We live in an era where it’s easier to text a stranger than to say hello to a neighbor face-to-face, and more common to receive “likes” on a social media post than an in-person compliment. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 3 in 5 Americans report being lonely and lacking companionship. The coronavirus has exacerbated the epidemic of loneliness in this country, especially for the 35.7 million Americans who live alone. In a world where we are so digitally engaged, we need real human connection more than ever.
What is loneliness?
Loneliness is what we feel when our social needs, whether at work, with family, or through friend groups, go unmet. Loneliness is a mental state — when our minds perceive isolation, loneliness settles in. We can be totally alone and not feel lonely, and we can be surrounded by people and still feel alone. Loneliness can be situational, such as after a divorce or losing a friend, or it can be ongoing.
Loneliness is a normal human emotion when temporary, but persistent feelings of isolation can be detrimental to our health. And in the last 50 years, rates of loneliness have doubled in the United States. In a survey of over 20,000 American adults, almost half of respondents reported feeling alone, left out and isolated. What’s more, one in four Americans shared that they rarely feel understood, and one in five people believe they rarely or never feel close to people. Last October, former US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy declared loneliness a “growing health epidemic.” At a time when people are more connected than ever thanks to technology and social media, rates of social isolation are rising at alarming rates.
What causes loneliness?
Sadly, the cycle of loneliness is self-perpetuating, as loneliness can be caused by the overuse of technology and can lead to the compulsive use of it as a coping mechanism. Individuals who feel an absence of and longing for authentic human connection may turn to their digital devices for comfort, but a lack of face-to-face conversation further perpetuates feelings of isolation. When we experience loneliness, the feeling can be as real and detrimental as physical pain.
What does loneliness feel like?
When we experience loneliness, we may find it more difficult to connect with the people around us, almost like there’s an invisible wall between ourselves and others. While conversation may be pleasant, it may not be deep and meaningful, leaving us wanting more out of our interpersonal relationships. Without other people who “get” us in our lives, it can be easy to feel as if we’re all alone.
When we’re lonely, we may also feel like we haven’t been properly validated by those around us. Not feeling “seen” or “heard” can further enforce any lurking feelings of loneliness we may have had. Without adequate support from a healthy social network, those feelings can exacerbate.
Is there a difference between loneliness and isolation?
When we are isolated, connecting to people is difficult because there are simply fewer people around us. Living by ourselves with limited opportunities to go out and interact with others is a main cause of social isolation. While isolation was previously experienced predominantly in elderly communities, now anyone at any age can experience isolation without the ability to easily interact with others.
Being in this physical state of isolation can cause feelings of loneliness, while feelings of loneliness can occur with or without isolation. Loneliness is an emotion, not a physical state. How we perceive our surroundings determines if we feel lonely or not; an individual who prefers to be alone may not feel lonely if they are isolated from others.
What are the effects of loneliness and isolation?
The emotional and physical impacts of loneliness can be long-lasting and detrimental to our health. Studies show that human beings who experience prolonged isolation can become unstable. In the short-term, those who feel loneliness are less likely to achieve quality sleep and thus experience challenges in reasoning and creativity. In the long-term, people who experience prolonged loneliness are at a higher risk for cardiovascular problems and even premature death. Research suggests that loneliness can even impact our genes, with emotional and physical impacts of loneliness triggering cellular changes that alter gene expression in the body.
Loneliness drastically affects productivity in the workplace, leading to less job satisfaction reported by lonely individuals and a higher rate of unemployment. And according to a recent study published in the Harvard Business Review, employees who experienced higher levels of loneliness in their personal lives also reported fewer promotions, less job satisfaction, and a greater likelihood for frequently changing jobs — with lawyers, doctors and engineers reporting the highest levels of loneliness.
How to cope with loneliness
We have genetically evolved to experience the tangible benefits of human connection, which include an increased feeling of belonging, purpose, happiness, self-worth and confidence. And studies across all mammals show that our well-being depends on our connections with others. Because of how we are wired to experience social pain and pleasure, meaningful human connection is a necessity, not a luxury.
There’s a region of the brain called the “medial prefrontal cortex” that sits between our eyes and is activated when we self-reflect. Several studies show that the same region of the brain is activated when we are influenced by the beliefs of others around us. What this means is that there is a part of our brain that enables social influence, desiring connection and harmony.
Even our memory is impacted by social networks, suggesting that motivation and retention is stronger with a relationship as the driver, rather than individual achievement. Research shows that children learn more effectively when their motivation is to teach someone else, as opposed to learning just to take a test. On so many levels, we are programmed to connect to those around us; according to UCLA professor Matthew Lieberman, “Being socially connected is our brain’s lifelong passion.”
Ways to overcome loneliness
- Talk to someone. Talk therapy, either one-or-one on Zoom or in a support group, can help navigate feelings of loneliness. A professional can also help identify if feelings of loneliness are impacting our mental health in other ways and help us navigate those scenarios.
- Practice safe social distancing to connect IRL. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and West Virginia University linked social media use to increased feelings of loneliness. Sometimes, it’s important to remember that images on a screen are just that. Getting coffee with a friend or joining a class on Zoom to meet new people can provide that social interaction we crave, sans smartphone apps.
- Be proactive. It can often feel easy to get distracted by day-to-day busyness, and you’re not alone. We all have daily responsibilities that can make it challenging to reach out to friends and family. Concerned that the phone’s not ringing? Take initiative. Sending a friend a text or scheduling a video call may be just the boost others need, too.
- Consider volunteering. Giving our time to others boosts feelings of productivity and value, not to mention, it’s a great way to make new friends with similar interests. Look out for local or national causes that could use some help and sign up for a volunteer information session.
The importance of human connection for our survival
This basic need to form, grow and sustain relationships and to belong to a group, team or family, is universal. We are social creatures who crave human interaction. Now more than ever, we all need real connection, dependable emotional support, and a feeling of belonging — whoever we are, wherever we are.