Everyone experiences loneliness at certain periods in his or her life, and while it’s a universal phenomenon, there are still many aspects of loneliness that we could use a better understanding of in order to overcome it.
There’s a difference between being lonely and being alone.
Loneliness is described not as social isolation, but as perceived social isolation. What this means is that loneliness doesn’t necessarily stem from being alone, but feeling alone. This is why it’s possible to feel lonely despite having what appears to be a rich social life. You can go out to parties every night of the week, but if you don’t connect with those around you, you will still experience loneliness. At the same time, you
may prefer to live a fairly solitary life but not feel lonely, because you have feelings
of connectedness with others, in some form or another.
Loneliness is bad for your health.
The experience of loneliness is unpleasant enough, but prolonged loneliness can
actually have adverse effects on both your mental and physical health. It is well-‐ known that loneliness often leads to increased risk of depression and substance abuse, which in turn lead to further social isolation, creating a dangerous cycle. What is less well-‐known is that chronic loneliness can also have negative effects on your physical health. In their scientific article Loneliness Matters: A Theoretical and Empirical Review of Consequences and Mechanisms, Louis C. Hawkley and John T. Cacioppo conclude that chronic loneliness conflicts with our evolutionarily social nature, and in turn has negative impacts on genetic, neural and hormonal mechanisms. These negative impacts manifest themselves as a weakened immune system, increased risk of stroke and heart disease, and more difficulty with learning and memory. The real danger in these effects is the possibility of creating a downward spiral, in which loneliness causes problems that lead to more loneliness, and so on.
Loneliness is contagious.
Another scientific paper entitled Alone in the Crowd: The Structure and Spread of
Loneliness in a Large Social Network shows the results of analyzing social networks and the prevalence of loneliness therein. The results did indeed suggest that loneliness could spread through a social network like a disease, with participants
52% more likely to be lonely if they are connected directly to someone who is lonely (one degree of separation), and 25% for those at two degrees of separation from someone who is lonely. Does this mean you should avoid lonely people like the plague? Of course not! If you have a friend who feels alone, and you let your relationship deteriorate, you will only be left with one less friend and thus more reason to feel alone. Thus it’s in everyone’s best interest to reach out to lonely individuals.
Loneliness has become more common, despite (or because of) the rise of social media.
A 2006 study in the American Sociological Review found that the average number of
friends individuals had to confide in was 2, down from the 1985 average of 3. Additionally, the number of people who said they had no one they could confide in rose from 10 to nearly 25%. Many are quick to blame technology for the rise in loneliness. Indeed, there have been studies that found heavy internet users to be lonelier on average, however there have been just as many suggesting internet use has positive effects on loneliness. The truth is likely that technology can have either a positive or negative effect on loneliness depending on how it’s used. The internet has made it possible to connect and communicate with others all around the world, and so there are many opportunities to connect with like-‐minded individuals and bond over shared interests. This is why it’s more possible than ever to live a fairly solitary life but still feel connected to the outside world. At the same time, if you replace communication with the passive browsing of information, you are likely to feel more alone. So don’t just aimlessly scroll through your newsfeed, occasionally clicking “like”. Comment, post, communicate, and participate.
Loneliness starts out as a choice but can spiral into a way of life that is hard to get out of alone. If you find it hard to overcome loneliness, reach out to a confidant, and if you know someone experiencing loneliness, try to help them. By reaching out to a lonely individual, you could be the first step to breaking their cycle, and you’ll probably feel less lonely yourself.