Connected but Still Alone: Understanding and Overcoming Loneliness

Lonely young man shot from behind at subway station with blurry moving train in backgroundThe last two red numerals on the clock changed to zeros, three hours after Stacy had promised herself she’d be in bed. Tonight was going to be different, she had vowed. She’d shut it all down early—right after she checked her Twitter feed. But the numbers in the tiny alert circles on her phone never disappeared. She had to let her online friends know she was still playing the game. She wanted to watch just one last YouTube video. There was just one more link she had to check out.

She scrolled down. The low battery light was on. Bummer, the wall connection must have come loose. She plugged the phone back in, fell into her already unmade bed, and turned off the light. Once again, she hadn’t washed her face, flossed her teeth, or packed the nutritious lunch she’d planned for the next day. She knew she wouldn’t make the morning exercise class either. Tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow, she never wanted to wake up and face another bleak tomorrow. No one understood.

Stacy had thought it would be easier to make friends after graduation. Work would provide a community, she was told. But everyone was always so busy, so in a hurry, so overwhelmed, so married, so caught up in their own lives, so mesmerized by their phones, so unavailable for friendship. No one had anything to give, and she couldn’t put a name to her feelings, to the black hole sucking her in.

Loneliness can be an excruciating emotion, and one that is hard to label. It can often elude people while they’re busy browsing photos, commenting on social media posts, or playing games—things that appear to create feelings of friendship but may not truly do so.

Today, we can connect with others quickly and easily, in more ways than ever before in human history. Yet we are lonelier than any previous generation. In twenty years, we’ve lost two-thirds of the social connections we used to have. Rates of depression, teen suicide, and addictions are on the rise at a time when life-threatening dangers are at all-time lows for a majority of humanity.

So then, if people have more proximity and more ability to communicate with each other than ever before, why do so many of us experience these crushing feelings of loneliness?

Loneliness May Increase with Reliance on Technology, Changing Cultural Values

The causes of loneliness may not be readily understood or addressed. Even though there are more humans on the planet, and the pool of potential friends may be wider due to technology, many activities that used to require human interaction no longer do. We can shop from home without interacting with a retail clerk or salesperson. We can visit a drive-thru or order takeout and eat dinner alone. Earbuds insulate us when we are around others, and even when we do make eye contact, others are often in a hurry.

Even though there are more humans on the planet, and the pool of potential friends may be wider due to technology, many activities that used to require human interaction no longer do.

Our use of technology and the interactions we have online can impact our state of loneliness significantly, but how the internet specifically affects feelings of isolation can be complicated. Lonely people may find more feelings of connection digitally, for example, but a person who only connects to others digitally and desires other types of connection may be dissatisfied with this way of being part of a community, and their sense of isolation in the external world may increase.

Many social institutions once required for survival are not automatic any more. People of generations past were socially obligated to participate in family religious practices, cultural celebrations, rites of passage, and other traditions. Individuals were identified by these distinct circles, and they showed up, if for no other reason than to avoid ridicule or ostracism. Past generations often had no choice about belonging to their religious and ethnic communities, but today, many people see these circles as voluntary and less able to fill their emotional needs. Some individuals may not even know what community events are offered.

The heterogeneous nature of many modern communities offers increased diversity, greater acceptance of others, and more choices, but these benefits are accompanied by greater personal responsibility. To join and belong requires more individual risk, as new communities are not under the past obligation of accepting a new member simply based on heritage or family ties.

Even education, an institution historically requiring group affiliation and interaction, is now gravitating towards seclusion. Degrees can be obtained online, but even when classes take place in a classroom, digital class notes, internet registration, and online book purchases are all done in isolation in front of a screen. Participating in a group discussion through a message board and submitting online reviews may be the closest thing to socializing some students experience.

Families are often spread out, and some may be estranged. Individuals today may have greater opportunity to find groups that are more accepting, more like-minded, or even more accessible than their biological families, but getting out and physically joining these groups requires more social risk and courage. Even if a lonely person finds the motivation to join a desired group, their emotions can sometimes sabotage a good thing. Research shows one lonely person may destabilize the cohesion of a group. Further, any failures or disappointing experiences a person has can make trying again all the more difficult.

Without built-in social circles and expected participation in family activities, joining and showing up requires more vulnerability and greater personal commitment. Even when a new circle of friends might be welcoming and accepting, a lonely person may not realize this right away, or ever. Research has shown that people who feel lonely are less able to pick up signals of commitment from others, and this can leave a lonely person feeling left out even when they’re really welcomed in.

Beyond these listed barriers to finding connection and attaining a sense of belonging, our culture tends to value independence and autonomy. Some people may not want to admit to feelings of loneliness out of a fear they will be seen as weak. But humans are social animals. We advanced as a species by forming tribes, villages, and devout groups that made us feel special and protected. We sat at fires, told stories, made plans, and felt connected. But as these age-old institutions become more voluntary and less obligatory, membership became more of an individual responsibility.

Learning to Find a Community

I often see people in treatment who have deep feelings of loneliness. They understand these feelings to be a sign that something needs to change, and with good reason: loneliness can have significant and serious effects. It can increase the risk of physical illness and mortality by up to 32%. Further, loneliness can spread and often occurs in clusters, meaning lonely people may be more likely to have lonely people around them, which can contribute to feelings of hopelessness.

Research has shown that people who feel lonely are less able to pick up signals of commitment from others, and this can leave a lonely person feeling left out even when they’re really welcomed in. 

Isolation, and resulting loneliness may develop as a symptom or effect of certain mental health conditions, and working through these issues with the help of a qualified professional can, in turn, help a person overcome isolation and loneliness. But loneliness may have other causes. With busy schedules, digital communication, and personal attendance at events required less frequently, many of the people I work with aren’t even aware of the possible communities available to them. I generally encourage them to browse Meetup.com groups in their area and volunteer opportunities in their communities.

Even making a list of possible groups is a great start for those who are nervous, anxious, or otherwise finding it hard to take that first step. Write the dates and addresses of interesting activities in the calendar. Doing this will increase the chances of you actually attending. Find a colleague or associate who is willing to go along the first time. If you’re nervous or reluctant, think about how you’ll feel when other people are happy to see you and miss you when you are absent. Think about what you can bring to a group that enhances the experience of others. Are you funny? A good listener? Do you have new ideas? Are you willing to help out with projects? And so on.

Another satisfying way to connect might be giving back from the place of one’s own wounding—in other words, helping others who are now where you once were. This may be on an individual basis or you might choose to assist an already established group, using the hardships you have experienced in your own life as expertise and credibility to reach out and lend a hand to others just beginning a difficult journey.

Some ideas:

  • SCORE or other mentoring
  • Donating supplies or volunteering time to a pet rescue
  • Helping out with a divorce recovery group after divorce, a grief group after a loss, Al-Anon after experiencing addiction, and so on
  • Staffing a rape crisis or suicide hotline after recovering from trauma

Bars, parties, or activities focused on drugs or alcohol, while often easy places to meet people, may not be the best places to find true friends. Looking for friendship in places where people are anesthetizing their emotions may set you up for eventual emptiness that is not worth the emotional shortcut. While it is certainly possible to find friends in these places, you may find it more helpful to seek out friendship in places people are attempting to better themselves (classes, houses of worship, athletic endeavors, causes, travel destinations, and so on) or the world (volunteer events, charity drives, community meetings, and so on).

Remember Stacy? She eventually found a farm-to-table cooking class where she met friends who cared about the environment and liked to cook and eat well. Her self-care habits improved, giving her the energy and motivation to attend classes and events after work. She found a rekindled sense of enthusiasm and creativity in the class and looked forward to exploring dining experiences with her new friends.

You, like Stacy, are a unique individual with special qualities and talents. You deserve to have people in your life who accept you for who you are and enjoy your company. You are a gift to the communities where you show up. Though taking a risk on finding a true connection may seem an insurmountable task, things often seem more daunting before we try. But in the end, we often realize it wasn’t so hard, after all, and wonder why we were so afraid.

References:

  1. Cacioppo, J. T., Fowler, J. H., & Christakis, N. A., (2009). Alone in the crowd: The structure and spread of loneliness in a large social network. Journal of personality and social psychology, 97(6). Retrieved from https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1319108
  2. Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T. B., Baker, M., Harris, T., & Stephenson, D. (2015). Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for mortality: A meta-analytic review. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10(2). Retrieved from http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1745691614568352
  3. McPherson, M., Smith-Lovin, L., & Brashears, M. E. (2006, June 1). Social isolation in America: Changes in core discussion networks over two decades. American Sociological Review, 71(3). Retrieved from http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/000312240607100301
  4. Morahan-Martin, J., & Schumacher, P. (2003). Loneliness and social uses of the internet. Computers in Human Behavior, 19(6). Retrieved from http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0747563203000402
  5. Raphael, T. J. (2014, October 23). The world is actually safer than ever. And here’s the data to prove that. PRI.org. Retrieved from https://www.pri.org/stories/2014-10-23/world-actually-safer-ever-and-heres-data-prove
  6. Yamaguchi, M., Smith, A., Ohtsubo, Y. (2017, January 15). Loneliness predicts insensitivity to partner commitment. Personality and Individual Differences, 105. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0191886916310005
  7. Yao, M. Z., & Zhong, Z. (2014). Loneliness, social contacts, and internet addiction: A cross-lagged panel study. Computers in Human Behavior, 30. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0747563213003063

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  • 3 comments
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  • delia

    May 17th, 2017 at 10:54 AM

    I seem to be in touch with far more people than I ever have been in my life but it is true… it is mostly online and I still always get this sense that I am alone.
    I am not too fond of that feeling but yeah, I think that being so reliant on technological interaction has in some ways taken away that need to see people in person.
    And yet I know that this is likely what I need to feel connected to LIFE again, and not just connected online.
    Even though it would be great if it was, that kind of interaction is just no substitute for me.

  • Hanna

    May 20th, 2017 at 5:48 AM

    When I was in college it seems strange to look back on it and assess how lonely I actually was but that was a very hard time for me.

    This was really the first time that I had been away from home and I thought that it would be so easy to move out and make new friends, but man, was that hard!

    I finally found a few clubs and organizations on campus to get involved with and made some great life long friends there ,but to say that there weren’t times when I was ready to give up and go back home would be a lie.

  • A Simpson

    May 25th, 2017 at 10:25 AM

    Is it weird that I actually prefer to be by myself?

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