Elvis Presley sang about the pain of loneliness when he wrote in Heartbreak Hotel, “I’m feelin’ so lonely I could die.” Loneliness is the feeling of sadness we get when we’re lacking companionship. Though Elvis said he could simply pass away from his amount of loneliness, the feeling itself can’t kill you; however, loneliness does have substantial effects on our physical and mental health.
But first: loneliness isn’t about simply being alone. You can feel lonely in a room surrounded by people, even friends. You can feel supported (not lonely) while alone for hours or days on end. It’s the unique situation of feeling alone and isolated, disconnected from a network of support. This can happen even when you’re with others.
Unfortunately, loneliness has been on the rise in recent years. It’s estimated that 50% of people suffer from “chronic loneliness,” or an ongoing feeling of being alone and disconnected from others. These numbers are only thought to be higher due to the pandemic and remote working.
The health stats of loneliness are dizzying. Ongoing loneliness can have as harmful an effect as smoking nearly 15 cigarettes per day! And the chance of premature death is higher for someone suffering from chronic loneliness than someone who’s a regular smoker. Loneliness increases your risk of diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and dementia. Sadly, loneliness also correlates with increased rates of self-harm and suicide. In short, loneliness doesn’t just feel bad mentally, it has significant effects on your physical health as well.
On the other hand, social connection’s beneficial health effects provide hope. Social connectedness is the “degree to which people have and perceive a desired number, quality, and diversity of relationships that create a sense of belonging, and being cared for, valued, and supported” (CDC). Higher social connectedness leads to longer life and decreases the likelihood of developing heart disease, stroke, dementia, and mental illness. Additionally, research has shown social connectedness can be protective for illnesses you already have. For instance, individuals with diabetes who garnered a high social connectedness saw overall improvements in their health outcomes.
So, how can you combat loneliness? We’ve listed a few tips for you below.
1. Practice quality time with others
Loneliness can even happen when we get busy, stressed, and distracted. We’re often so wrapped up in our phones, social media, to-do lists, and work that follows us home that we struggle to make genuine connections with others. Aim to increase the quality and quantity of your social interactions. This means:
- Sending a text out to friends you haven’t seen in a while to meet up
- Putting your phone away when you’re with others, really being present with them
- Opting for more interactive activities rather than just watching TV together—even just meeting for dinner or drinks to spur good conversation can help create a deeper connection
- Call or FaceTime friends and family who are further away—and resist the urge to multi-task while you talk.
Notice the importance of unplugging here. Presence is what can really make the difference in the quality of your social interactions. It’s easy to feel lonely even if you’re often around people due to not truly connecting with them. Improve the quality, and up the quantity—go out on a limb to initiate spending more time with friends, and be present as you do so.
2. Connect with your community through volunteering and other groups
Making new connections as you get older can get progressively more difficult. People are busy, and sometimes meeting new people feels impossible. Volunteering in your community is a way for you to connect with others, meet new people, and also take the focus off of yourself.
Sometimes when we experience loneliness, we turn the focus on ourselves and our needs. Often, the most freeing thing we can do for ourselves in those moments is to focus on others to get out of our own heads. Even if you don’t go out and volunteer, look for ways you can help out family members, coworkers, or neighbors. Helping others sows the first seeds of compassion and connection.\
3. Begin a gratitude practice
At times, we feel lonely because we aren’t focusing on what we have; instead, we’re only focusing on what we’re missing. Starting a gratitude practice can help you recognize and appreciate the relationships and people in your life now, rather than fixating on what’s missing.
Each night, try journaling about three moments of connection you’re grateful for from your day. You can list these in the notes app on your phone, or in a journal. Notice how the interaction made you feel. Gratitude practices have been found to reduce depression and feelings of isolation over time, so aim to take a few moments to express your gratitude each day!
4. Notice what makes you feel lonely—and limit it
Get curious about the things which cause you to feel lonely. How do you feel after spending time on Instagram? Binging on Netflix? We have so many more distractions in today’s world, but when we take our focus away from them, then the emotions hit.
Start logging when you feel lonely, and notice what you were doing before and during the emotion. What can you do next time instead? How can you limit those triggers in your life, and replace them with something more positive?
5. Get support
When the feelings of loneliness start to overwhelm you and you struggle to find your way to a sense of connection, therapy can go a long way. BetterHelp and PsychologyToday have directories of therapists in your area who can meet your specific needs and goals. If you ever experience suicidal thoughts, please call 988 or go to 988lifeline.org to get support from a professional.
In conclusion, you’re not alone—others are out there who want to support and connect with you. If you feel alone and lonely often, try a few of these suggestions this month and see how you feel—what changes? Loneliness as a passing feeling is okay, but start seeking out people and communities that make you feel supported and connected long term.
The loneliness you feel is actually an opportunity to reconnect with others and yourself.Maxime Lagacé