loneliness; people who were considered "very heavy users" of social media scored almost the same on the loneliness scale as those who never use social media.
That being said, social media probably hasn't benefited your feeling of isolation. As O'Neill points out, social media can be a double-edged sword. "In some ways, social media can help facilitate connections with others—for example, meeting friends and acquaintances who share common interests," she says.
In other cases, however, it can increase feelings of loneliness. "Over the past three decades, the reported experience of loneliness in the U.S. skyrocketed with the advent of the internet," says De Luca. And for those people who are already feeling alone, it can exacerbate feelings of loneliness, says O'Neill. You know, like when you're bored at home alone, open Instagram, are bombarded with evidence of others having fun, and think to yourself (in the words of Mindy Kaling), Is everyone hanging out without me??
As Megan Bruneau, a therapist and life coach in New York City, describes it, social media invites us to "compare and despair" whenever we log in. "We don't see the hard times on our friends' Instagrams," she explains. "We're only seeing our friends' partners and babies—not the fights or the late nights." Even though we're all aware that social media usually only depicts "highlight reels" of people's lives, it can be a lot harder to remember that when you're feeling down and alone.
However, social media is part of a bigger problem. Advancements in technology have made it easier to avoid communication and basic human contact in general, adds deVos. These days, you can get everything—coffee, groceries, dinner—delivered right to your door, or stream fitness classes into your living room, without ever coming in touch with another person. Sure, this is great in terms of accessibility and flexibility, but when it comes at the price of human connection, you have to take a step back—or rather, out of your house.
You should also make sure to not let your phone trick you into thinking you're getting your emotional needs met, says deVos. The "likes" and comments—even the conversations you have online—aren't necessarily "fake," but they're really just an illusion of connection. "You need to see people's facial movements, hear their voices, and have face-to-face talks in order to really reap the benefits of your relationships," says Bruneau.
Finally, some of people go through life changes that invite loneliness, says Bruneau. Whether it's moving to a new city, going through a breakup or divorce, or losing a loved one, we all will go through tough times when loneliness is simply part of a process of adjusting to a new normal.
How You Can Feel Less Alone
The good news: There are some steps you can take to feel more connected and less alone, even in a culture that prizes screen time over face time.
Accept your feelings of loneliness. As a reminder, it's okay—and perfectly normal—to feel lonely. Unfortunately, society pathologizes loneliness, which can lead you to feel shame about it, says Bruneau. Plus, with research studies citing that loneliness has the same impact on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and is even more dangerous than obesity, it can make you feel not only lonely and down—but stressed about your mortality on top of it. (Research even shows loneliness can make your cold symptoms feel worse.)
Instead of thinking you're weird for feeling lonely, try to get comfortable with it. "Don't judge yourself for it, and try not to resent it," says Bruneau. And know that it will pass—like other emotions in life, it's impermanent. "The best thing you can do when you're feeling lonely is change that inner voice to give yourself compassion instead of criticism." (Related: These Three Little Words Are Making You a Negative Person—and You Probably Say Them All the Time)
Be okay with being bored. Next time you feel lonely, try this experiment: Put your phone, tablet, or computer down, and spend time with yourself. "Social media provides a time filler and distraction where you used to have that time to connect to your own thoughts and feelings, tap into your creative selves, and connect with others," says Dori Gatter, Ph.D., a psychotherapist and relationship expert. "Let your mind wander, let yourself feel bored. Feeling bored is a gateway to creativity and connection to self."
Reach out. Yep, you knew this was coming. Ultimately, it's in your control to instill a sense of connection in your life. And thanks to technology's positive effects, you can easily do so. Send a Facebook message or text to someone you haven't reached out to in a while letting them know you're thinking of them, suggests Bruneau. "Or sign up for a rec team, book club, improv, or Meetup group." There are also online support groups, such as Campfire, as well as friend apps, like Bumble BFF. (Related: Joining an Online Support Group Could Help You Finally Meet Your Goals)
Curate your social media feeds. Stop following any accounts that make you feel bad about yourself or lonely. Instead, choose to only follow accounts and hashtags that offer content that's positive, inspirational, and real, says Bruneau. Look for mental health professionals who offer help and advice on their platforms, too.
Stop those negative thought cycles. "What you think, how you feel, and how you talk to yourself is directly related to your behavior and overall well-being," says De Luca. Stop and think about what you're feeling when you get lonely, and try to switch out those critical, negative thoughts for positive ones. "Positive self-statements will also assist in decreasing anxiety, depression, stress, and loneliness—ultimately improving your overall well-being," she says. (Related: How to Use Positive Self-Talk to Improve All Your Relationships)
Be of service to others. "Volunteering for a cause you feel strongly about offers a double shot of connection and meaning," says Bruneau. It's as simple as Googling "volunteer opportunities" and perusing what comes up in your area.
Talk to a professional. If you've been struggling with loneliness for quite some time, consider talking to a mental health professional, says O'Neill. "Sometimes just having a nonjudgmental, supportive presence to speak with can help decrease those symptoms of isolation." (Here's how to get started with finding the right therapist for you.)