What Is Loneliness?
If you are asked to picture what loneliness looks like, you might picture someone sitting alone in an empty room, or someone in a restaurant answering the question “Table for one?” with a quiet “Yes”. However, although these scenarios may involve an individual being alone, that doesn’t necessarily mean the individual in question is lonely ー it just means that they’re alone. And these two things are entirely different.
Take the case of the restaurant, for instance: perhaps this person simply wanted to enjoy their favorite meal alone without being interrupted or having to share it, and they have been really looking forward to the chance to people-watch other diners while they eat. As for that person alone in the empty room? You have probably been in that situation a lot more often than you may think, like when you get home from a long day of work and just want to have a few minutes to yourself as a way to wind down and reset from the day. Perhaps it happens when you’ve been craving a little solitude, as a way to calm down your nervous system, spend some quality time with yourself, or just enjoy a spot of quiet mindfulness, after having spent too much time surrounded by other people and other stimulants. Rather than loneliness, these situations could instigate feelings of peace and tranquility, satisfaction, and inner richness.
Yet there are also instances where someone may feel lonely despite being surrounded by people. Picture this scene: You are at a party with nobody to talk to, and you cannot see a way to begin a conversation with anyone else there. Or perhaps you’re at a concert ー you had nobody to go with, but you couldn’t resist the chance to see your favorite band. As their best song comes on, you look around for someone to share the moment with, only to find nobody there, feeling a pang of sadness in your gut as you look around at the groups of friends around you. This is what loneliness can feel likeー a strange blend of social awkwardness, isolation, and disconnect from those around you ー and it can even happen when you’re in a crowded room. Because being alone doesn’t necessarily mean feeling lonely ー and feeling lonely doesn’t necessarily involve being alone.
Loneliness is a universal emotion that every individual can experience. Even people who have a lot of friends can still feel lonely sometimes. It's normal to feel it from time to time, and there is absolutely no shame in feeling lonely. However, when this feeling persists for too long, it can lead to various negative health consequences, from damaging our mental and emotional health to affecting our physical and bodily systems. Understanding it and finding strategies to deal with this feeling can not only allow you to feel more comfortable when it comes along, but it can also help you to cope with it ー and in doing so, protect you physically, mentally, and emotionally. Read on to learn about the psychology behind loneliness, the different ways we can experience it, what causes it, and how to manage it, by learning to be alone without feeling lonely.
The Psychology of Loneliness
The American Psychological Association defines loneliness as the emotional and cognitive discomfort that people can experience when they are, or perceiving themselves to be, alone. You might think that loneliness only happens to individuals who have few or no friends, but in fact, loneliness is a universal emotion that can occur to everyone ー meaning that those who have lots of friends can still feel lonely at some point in their lives. Loneliness is a very subjective feeling, and it is more linked to our mental state rather than our physical state or our relationship with the outside world. The first step to understanding it is differentiating the fine line between “being alone” and “feeling lonely”. Loneliness is a highly individual emotion that carries a sense of emptiness and detachment. It is not the physical distance from others that contributes to the emergence of this feeling, but rather, the lack of a sense of belonging, and how much ー or how little ー we feel emotionally and socially connected to others.
Different Types of Loneliness
Loneliness can come in many different forms, in various different aspects of life. It is even possible to feel more than one type of loneliness at once. Below are some commonly-experienced types:
- Social Loneliness: This occurs when an individual feels excluded and isolated from a group or a community, particularly one that they seek to belong to. For example, when someone is being bullied by their classmates, has become the target of a hurtful rumor, does not have many (or any) friends to go out with or talk to, or is suffering from gaslighting at work, they are more likely to experience this type of loneliness.
- Emotional Loneliness: This occurs when there’s an emotional disconnect between the individual and the people around them ー a feeling that “nobody understands me”. People who lack authentic and intimate relationships ー or those who are in relationships that lack intimacy ー may experience this loneliness.
- Interpersonal Loneliness: This is triggered by more intimate and significant relationships, or the loss thereof. One may experience this type of loneliness when getting over a break-up or coping with the grief and loss of a family member.
- Cultural Loneliness: This can happen when an individual lacks a sense of belonging to a particular culture. People can feel this loneliness when studying abroad in a foreign country, or after relocating to a new place, for instance.
- Intellectual Loneliness: This occurs when one does not feel intellectually or educationally connected with their peers or family members. For example, someone highly knowledgeable may feel intellectually lonely around their less-educated peers, since they are likely to have different life goals and interests.
What Causes Loneliness?
Loneliness is an evolutionary emotion that has been inherited genetically from our ancestors. Back in ancient times, humans were extremely social creatures, to a point where being or staying alone could actually be life-threatening. For example, those who were left out in the cold tended to be less likely to survive in the wild due to a lack of resources and protection from the attacks of other animals, or the elements and whims of nature. In this sense, loneliness can be thought of as a form of survival mechanism. It is believed that people who are less socially-skilled, or those who are socially awkward, are more likely to experience loneliness as they tend to have a lower awareness of social expectations.
One of the more recent psychological models for understanding loneliness is illustrated through The Seven Component Experiential Model of Loneliness. The model was first introduced in 2015 by Dr. Jacob Y. Stein and Dr. Rivka Tuval-Mashiach ー researchers at the Bar-Ilan University, a public research university in Israel ー in their study: The Social Construction of Loneliness: An Integrative Conceptualization. It suggests that loneliness occurs when there is a deficient relational need or needs between the experiencing self ー the person itself ー and the other(s) ー people that the person feels either related to or isolated from. This deficient relational need refers to the unmet needs from a relationship, that typically includes three elements:
- Sense of Discrepancy: This refers to the failure to have one’s needs fulfilled from the relationship (also known as a "missing gap" between the experiencing self and others), which contributes to psychological pain.
- Sense of Isolation: This is when an individual lacks a sense of belonging to others that may not necessarily occur physically, but can also happen psychologically. This feeling of isolation can also lead to psychological pain.
- Psychological Pain: Also known as “social pain,” this is the feeling that results from a sense of discrepancy and isolation. This involves a range of negative emotions, from feeling unloved and unaccepted to feeling unworthy and devalued.
Simply put, Dr. Stein and Dr. Tuval-Mashiach's model centers around the idea that loneliness happens when there is a deficient relational need (which is any unmet needs) from the relationship between the self and the others ー and that the psychological pain caused by this is something that can eventually lead to the onset of loneliness. While this model explains how loneliness tends to be constructed through a social perspective, it is important to note that The Seven Component Experiential Model of Loneliness is just one psychological model. There are many more theories attempting to understand and elucidate loneliness, and there is no singular way to view this unique and considerably subjective emotion.
What are the Health Risks of Loneliness?
Spending time with yourself might be great for self-reflection ー and it can also help to restore your energy, especially if you’re an introvert ー but as the saying goes, too much of anything can be a bad thing, and extreme or chronic loneliness can damage our health. Not only can it affect our social well-being and communication skills, it can also lead to a level of indirectly-developed social awkwardness that creates obstacles which stand in the way of building and developing healthy relationships with others.
Numerous studies have found that chronic loneliness can affect our mental and emotional health, and the impact can increase one’s chances of developing depression, social anxiety , or heightened stress levels. Some research has also suggested that loneliness can potentially damage our bodily systems, leading to more rapid aging, a weaker immune system, cognitive impairment (through poorer memory or decision-making skills), and difficulty falling asleep through issues such as insomnia.
Dr. Janne Vanhalst, Dr. Brandon E. Gibb, and Dr. Mitchell J. Prinstein ー a group of psychology researchers ー conducted some experiments that found loneliness may even enhance one’s sensitivity toward negative facial expressions. For instance, a lonely individual may be more sensitive and focused when looking at faces that portray negative emotions such as sadness and fear. Their findings give rise to the idea that loneliness may make an individual more likely to pay attention to others’ negative emotions ー and in doing so, this can trigger mistrust, leading to more challenges to achieving better social relationships ー such as friendships and romantic connections ー that are vital for our overall state of well-being.
How Do We Cope With Loneliness?
In the same way that the feeling of hunger drives us to meet some of our bodily needs, loneliness is a natural emotion that can help push us to fulfill some of our social needs. However, when it becomes too extreme or persists for too long, it can affect our ability to function normally on a daily basis, or even develop into serious health issues. Dealing with it can be challenging, especially given how the nature of loneliness makes it harder to reach out to a support system ー which is coincidentally one of the most important factors in overcoming some of the conditions it can lead to, such as depression. It can be a tricky challenge to face, without a doubt ー but there are ways to cope with it, whether that involves delving into our own feelings to improve upon the way we interact with the world, or seeking external help. If you have a tendency to suffer from loneliness (or even a bit of casual FOMO!) and are hoping to tackle or manage these feelings more proactively, here are a few ways to start:
Change Your Perspective
It can be easy to fall into a negative emotional spiral when loneliness knocks on your door. But sometimes, when you cannot change a situation externally, changing it internally by flipping your perspective might just do the trick. When you are feeling lonely, rather than seeing it as a situation where you are missing out on something, try to see it as an opportunity to take advantage of quality time spent with yourself. In fact, why not take it one step further and do this intentionally? Consider taking yourself out to the cinema to watch a movie alone, or head to a restaurant knowing you’re choosing the option of a “table for one”. If this feels too intimidating to begin with at first, build up your courage by starting small: perhaps you can head to a film showing that’s at a less-popular time or at a less-busy cinema, or find a quiet table in the back corner of a cafe with smaller tables in it in the first place. After all, in a cinema, you’re there to watch a film not to chat anyway, and who says you can’t head to a cafe to sit there alone reading a book or just watching the world go by? You may even see some other lone wolves there too. Take it one step at a time, and before you know it, you may soon start savoring or even craving more of these opportunities. If you’re worried about how other people may look at you, consider this: perhaps instead of seeing you as a “Billy no-mates” as you fear, they are actually admiring you as someone who has the courage and self-confidence to enjoy a solo venture. Think of it like taking yourself on a date with yourself. As your insecurities about being alone start to fade, try adopting a mindset that lets you think of these times as precious “me-time”.
Quality over Quantity
Having many friends might be fun, and it may even lead to plenty more invitations for social interactions and get-togethers. But are these people actually your friends, or are they more like acquaintances? If you barely know any of them, or there isn’t any real intimacy between you and these many so-called friends, it may be time to focus on cultivating more healthy and meaningful relationships in your life. As a famous quote by the award-winning author Kim Culbertson goes: “Being surrounded by the wrong people is the loneliest thing in the world”. Connecting with people you don’t feel belong to can in fact, make you feel lonelier. Having just a couple of genuine friends who are able to fulfill your emotional needs, are willing to be there to support you, and accept you for who you truly are, over a plethora of faux pals (or worse, toxic friendships), is a wiser way to spend your precious time.
Seek Professional Help
Although loneliness is a natural, universally-felt emotion, it does exist on a spectrum, and letting it escalate 一 and then leaving those feelings to fester 一 can take a major toll on us. If you feel like these feelings have become too intense, unmanageable, and chronic, don't hesitate to seek help from professionals such as a qualified counselor or therapists. Many of us struggle with loneliness, and it is perfectly normal to seek advice from a professional. After all, when we need help with our physical health, we hire fitness trainers and coaches, and when we need help with our eating habits, we hire nutritionists or dieticians. So why not do the same for our mental and emotional health? Loneliness is an emotion that can undeniably affect our well-being, and if you feel like it is starting to get out of hand, there is no shame in reaching out for support. In fact, it may wind up being just what the doctor ordered.
All of the content on our website is thoroughly researched to ensure that the information shared is evidence-based. For more information, please visit the academic journals and other resources that influenced this article: Loneliness - APA Dictionary of Psychology; Loneliness: Causes and Health Consequences; Evolutionary Mechanisms for Loneliness; Indirect Effects of Social Skills on Health Through Stress and Loneliness; Jacob Y. Stein, PhD; Rivka Tuval-Mashiach, PhD.; The Social Construction of Loneliness: An Integrative Conceptualization; A Systematic Review on Technology-Supported Interventions to Improve Old-Age Social Wellbeing: Loneliness, Social Isolation, and Connectedness; How Solitude and Isolation Can Affect Your Social Skills; Loneliness Over Time: The Crucial Role of Social Anxiety; Loneliness Can Speed Aging; Loneliness May Weaken the Immune System — Here’s How to Feel Less Lonely During Social Isolation; Dementia and Loneliness: An Australian Perspective; The Lonelier, the More Conservative? A Research About Loneliness and Risky Decision-Making; Investigating Insomnia as a Cross-Sectional and Longitudinal Predictor of Loneliness: Findings From Six Samples; Lonely Adolescents Exhibit Heightened Sensitivity for Facial Cues of Emotion; Kim Culbertson.
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