A former U.S. Surgeon General observed that loneliness is the most prevalent pathology of our time. Health experts call loneliness an epidemic that will escalate as the population ages. Almost half of Americans of all ages report feeling lonely or isolated. This trend carries woeful implications for our collective economy and well-being. The government has spent billions to deal with social isolation. Research ties perceived lack of meaningful relationships to a drastic increase in stroke, cardiovascular disease, mental illness, and self-destructive behaviors.

Loneliness and Isolation

Loneliness is a subjective experience compared to isolation, a more quantifiable state. The former is a feeling of distress connected to one's perception of the quantity and quality of their relationships. The roots and results of this complex emotion differ according to each person’s desires, needs, and values. A study in Public Policy & Aging Report in 2017 suggests that loneliness is more detrimental to health than obesity or smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Lonely feelings may stem from:

  • a new situation
  • a feeling of being different
  • no romantic connection
  • difficulty with trust
  • no animal companionship

Lonely feelings and isolation are not mutually dependent. Social isolation has to do with the quantity of one's social connections, frequency of interaction, and access to information and resources. Factors such as life transitions, illness, and transportation difficulties can isolate a person from family and community.  The American Association of Retired Persons or AARP estimates that over eight million American people 50 and older are socially isolated.

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Understanding Loneliness

We all experience loneliness at some point. It is often a fleeting emotion with no significant repercussions in its wake. Increasingly, however, loneliness is a persisting state of mind for millions around the world. Many people feel lonely even when they appear to be socially active. Acknowledging these feelings is a critical step toward dealing with them constructively. Discerning the difference between loneliness and isolation can help you discover what factors lie within your control. Study your emotions to determine when and why you feel alone or alienated. With this knowledge, explore ways to modify your behavior and activities to counteract the negative emotions.

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Face the Inner Critic

Lonely feelings arise from within and grow with negative thought patterns. Unchecked, these emotions can lead us to avoid social situations and close ourselves off from relationships. Our inner critic often confirms and encourages loneliness and isolation with sentiments like:

  • “Nobody truly cares about me or likes me.”
  • “I just do not feel like being around people.”
  • “I am an inconvenience.”
  • “I do not want to risk embarrassment.”
  • “I do not want to be rejected.”

To silence our inner critic, we must realize that it is not giving us an accurate perspective. It is an enemy that we can master by ignoring its insinuations. We can respond to this internal adversary by speaking to and thinking about ourselves positively. Extend the same grace to yourself that you would to an acquaintance fighting this battle.

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Connected Wirelessly but Not Socially

While our electronic devices are hard-wired for digital connectivity, we humans are designed for in-person community. However, many young and older people are spending huge amounts of time in social media instead of real-life social situations. A Nielsen survey estimated that the average adult interacts online 11 hours every day.

The internet may be giving us an illusion of connectedness. A 2017 study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that young adults who daily spend over two hours on social media are twice as lonely as those who spend 30 minutes. Instead of using the internet to soothe loneliness or boredom, try to curb screen time and find ways to share your time with others in person.

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Focus on Others

It may seem counterintuitive but focusing on the needs and feelings of others provides relief from the weight of one’s own problems and self-sabotaging inner talk. Turning your attention toward someone else helps them feel valued and supported. This is how meaningful, fulfilling relationships build and grow.

Engage in conversations with a sense of curiosity. Listen to understand and learn about the other person. This will help you cultivate a grateful attitude and activate your mind to help meet the needs of others.

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Foster Relationships

The Economic and Social Research Council states that social isolation is a catalyst for mental illness, while supportive relationships enhance mental health. According to a Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin study, social interaction with close and distant acquaintances bolsters well-being and reduces lonely feelings.

Unmet expectations and breakdowns in communication may result in a person feeling lonely within a relationship. According to responses to a 2018 Pew Research Center study, almost 30 percent of people who are unhappy with family relationships feel lonely most or all the time. This calls for self-reflection to explore loneliness triggers and honestly analyze relationships with others. While vulnerability may seem awkward, it is necessary to forge and maintain intimate connections with others.

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Combat Loneliness Face to Face

Research has found that engaging in face-to-face interactions reduces loneliness. People who depend on social networking as a replacement for verbal and in-person conversations tend to feel lonely. Research confirms that real-life interactions benefit our brains as well as our emotions. A 12-year study by the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center found that people who connected socially with others experienced 70 percent less cognitive decline than individuals with little interaction.

Initiate dialogue with family, friends, or associates in person or by phone. These methods carry more emotional weight than social media platforms. Relieving someone else’s lonely feelings can help reduce your own loneliness as well.

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Keep Learning

Scientists have discovered that we can enhance our brain’s neuroplasticity by learning new things. Taking on new subjects and skills expands life experience and creates opportunities to connect with others. Educating oneself can boost self-confidence and reduce feelings of inadequacy and loneliness. Common interests can be a powerful bond in forming a community of like-minded people who are aspiring toward similar goals.

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Reach Out to Help

A UnitedHealth survey reports that people who volunteer have a greater sense of control over and satisfaction with their lives. These individuals also feel physically and mentally healthier. The survey also suggests that volunteering may reduce stress, enhance cognitive function, increase levels of the “feel good” hormone dopamine, and promote longevity. A joint study by Harvard and the University of California, San Diego found that volunteers create a ripple effect of inspiring others to volunteer.

To make the most out of volunteering, choose opportunities that align with your core values. Consider your time availability as well as skills and talents that you can contribute. Connect with an organization with a track record of making an impact. Checking on a neighbor and assisting a young parent are simple yet powerful ways to give of yourself spontaneously and reduce occasions of feeling lonely.

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Reach Out for Help

Surveys indicate that many lonely people are ashamed or afraid to ask for help. Loneliness tends to magnify itself and eventually overwhelm us when it is at the forefront of our minds. A professional counselor or therapist can guide you through the layers of factors that contribute to these negative feelings. Keep in mind that you are not alone in feeling alone; a teacher, doctor, youth worker, spiritual leader, or helpline advocate is ready to help.

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