What is loneliness?
You know the feeling. You walk down the street and see happy groups of people talking and laughing together. You go online and see pictures of the fun barbeque your friends had over the weekend.
In today’s world, it can feel like everyone’s having fun together — without you. In other words, it’s easy to feel lonely. And if you do, it’s also easy to think that you’re the only person who feels that way. But you’re far from alone. Many people, of all ages and backgrounds, are experiencing loneliness today.
Loneliness is an emotional response to feeling isolated or without companionship. There’s a big difference between being alone and being lonely. For instance, you could be alone in your apartment and feel perfectly content. Or you could be in the middle of a large party and feel very lonely. It’s all about how you perceive things.
Read on to learn more about loneliness and what you can do about it.
Why are we lonely?
The high numbers of people experiencing loneliness raises the question — why are we so lonely? While we don’t know the answer to that for sure, there are many possible reasons, such as:
- More people are living alone now than before. This reduced companionship at home could affect how people perceive their social lives.
- People are living longer. In 1970, the average American lifespans were 75 years for women and 67 years for men. In 2014, they were 81 years for women and 76 years for men.
- We work differently. When compared to years past, modern Americans focus more on work than on relationships.
- We communicate differently. Electronic communication is now a mainstay in today’s society. This can lead to reduced interpersonal contact.
- We use social media. The use of social media can affect some people negatively. For instance, while it can provide some social benefits to teens, it can also make them less content with their social life. On the other hand, social media can actually help older adults feel more connected with others. It seems the impact of social media on loneliness depends on the person using it.
- Our social groups are changing. A 2009 Pew Research study found that our key social groups are shrinking. With smaller social networks and fewer social contacts, we can have decreased feelings of social connection.
- We may simply know more about loneliness than we have in the past. With increasing studies done on this topic, we may just be realizing the gravity of a problem that’s been around for a long time.
But these are just theories. We need more research to nail down any definitive causes.
Why do we get lonely?
Why do we get lonely?
It may surprise you that loneliness seems to serve an important purpose. Humans are social animals, and history has shown that we succeed in society when we work together. Like other social animals, our group networks help us to survive and thrive.
So loneliness could encourage us to join in and interact with others. That could help us succeed. Research has shown that the drive to belong is strong in humans — we long to be part of a group. The negative force of loneliness, when combined with this positive drive to belong, could help us build a strong, successful society.the Healthline Editorial TeamAnswers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.
What are the effects of loneliness?
Feeling lonely now and again, as most of us do, may not have much effect on us. However, long-term loneliness can have serious impacts on our health and well-being. Although none of these problems are guaranteed to occur for anyone who’s experiencing chronic loneliness, they do show that loneliness is a real health risk.
A few of the health impacts that researchers have found include:
- Increased blood pressure: Older adults who are lonely have been found more likely to have increased blood pressure.
- Weakened immune system and increased inflammation: Research has shown that loneliness can lead to a weakened immune system, which means you’re at higher risk of disease or infection. It has also shown that loneliness can cause increased inflammation throughout the body. Prolonged inflammation has been linked with health problems such as cancer and complications from kidney disease.
- Increased depression: Loneliness has been shown to increase symptoms of depression in older adults.
- Negative cognitive (mental) effects in older adults: Adults ages 65 years and older experiencing loneliness have been found to have a 20 percent faster cognitive decline than other same-aged adults who aren’t lonely.
- Poor sleep quality: Loneliness may cause you to have lower quality sleep. This means that even if you sleep for an adequate length of time, the poor quality of your sleep can cause problems during the day. This includes feeling lethargic or having less energy.
- Increased risk of death: A review of research found that people with stronger personal relationships are 50 percent less likely to die for any reason than people without these strong relationships.
Who gets lonely?
Loneliness can affect anyone. And most people feel lonely at one time or another in their lives. Although no one group has cornered the market on loneliness, research into loneliness has focused on certain groups of people.
Loneliness in middle-aged and older adults
Much loneliness research has been done on older adults, and for good reason. Loneliness can have severe impacts on the physical, mental, and emotional well-being of older adults.
But contrary to what many might assume, older adults seem to experience less loneliness than other age groups. For instance, a 2010 AARP study of adults 45 years and older found that of about 3,000 people studied, a whopping 35 percent described themselves as lonely. However, when broken down further by age, the same study found that 43 percent of people aged 45 to 49 years were lonely, compared to 25 percent of those aged 70 and older.
Loneliness in teens and young adults
Other studies show that loneliness plagues young people especially. A 2010 study in the UK found that people aged 18 to 34 years were more affected by loneliness than people older than 55 years. Additional research has found that loneliness is common in 80 percent of people aged 18 years and younger.
Teens and other adolescents are at delicate stages in their personal development. They’re still forming their identities, building independence, and fine-tuning their social coping mechanisms. As a result, they may be more sensitive to social pressures including loneliness. Researchers are concerned that adolescent loneliness could lead to depression, anxiety, and reduced life satisfaction later in life.
Loneliness by group
Aside from age, many other factors can impact loneliness. This includes physical health. People with chronic diseases can be affected by loneliness, as their condition may set them apart from others. They may be isolated by the care they need, or physical limitations may prevent them from being social. They may also feel set apart from others by the very experience of their disease.
Environmental factors can also affect loneliness. For instance, research has been done on loneliness in veterans, particularly focusing on conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that can increase loneliness. Loneliness has also been explored in immigrants, who can face many social hurdles when joining a new culture or society.
What Healthline found
Healthline surveyed 318 people, both visitors to our site and newsletter recipients, to get their take on loneliness. A large majority of those who responded were women (69 percent), and 62 percent of respondents were parents. Did our survey respondents consider themselves lonely? Overall, we found that life is good for most. The vast majority of people who responded (77 percent) considered themselves less lonely than the rest of the population. However, that still leaves one in four people who consider themselves to be lonelier than most.
It’s important to note that our survey only included a small pool of people, and thus our results don’t reflect the whole population. A much larger study pool is needed for more accurate results.
What can we do about it?
Loneliness can be a painful and even harmful thing to experience. In addition, feeling lonely can actually lead to antisocial behavior, making it harder to connect with others. But that doesn’t mean we can’t escape from loneliness.
The remedy to loneliness is increasing meaningful social connections. In other words, building relationships with people we value — relationships that make us feel cared for and understood.
The trick is to make that first move. Here are some helpful suggestions for ways to start.
Ways to connect
- Say “yes” to social opportunities. Get out and see your friends or meet new ones, even if you’d rather stay home with a good book.
- Volunteer. Building ties to others through volunteering is a proven way to combat loneliness.
- Take a walk. Getting out in nature has been shown to ease symptoms of depression, which can be a by-product of loneliness.
- Adopt a pet. A dog, a cat, or any little critter can provide companionship that can be surprisingly beneficial. And a dog has an added benefit — it can get you walking outside, where you can meet other dog owners.
- Reach out to others in the same boat. For instance, if you have a chronic illness, join a support group for people with this condition. At the very least, you know you’ll have something in common to talk about! Healthline provides several online resources for people with chronic conditions. You can find links at our loneliness resource page.
- Realize that you’re not really alone. If you’re feeling lonely, it can be easy to beat yourself up about it. Just remember, many other people are lonely too, and nobody has to be! Just take that first step, and you’ll be on your way to finding your next friend.
And for more specific help, check out “How to Deal with Loneliness in Today’s World: Your Options for Support.” In that article, we’ve compiled an extensive list of helpful online resources. These websites can point you in the direction of connecting with real live people in real time. And that’s what we’re all looking for — human connection.