If you’re feeling lonely, you’re certainly not alone.
Loneliness and isolation are ever-growing problems in American society, and they have worsened since the start of the pandemic and remote work. A recent Harvard study found that 36% of respondents reported feeling lonely frequently or almost all the time. This rate was even higher among young people and mothers of young children.
The pandemic has certainly worsened feelings of loneliness, but the problem began long before 2020. As early as 2015, researchers and news reports had started talking about a phenomenon called the “loneliness epidemic.” This may seem like a contradiction in an age when it is easier to connect with other people than ever. Why, then, does it seem that Americans are lonelier than we’ve ever been? The answer may lie in the way we relate to friendship and community.
What is the loneliness epidemic?
The loneliness epidemic is essentially a catchy name for the phenomenon that more and more people in America and other western countries have reported increased feelings of loneliness. This initially surprised many researchers and readers, especially considering the increased frequency and volume of social connections that we can now have thanks to social media and other facets of the internet.
Loneliness can have severe consequences for both mental and physical health. A famous 80 year-long Harvard study on happiness found that community can be crucial in determining a person’s life expectancy and health as they age. This and the increasing prevalence of feelings of loneliness have made it more critical than ever to combat this mental health epidemic. The best way to do this is by understanding where our feelings of loneliness come from and how we can build more fulfilling relationships and communities.
Why are we lonely?
There is no single known cause for our increased loneliness, but there are various things that may cause us to feel more lonely. Many people theorize that increased loneliness may have to do with any number of facets of modern society, from how we live in family structures to a culture of individualism and our increased reliance on technology for social interaction.
The Impacts of Technology
It might seem contradictory that we are both more lonely and more connected than ever. However, our use of technology in social relationships likely impacts our feelings of community and belonging. Social media allows us to interact with far more people than humans have ever been used to. In some cases, this can cause us to create more superficial and less fulfilling relationships, even when we feel surrounded by others. Social media can also cause us to compare our lives to others, imagining that everyone around us has a better social life and leading us to feel isolated in comparison.
In 2022, we cannot ignore the impacts of remote work either. Many workers now do most of their work alone on a computer screen, not interacting with others except potentially in very small or superficial ways. While work connections may not always be the most profound or fulfilling relationships, the lack of simply being around people all day can cause us to feel more isolated.
Individualism and Loneliness
Another thing that is a likely cause of our loneliness is our culture of individualism. In the United States and many other Western countries, our culture encourages us to think of ourselves as individuals rather than as parts of larger groups or collectives. As a result, we have moved away from extended families, focusing on the nuclear family and often being encouraged to seek independence beyond that.
While independence can give us the freedom to grow and break old patterns, our hyper-focus on independence can also cause us to feel more isolated. This pressure often stops us from seeking help from those around us, speaking about complicated feelings, and feeling compassion and empathy for others.
As we are still experiencing the COVID-19 pandemic, it is difficult to say what its long-term effects will be. But studies show that people have, unsurprisingly, reported increased loneliness since the start of the pandemic. Although different people have been in varying levels of social isolation and quarantine to prevent the spread of COVID-19, almost everyone has experienced a change in their social interactions.
As the restrictions of the pandemic have loosened and many people can go out again, we must reckon with the effects of the pandemic on our social lives. For many, the pandemic has changed our social groups and communities or led us to develop new habits around the need to work and spend more time by ourselves.
Loneliness can also be caused not by physical isolation but by the feeling that you don’t fit into the world around you. This feeling may come from a lack of conforming to societal expectations, from feeling unable to connect to your peers, or from negative comments or behavior from those around you. If you feel that you don’t fit into the communities you are a part of, it can be helpful to seek out alternative communities. Connecting to others who share certain experiences or characteristics can help you feel seen, heard, and understood, even if those experiences aren’t shared by the general public.
Health Risks of Loneliness
It is common to think of loneliness as a temporary feeling. In the long term, however, it can have serious consequences for both mental and physical health. Loneliness can be a risk factor for various mental disorders such as anxiety, depression, and substance use disorders. It can even increase your risk of developing physical problems such as heart disease, issues with cognitive functioning, and earlier mortality.
While loneliness and physical illness may not seem like they should be connected, it’s important to remember that our mind and body aren’t as separate as we think. Scientists have even found that loneliness can be as significant a health risk as smoking or alcoholism. Mental disorders often have physical symptoms, and many physical illnesses can influence the development of mental disorders. In order to keep ourselves healthy, it’s essential to take care of both our physical and mental health.
Loneliness can be defined as a perceived gap between a person’s desired relationships and their actual ones. Essentially, a lonely person feels that something is missing in their social lives. People who are lonely may feel like nobody cares about them or that they don’t belong anywhere. This lack of belonging is often intensified by physical isolation, a lack of a larger community, and our culture of individualism.
Developing a sense of belonging can be complex and challenging. While some people may find a sense of belonging in a political, religious, cultural, or other group, this in itself may not provide community satisfaction. In order to develop more profound and more fulfilling communities, it is essential to examine the idea of belonging on multiple levels, from the individual level up to the level of society as a whole.
Belonging to Ourselves
Inner work is an often-forgotten step when addressing loneliness. Many people are unable to develop deep and satisfying relationships due to an inability to accept aspects of their own personality and share those with others. The pressures of our families, social circles, and cultures can often cause us to try and suppress or reject certain parts of our identities to fit in. In the long run, however, this usually leads to a sense of isolation as we feel that we cannot fully be ourselves in the company of others.
If you’re feeling lonely, spend some getting to know yourself. Although it may sound contradictory, sometimes learning to be content alone is the first step to developing better relationships. Getting to know yourself might look different for each person. A first step might be committing to a night of relaxing alone, making time to do something you love, or seeking counseling or any other mental health resources you may need.
Building Deeper Friendships
People who feel lonely often feel like something is missing in their friendships. Maybe they feel like they have no friends or that all of their friendships stop at the surface level. It may feel overwhelming to face the prospect of changing existing friendships or forming new ones, but it is an essential step to overcoming loneliness.
If you feel like something is missing from your existing friendship, it’s important to think about what you’re craving. If you feel like you’d like to have deeper friendships, think about the things that may hold you back. How can you get more comfortable sharing your feelings and aspects of your personality more authentically? What questions can you ask to get to know your friends on a deeper level?
The process of cultivating better friendships can be complicated. Sometimes, existing friendships can only go so far. A friendship is a two-way street, so if your friend is not ready to connect on a deeper level, it may not be possible. But as you learn to be more authentic and connect more deeply throughout your life, you will see its impact on your wellbeing and relationships.
How do I make friends as an adult?
Another great way to build a more satisfying community is to reach out to new people. But making friends as an adult is notoriously hard. Whether you’re a recent college graduate, someone who’s just moved to a new city, or someone looking for friends who share your interests, making friends can seem overwhelming. But, no matter your situation in life, it is possible to make new friends.
Explore the avenues available for you to meet new people. Are there people you are acquainted with that you’d like to know better? If you want to reach outside the people you already know, it can also be helpful to turn to technology. Despite its negative effects, technology can also create more opportunities to connect. If you thrive in large group scenarios, look for meetup groups that fit your interests. If you feel better getting to know people one-on-one, try out some apps to meet new friends or plan more in-person interactions with your social media connections.
When trying to make friends, remember that it is a long-term process. In order to find some friends that you enjoy being with, you will likely have to meet many different people. You’ll also have to put time and energy into those friendships, making time to communicate with others, share experiences, and support your friends when they need it.
While there’s no certain “cure” for the loneliness epidemic, cultivating communities is an essential part of the solution. Many of us have been cut off from our communities, whether through geographic displacement, experiencing marginalization, or difficulty connecting to others. Humans are social animals, so we must learn new ways of cultivating community and relating to each other.
Many people feel isolated even in group situations because they feel that they can find belonging by conforming themselves to the standards of a particular group. Since this kind of belonging is conditional, it can often be broken and is usually not fulfilling in the long term. Instead, start with you. When you begin with accepting and loving all of the aspects of yourself, you can begin to build a community that suits you.
Building community doesn’t happen overnight. Don’t get discouraged if you start to connect with people or learn about yourself and still feel lonely. As long as you continue to focus on building better relationships with yourself and those around you, you will eventually start to see changes in how you move through the world. Make sure to celebrate the small changes along your journey. Then, instead of constantly striving for an elusive ideal of community or fitting in, you can appreciate the journey of learning to be in relationship with yourself and the people around you.