Cell phones, media like Facebook and Twitter and Instagram, and other internet-based communications tools have given us more opportunities than ever before to stay in contact with old friends and make new ones. In fact, no matter where you are in the world, it is possible to communicate with other people every moment you are awake. Except under rare circumstances, you are never truly alone.
Despite these advances, loneliness remains a persistent problem in our society. As understood by psychologists, loneliness is “the discrepancy between a person’s desired and actual social relationships”1. As with many things, it’s not the quantity of social encounters that matters, but the quality. Humans need to have social relationships where they feel valued or cared for2. That is why, even though we live in a highly connected society, roughly five to seven percent of middle-aged and older adults report that they experience “intense or persistent loneliness”3-5.
Physical and Mental Effects of Loneliness
Loneliness is much more than a minor nuisance. People who report greater loneliness are less likely to take good care of their physical health, such as through exercise or abstaining from smoking6. And loneliness has been associated with worse overall cardiac health7.
There’s also growing evidence that loneliness might affect your mental health as well. Studies have found that greater loneliness is associated with worse symptoms of depression and lower life satisfaction8-9. These findings are bolstered by a recent investigation led by Dr. Manfred Beutel of Guttenberg University Mainz in Mainz, Germany, and his colleagues10. The researchers recruited more than 9,000 German residents and asked them about their feelings of loneliness, as well as their symptoms of various mental disorders. They found that those who reported greater feelings of loneliness were more likely to experience symptoms of depression, generalized anxiety, and thoughts of suicide. In other words, loneliness has a much greater impact on your life than you might have thought.
How to Alleviate Loneliness
Given the health impact of loneliness and its prevalence in our society, researchers have spent countless hours investigating ways to alleviate this distressing condition. Summarizing the results of 77 individual studies, Dr. Christopher Masi and his colleagues at the University of Chicago identified four treatment approaches that seemed to have the most promising results when treating loneliness: 1) enhancing social support, 2) increasing opportunities for social contact, 3) improving social skills, and 4) addressing problematic thoughts regarding social situations3.
Based on these findings, here are four suggestions you can try to reduce your loneliness.
1. Talk to Friends and Family
Talking openly about loneliness with friends and family can be difficult. But it could help improve your social support and increase your opportunities for social contact. Even though loved ones are often eager to help when someone they care about feels lonely, it might be difficult for them to know when someone is feeling that way.
Telling those you trust how you feel will help them know that you need support, which could lead to them helping you engage in more social situations. Friends can even guide you through tough social situations and help you improve your social skills.
2. Join a Club or Social Group
If you have a hobby or an area of interest, one way to improve your social support may be to join a group of people who share your interests. You can find such groups through Google searches or browsing Facebook, Reddit, and other social media sites. Some dedicated services are intended for finding local social groups, such as Meetup.
What if you don’t have any special hobbies? There’s nothing to worry about – services such as Meetup have general groups as well, often organized by age, that don’t have any prerequisites for hobbies or interests. If you are religious, you can investigate religious communities that share your beliefs. Likewise, there are now numerous humanist and nonreligious communities in most large U.S. cities. Find these types of groups through Google, Facebook, Reddit, and services such as Meetup.
Another way to increase your opportunities for social contact and improve your social support is to volunteer for a cause you care about. Not only would you be making a positive change in your community, you would be meeting like-minded people who share your passion. If you don’t know which organization or cause you would be most interested in, groups such as the United Way and services such as VolunteerMatch and Create the Good can help you find opportunities that match your interests.
4. Consider Therapy
Therapy might at first seem like an extreme response to reducing loneliness. But it is important to remember that loneliness is associated with worse mental health outcomes, partly due to the negative thought cycles associated with it. For instance, a lonely person is more likely to expect negative outcomes of social interactions11 and more likely to remember negative aspects of those interactions later12. Such thoughts can be crippling and make it very hard for someone to engage in new social situations.
Therapies that help people develop healthier ways of thinking about social interactions, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), can be highly beneficial for lonely people. In fact, Dr. Masi and his colleagues found that therapies that addressed such problematic thoughts about social situations were the most effective in alleviating loneliness3. If you need assistance finding the right therapist for you, we have a guide that may help.
1. Russell, D., Peplau, L. A., & Cutrona, C. E. (1980). The revised UCLA Loneliness Scale: Concurrent and discriminant validity evidence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 39, 472-480.
2. Cacioppo, J. T., & Patrick, W. (2008). Loneliness: Human nature and the need for social connection. New York, NY: Norton.
3. Masi, C. M., Chen, H. Y., Hawkley, L. C., & Cacioppo, J. T. (2010). A meta-analysis of interventions to reduce loneliness. Personality and Social Psychology Review. 15, 219-266.
4. Steffick, D. E. (2000). Documentation on affective functioning measures in the Health and Retirement Study (No. DR-005). Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, Survey Research Center.
5. Victor, C. D., Scambler, S. J., Bowling, A., & Bondt, J. (2005). The prevalence of and risk factors for loneliness in later life: A survey of older people in Great Britain. Ageing & Society, 25, 357-375.
6. Shankar, A., McMunn, A., Banks, J., & Steptoe, A. (2011). Loneliness, social isolation, and behavioral and biological health indicators in older adults. Health Psychology, 30, 377.
7. Friedler, B., Crapser, J., & McCullough, L. (2015). One is the deadliest number: the detrimental effects of social isolation on cerebrovascular diseases and cognition. Acta neuropathologica, 129, 493-509.
8. Victor, C. R., & Yang, K. (2012). The prevalence of loneliness among adults: a case study of the United Kingdom. The Journal of Psychology, 146, 85-104.
9. Heinrich, L. M., & Gullone, E. (2006). The clinical significance of loneliness: A literature review. Clinical Psychology Review. 26, 695-718.
10. Beutel, M. E., Klein, E. M., Brähler, E., Reiner, I., Jünger, C., Michal, M., … & Tibubos, A. N. (2017). Loneliness in the general population: prevalence, determinants and relations to mental health. BMC psychiatry, 17, 97.
11. Cacioppo, J. T., & Hawkley, L. C. (2005). People thinking about people: The vicious cycle of being a social outcast in one’s own mind. In K. D. Williams, J. P. Forgas, & W. von Hippel (Eds.), The social outcast: Ostracism, social exclusion, rejection, and bullying (pp. 91-108). New York, NY: Psychology Press.
12. Duck, S., Pond, K., & Leatham, G. (1994). Loneliness and the evaluation of relational events. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 11, 253-276.
Sam Hunley holds a doctorate in cognitive psychology from Emory University. He pursued his Bachelor's degree in psychology from Furman University and a master's from Emory. Sam's research, alongside Dr. Stella Lourenco, focuses on human perception of the space surrounding the body, exploring the impact of anxiety and phobias on this perception. Together, they contribute to Anxiety.org articles. Post-graduation, Sam became a Presidential Management Fellow.