Understanding loneliness

In our modern societies having a ‘rich social life’ is widely seen and promoted as an essential part of a successful and happy life. At the same time there is a growing awareness that not everybody meets the social standard of having many friends and close family relations and that loneliness is a serious mental health issue that needs our attention.

An increasing number of initiatives aims to battle loneliness, ranging from an annual ‘loneliness awareness week’ in The Netherlands to a dedicated Secretary of Loneliness in the United Kingdom and from setting up informative websites with practical advice to addressing the negative effects of isolation in times of a worldwide pandemic.

Despite the large number of initiatives to raise awareness about loneliness, there is unfortunately still a lot of ignorance about what loneliness actually is. Loneliness is still in a sense a taboo subject. People who feel lonely find it difficult to openly express it. And other people are often unsure how to respond to it.

“Loneliness,” says British writer and loneliness expert Olivia Laing, “feels like such a shameful experience, so counter to the lives we are supposed to lead, that it becomes increasingly inadmissible, a taboo state whose confession seems destined to cause others to turn and flee.”

Breaking that taboo starts with a better understanding of loneliness.

What is loneliness?

First we have to get rid of the biggest misunderstanding about loneliness, which is that people equate loneliness with being alone. Loneliness is not the same as being alone, those are two different things.

Being alone simply means there are no people around you. It is an actual condition, which you can determine simply by looking around you. If there are no people around you, you are alone. If there are people around you, you are not alone.

Lonely, on the other hand, is not a fact, nor can it be determined by counting the number of people around you. Loneliness is an emotion, independent of whether you are alone or not.

You can be alone without feeling lonely (if you value this positively, it’s called solitude) and you can feel lonely while you are not alone. Being alone is something you are, lonely is something you feel.

You would think that people who are alone more often also feel more lonely, but that is not necessarily the case. According to Norwegian philosopher Lars Svendsen, there is “no correlation at all between the degree of physical isolation and the intensity of the loneliness felt.”

People who feel lonely spend as much time around other people as non-lonely people. That’s why the much-heard, and no doubt well-meant advice to “just go out and meet people” is not the solution to loneliness. Or at least not the whole solution.

“What matters,” Svendsen says, “is not the extent to which an individual is surrounded by other people, but rather how that individual experiences his relationship to others.” So it’s not about surrounding yourself with other people, but about how you connect with those people – or even better: how you experience your connections with those people.

In the words of loneliness expert Olivia Laing: “Loneliness does not necessarily require physical solitude, but rather an absence of connection, closeness, kinship: an inability, for one reason or another, to find as much intimacy as is desired.”

Loneliness is the emotional response to the desire for, and lack of meaningful connections with other people.

We humans are social beings. The need to live in community with other people is programmed into our DNA. We all need friendship and love in our lives. Meaningful relationships with other people is one of the most important contributors to a happy life.

But the fact that we are a social being and therefore need connections with others does not mean that that need is met. Meaningful and satisfying relationships are not guaranteed. Loneliness is the emotional pain you experience when those meaningful social connections are missing. An important need is not being met.

Feeling lonely doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you, is it simply means that you have, as the American social neuroscientist John Cacioppo puts it, “a normal human need for social connection, as well as a very normal adverse reaction to disconnection, real or perceived.”

So loneliness is a subjective feeling based on how you personally experience your relationships with others – not a description of the actual situation. You may experience your relationships as insufficiently satisfying, while someone else might judge them as satisfactory.

If you feel lonely, there is a mismatch between need and satisfaction, between your personal need for connection and the degree to which that need is fulfilled. And this is about quality, not quantity: A close relationship with a limited number of people is a stronger buffer against feelings of loneliness than a loose relationship with a large number of others.

“What determines our loneliness,” American psychologist Guy Winch says, “is not the quantity of our relationships but rather their subjective quality, the extent to which we perceive ourselves to be socially or emotionally isolated.” It’s about how meaningful (or meaningless) you rate your relations with other people.

How does loneliness feel?

Loneliness is the emotional response to the desire for, and lack of, meaningful connections with other people. But, you might ask, how does it actually feel? There is no clear answer to that; emotions are by definition extremely individual, so different people will experience loneliness in different ways, it won’t feel the same for everyone.

That said, ask a group of people who feel lonely to describe their emotions and chances are their replies will be more or less like this: First they will probably tell you they feel sad. Loneliness is primarily a sense of sadness.

And then they may tell you they feel detached, isolated, alienated, misunderstood, rejected, hurt, disconnected, worried, insecure, vulnerable, anxious, ashamed, ostracized, helpless, hopeless, trapped, desperate… Some may even feel angry or resentful.

What this wide range of emotions comes down to, is that people who feel lonely, feel left out. They don’t feel accepted. They don’t feel loved. They feel, like loneliness expert Olivia Laing puts it, that they are “not being admitted into the magic circles of connection and acceptance.”

What makes loneliness so painful is not being alone, but the feeling that no one cares.

The social standard of having many friends and an active social life reinforces that feeling. If you spend your evenings and weekends alone at home, you may get the impression that everyone is socializing all the time – except for you. Even though this does not match reality, it hurts because you feel you don’t belong, and having a sense of belonging is a very human need.

That’s why the idea that everybody else finds themselves surrounded by loved ones is so painful for the lonely person. I think Olivia Laing put it very well when she said that “it feels like being hungry while everyone around you is readying for a feast. It hurts.”

The world is partying and you haven’t been invited. What makes loneliness so painful is not being alone, but the feeling that no one cares.

Since loneliness is the result of an unfulfilled need, it is by definition accompanied by a desire. A desire for meaningful connections, the wish to overcome the mental distance between yourself and others.

Feeling lonely comes with a strong need for what’s lacking: acceptance, connection, companionship, intimacy, feeling heard and understood. And although all this requires the physical presence of other people, it is not enough. Because even surrounded by people, the lonely person may feel locked up and shut out.

Olivia Laing calls this “internal isolation.” I think she described it very well when she said: “I was often feeling like I was walled up in glass, that I could see out all too clearly but lacked the ability to free myself or to make the kind of contact I desired.”

Temporary vs chronic loneliness

Loneliness can be temporary or chronic. Temporary loneliness may happen when you are going through a transitional phase. Your circumstances change and these changes fuel temporary feelings of loneliness. For instance, this may occur in case of:

  • relationship breakup
  • moving to a new city or country
  • loss of a loved one
  • changing school or job

Many people feel lonely because of changes like this from time to time. According to psychologist Guy Winch, 40 percent of people experience temporary feelings of loneliness at some point in their lives. And in circumstances like mentioned above, it’s perfectly normal to feel lonely for a while. In fact it would be more worrying if you didn’t.

Now, temporarily experiencing feelings of loneliness is unpleasant, but you will get over it. The good news is that this type of loneliness goes away. You’ll get to meet people in your new city or country, meet a new lover or get acquainted with your new colleagues.

Chronic loneliness on the other hand is the type that sticks, sometimes for years, sometimes lifelong. If you feel lonely often, or almost always, then you suffer from chronic loneliness. And that’s a different story.

Chronic loneliness affects your identity, affects your entire life and can even become an existential problem.

Research shows that about twenty percent of people “feel sufficiently isolated for it to be a major source of unhappiness in their lives.” An estimated half of them (one in ten people) feel seriously lonely permanently.

That type of loneliness, says loneliness expert Olivia Laing, “cuts right to the heart of what we value and what we need.” Chronic loneliness affects your identity, affects your entire life and can even become an existential problem.

The consequences of loneliness

Research shows that about twenty percent of people “feel sufficiently isolated for it to be a major source of unhappiness in their lives.” An estimated half of them (one in ten people) feel seriously lonely permanently. Chronic loneliness affects your identity, affects your entire life and can even become an existential problem.

That cannot be without consequences and it doesn’t: Time and again studies show that sustained loneliness has a major impact on your mental and physical health.

People who feel lonely often or always experience life as less satisfying, valuable and meaningful. Various studies have also shown that loneliness affects blood pressure and the immune system, causes an increase of stress hormones and increases the risk of dementia.

People struggling with loneliness experience lower sleep quality. This makes them feel more tired during the day, which in turn affects their mental abilities, such as concentration and decision making.

Loneliness also correlates with higher alcohol consumption and a less healthy lifestyle in general. Perhaps even more worrying, there is a strong correlation between loneliness and depression and suicide.

The vicious circle of loneliness

If you have (had) to deal with (long-term) feelings of loneliness, then you know that it is very difficult solve that situation. The negative tension between need and satisfaction, the feeling of being “walled up in glass” as loneliness expert Olivia Laing described it, can feel very oppressive.

Why is it so difficult to deal with feelings of loneliness? According to psychologist Guy Winch this is because “once loneliness sets in, it triggers a set of psychological reactions that can lead us to inadvertently perpetuate our situation and even to make it worse.”

Yes, he’s basically saying that your own behavior is bringing about the very thing you seek to avoid. And according to Olivia Laing, in the worst case scenario it takes you into “a vicious circle” in which you become “increasingly isolated, suspicious and withdrawn.” Getting out of that vicious circle is not easy.

There are (at least) three pitfalls that perpetuate the situation. The first is that you develop a (too) high standard that the connections you desire must meet.

“The chronically lonely have much higher expectations of interpersonal relationships than do not-lonely people,” Lars Svendsen notes. “They entertain higher demands, both for themselves and for others, in social interactions.”

As a result, there is a risk that you will not see meaningful connections – or opportunities for them – or that you will reject them because they do not meet your expectations.

“The chronically lonely have much higher expectations of interpersonal relationships than do not-lonely people.”

Lars Svendsen

The second pitfall is that you develop negative expectations, which make you look too much for signals that indicate that a contact is not meeting the requirements.

“When we are lonely, the social expectations and snap judgments we create are generally pessimistic,” social neuroscientist John Cacioppo says. “Loneliness makes us constantly on guard, prepared for the disappointment and rejection we are sure will come. As a result, we miss opportunities to make social connections.”

Loneliness thus becomes a kind of ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’. Psychologist Guy Winch also sees that danger: “Because we don’t expect our social interactions to be positive, we make fewer efforts to seek them out and we are less responsive to them when they occur.”

The third pitfall is that you develop a negative self-image. If you feel lonely (for a long time), you will judge both yourself and other people more negatively, you will become too focused on the differences between yourself and others, and you will assume the worst about how others feel about you.

As a result, you feel less safe in social situations, you act more reserved and you are more focused on signals that indicate disapproval or rejection. Not infrequently this leads to social avoidance strategies. Loneliness, Guy Winch observes, thus leads to “cycles of self-protection and avoidance that cause us to create self-fulfilling prophecies and to inadvertently push away the very people we hope to engage.”

Svendsen describes the irony of this aptly: “In many cases, it will be correct to say: you are not lonely because you are alone, you are alone because you are lonely.”

Why do I feel lonely while others don’t?

Wherever there are people, there is loneliness. But not everyone is affected by it to the same degree. Why is that? Social neuroscientist John Cacioppo distinguishes three factors that influence the extent to which you may experience feelings of loneliness:

#1 Your “level of vulnerability to social disconnection.” Every person needs recognition by others, to be seen, accepted and appreciated. But not to the same degree. Some people need a lot of social interaction and like to socialize with large groups of people. Others are more private and prefer a small number of people around them.

#2 Your “ability to cope with the emotions associated with feeling isolated.” Some people cope better with feeling lonely than others. And this may change over time: You may have felt lonely as a child very often, but not at a later age. Or the other way around: in the past you rarely had feelings of loneliness and nowadays a lot.

#3 Your “mental representations and expectations of, as well as reasoning about, others.” How we see ourselves and others influences how we see our social connections, and the other way around: Loneliness affects the way we see ourselves and others.

According to Cacioppo, 48% of all this is genetically determined. Our genetic predisposition determines, as it were, the threshold value for our personal feeling of loneliness: the lower our need for social connections, the higher our natural resistance to loneliness. The other 52% of our sensitivity to loneliness is determined by our experiences with the people we meet in our lives.

Remarkable about the causes of loneliness is that they have nothing to do with the prejudices that are often associated with it. Contrary to those prejudices, it turns out that lonely people are no more or less physically attractive than others; they are no more or less intelligent; loneliness has nothing to do with age either.

The extent to which you may experience feelings of loneliness is for 48% genetically determined and for 52% determined by our experiences.

Even your social skills are not decisive per se: Research by Cacioppo shows that lonely people “have the capacity to be just as socially adept as anyone else.” And lonely people are not emotionally incapable of making connections either: philospoher Lars Svendsen rightly points out that “only a person who can exhibit friendship and love can feel lonely.”

Where non-lonely people often think that it is the lonely person themselves who’s to blame (“you’re just not trying hard enough”), the lonely person often thinks that it is the fault of others (“people have let me down”). The truth – as so often – lies somewhere in the middle. Lonely people are not just victims of a society that does not see them, nor is it entirely their own fault.

“The vicious circle by which loneliness proceeds does not happen in isolation,” says loneliness expert Olivia Laing, “but rather as an interplay between the individual and the society in which they are embedded.”

Part of this interplay is an aspect that, if you feel lonely, deserves your attention: Trust. Studies show that there is a clear correlation between low levels of trust and loneliness:  the more you trust other people, the less lonely; and the less trusting, the more lonely.

“The ability to trust others and the ability to develop attachments are closely related,” Svendsen notes. “Lack of trust produces a caution that undermines the immediacy that is so important in our attachment to others.” In order to build meaningful connections, we have to have some basic level of trust.

“People with low generalized trust do not necessarily view others as malicious, but rather as risky – as people who could hurt them,” Svendsen points out, and “mistrust prevents you from reaching outside yourself.” With loneliness as a likely result.