Wednesday, June 23, 2010


If you feel lonely, you’re not alone. Loneliness is a subjective sense of isolation – a feeling of not being able to connect with other people, a sense of being apart. As humans, we feel the need to be with other people. We need to relate to others, to get involved in their lives, to work with them, and to express our emotions around other people. Our social needs are nearly as powerful as our other basic needs, like our needs for food, water, and shelter.

When we are deprived of our social needs, we can become fearful. Our sense of being alone might become amplified. It is common for a person in social isolation to magnify the thoughts that accompany loneliness – and then withdraw even further from others. When we choose to withdraw, we may end up feeling trapped in our isolation.

Given the importance of social connection, it is surprising that twenty percent of people feel sufficiently isolated that loneliness plays a major role in their lives. Over the past several decades our culture has changed to the point where loneliness has emerged as a major social and psychological problem. We are a culture that places a premium on individualism. We emphasize the importance of being able to do things on our own. Many people pride themselves on their ability to survive and experience success without having to depend on other people. The down side of this social norm, however, is that many of us feel lonely. We do need other people.

Research findings confirm that as a society we are moving toward more loneliness. Respondents to a social science survey in 2004 were three times more likely to report that they had nobody with whom to discuss important issues than respondents in 1985. During the past twenty years the size of the average household has declined ten percent to 2.5 persons. In 1990, more than one in five households was headed by a single parent – and today that figure is one in three. In 2000 more than twenty-seven million in the U.S. lived entirely alone, and the estimate for 2010 is twenty-nine million.

The Effects of Loneliness

Physical pain alerts us to the need to take action to end the pain. Social pain in the form of loneliness tells us to end our isolation. Indeed, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) of the brain indicates that the same region of the brain is activated when a person feels rejection as when they feel physical pain. Research has found that chronic feelings of loneliness accelerate the aging process. It has an effect on our stress hormones, immune function, and cardiovascular function, which, over time, are compounded.

Loneliness also has an effect on our thoughts and feelings. When we feel socially isolated, it is more difficult to concentrate and we are more easily distracted by unimportant events. Our self-esteem might plummet when we feel lonely. We tend to make small errors into catastrophes. We are more likely to have feelings of depression.

When we feel apart from other people, we find it more difficult to take corrective action when things go wrong – and we might find false comfort in addictive behavior. We might feel that everybody else is connected and happy – and here we are struggling to get by alone. Our thoughts may become distrustful, and we isolate ourselves even further from other people. We might think that we are destined to be alone, and then we may give up hope that things will ever get better. We may feel that if there were only a friend out there, life would be easier (and it would be).

Interestingly, research has found that people who feel lonely have as many social contacts as people who don’t feel lonely. And almost everybody has a feeling of being lonely occasionally. Loneliness becomes an issue only when it settles in long enough to create a persistent loop of negative thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Loneliness emerges from how we think.

Breaking the Loneliness Cycle

We create a reality for ourselves that determines how others view us. Other people observe this reality and use it to define us. Then they act toward us on the basis of that assessment. So, if we see ourselves as lonely people who are trapped in a cycle of isolation, others will also see us that way and will treat us accordingly. We then get caught in a negative feedback loop where we become self-protective, we distrust that others will like us, and we move even further into isolation. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

When we get caught in this loop, we lose control and self-regulation. Our thoughts might become distorted so that we can’t take effective action in connecting with other people. Our level of activity declines, replaced by passivity and negativity. In our loneliness, we might not be able to read cues from other people appropriately, and then we make decisions that hamper our ability to break out of the isolation and make friends.

Obviously, the place to start when we want to break out of the loneliness cycle is to change how we view ourselves, despite our years of evidence that might convince us otherwise. And then we need to start taking action to bring people into our lives. It might sound hard, but it can change things for the better.

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