“Loneliness is best cured with aloneness, which is to say, a meaningful connection to ourselves.” Sarah Wilson
Over the last two years many people have spent time in self-isolation and being alone for extended periods on end. There is a vast difference though between being alone which can bring many benefits and being lonely.
There has been a significant increase in loneliness even before we had the pandemic and which, if prolonged, can be of high risk to our wellbeing.
This article explains the difference between being lonely and alone, the dangers of living with loneliness and four things you can do about it.
Globally, there has been a significant increase in people feeling lonely and distant from other people. It is estimated that half of all Americans feel lonely. In 2018, a Minister of Loneliness was appointed in Britain. A supermarket chain in the Netherlands introduced a great initiative during the pandemic, “chat checkouts” for people not in a hurry and looking to connect with someone.
What is the difference between being alone and lonely?
Being alone is the physical state of not being with other people and can have many positive outcomes. You can be alone but not lonely.
In this hyperactive, busy world, being alone gives you an opportunity to reflect, to find space to unwind and find some peace.
Being lonely is a psychological state when you don’t feel connected to or fulfilled by your relationships. In fact, you don’t even need to be alone to be lonely, you can be surrounded by people and still feel lonely.
Loneliness occurs when we crave meaningful connection in our relationships. Founder of social neuroscience John Cacioppo defines loneliness as “perceived social isolation.” It’s about the quality of your relationships, not the quantity.
“The amount of time spent with others and the frequency of interaction did not add much to the prediction of loneliness. What did predict loneliness was an issue of quality: the individuals’ ratings of the meaningfulness, or the meaninglessness, of their encounters with other people.” – John Cacioppo
Social loneliness is when you do not have anyone to confide in and do not get support from others. Emotional loneliness occurs when there is a lack of meaningful connection with people closest to you such as your partner, family and close friends.
Dangers of loneliness
There has been a great deal of research about the dangers of loneliness, of that feeling of being disconnected from other people. Various research shows, living with loneliness can be a significant health risk and lead to despair and depression. It can increase your risk of anxiety, fragmented sleep, increased blood pressure and inflammation to name a few.
We are a social species. Throughout our history we have survived and flourished by working together e.g., as couples, families and tribes for mutual protection and support. We are hardwired for connection and belonging.
According to Brené Brown, well-known American researcher, author and podcast host, “Connection is the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.”
Cacioppo explains how our biology lets us know when our ability to prosper is threatened. Hunger is a warning our blood sugar is low and we need to eat, thirst is a warning we need to eat or we get dehydrated and pain is a warning of physical damage.
Loneliness tells us we need social connection- something as critical to our wellbeing as food and water. When we feel isolated and lonely, we go into self-preservation mode and are more focused on our own welfare rather than other people’s.
Loneliness increases defensiveness and morning cortisol and stress levels, making you feel hypervigilant for threats. If you’re looking for danger, you’re more likely to see danger. This all then makes it even harder to make an effort to connect with people.
What can we do about loneliness?
1. Accept and acknowledge your loneliness
We can all feel lonely at times and in certain situations. However, when loneliness persists, it can wreak havoc with you on many levels. We tend to deny our loneliness, even to ourselves. We can feel shame about being lonely, as though there is something wrong with us. There has always been a stigma about loneliness.
According to Cacioppo, we need to recognise the signs that we are lonely and acknowledge them, understand what it does to the brain, body and behaviour and then respond and take some form of action.
When you work on accepting your feelings, you can start to feel a bit better. Showing some kindness and self-compassion can also be beneficial. This is not the time for the inner critic but a time to be your own best friend.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is a form of behavioural therapy that combines mindfulness skills with the practice of self-acceptance of your thoughts and feelings as well as being committed to action in alignment with your values.
In summary, ACT stands for:
A= Accept your thoughts and feelings and be present. Making space for your loneliness and accepting these feelings can be a good first step.
C= Choose a valued direction. To do this you need to know what values you live by. Your values describe how you behave as a person and act in all situations throughout your life. They are how you treat yourself and others. Values are in essence how you are true to yourself.
T= Take action. This is the hardest part. Even small steps can be very powerful and give you the momentum to move forward. If you fail, that’s fine. You will learn something, and you can get up and start again.
ACT assumes that no matter what problems you encounter, in this case living with loneliness, you can learn and grow from them.
If you clarify what your values are, no matter how many setbacks and obstacles you face, you can always gain fulfilment that you are living by your values. Failure is your best teacher. You can always learn and get back on track and start again.
2. Connect with ourselves
If we are disconnected from ourselves, how can we connect with others?
There is a popular French saying “bien dans ma peau” (good in my skin). It is used to mean being content, comfortable, or at ease with oneself.
If you are not at ease with yourself, finding purpose and meaning in what you do helps combat that feeling of being disconnected. As Cacioppo says, connection can be promoted by being part of something bigger than yourself.
You could put your time into some sort of creative activity or even an online course. You could work out a way to care for others, even it is small. It gives you a sense of purpose and satisfaction.
People with a strong sense of purpose and meaning in their lives tend to be more resilient, understanding themselves better and able to deal with challenges better.
Youna Kang, from University of Pennsylvania and lead author of a study (Purpose in Life, Loneliness, and Protective Health Behaviors During the COVID-19 Pandemic) found that when people were faced with extreme loneliness and social isolation, wanting to connect with other people, despite the health risks, was a natural response.
Kang says. “And yet, amidst this drastic shift in social life, we found that people with a higher sense of purpose were more likely to engage in prevention behaviors. This is striking because it shows that purpose in life can empower people to make life-saving health decisions that protect their own health and those around them.”
3. Connect with others
Cacioppo defines three components of meaningful connection:
- Individual connections. This is when you have one on one meaningful connection with another person. It does not matter who it is.
- Relational connections. Sharing good times with family and friends. Because of the pandemic, it has been harder to connect with people as we have spent so much time in self-isolation. However, stepping out of your comfort zone and connecting with family or friends can make a significant difference to those feelings of loneliness.
- Collective connection can be promoted by becoming part of something bigger than yourself. It could be a social or other type of association you can become a member of, or you can even do some volunteering. Anything where you share a common goal can help you connect.
It does not even need to be in person. Video chats have proven to be a major form of connection during the pandemic. Being able to see someone on video, seeing facial cues and body language can help strengthen bonds between us. Being with someone, physically or virtually, is enough to feel connected.
4. Write, write and write
Another way that can help you deal with those feelings of being lonely. It is doing some regular reflective writing in a journal. This is not a diary. It’s like having a one-on-one conversation with yourself. It gives you the chance to be creative, to write freely and from the heart.
I have been writing in a journal for years and it has helped me immensely through the roller coaster ride of a life we are on. It is very therapeutic.
Writing in a journal regularly can be cathartic and a great tool for growth and development of wisdom. It is a good habit to get into and can really help you understand yourself and can give more clarity to what it is you want.
Life brings its ups and downs, particularly over the chaos and uncertainty we have all experienced over the pandemic. The only constant we know for sure is that change will continue.
Understanding yourself and paying full attention to what you are doing and why you do what you do as well as working out your values and purpose is a good start to deal with any obstacles, including dealing with loneliness.
If you want to learn to develop a greater understanding of yourself, clarify the values that guide you through life and build resilience skills we all need in this chaotic and changing world, then click here to look at My Life Journal course, a 5-week online course, teaching you skills to coach yourself to a more fulfilling life.
Life Journal will give you the momentum to take action and make those changes, no matter how small, to help you develop those meaningful connections, with yourself and others, so you can live a more purposeful life.