We’ve all felt the emotional pain of loneliness at one point in our lives. It’s a very mysterious and complex emotional response that can occur even when an individual isn’t physically alone — still completely surrounded by friends, loved ones, coworkers and strangers.
Loneliness also differs from ‘aloneness.’ Many people — especially introverts — find deep satisfaction in their solitude. They can disconnect from the world, recharge their energy, get to know themselves better and do creative work in peace. For them, being alone is more of a blessing than a curse.
So why, then, do some people just get lonelier than others? Out of two people who have the exact same number of friends and family members, one might feel totally satisfied with their social relationships while the other might be struggling with feelings of loneliness.
It turns out that loneliness might just have something to do with what you were born with. In the first genome-wide association study on loneliness, researchers found that the emotional response is partially influenced by the genes that people inherit.
Using health data from the Health and Retirement Study, which included more than 10,000 older adults ages 50 and over, researchers examined the answers that each subject gave for three different measures of loneliness. The word “lonely” was not used in the questionnaire, but each subject was asked to report on how often they felt they lacked companionship, how often they felt left out and how often they felt isolated from others.
After adjusting to account for variables like gender, age and marital status, the researchers found that a person’s tendency to feel lonely over the course of their lifetime (as opposed to simply a temporary state) was 14 to 27 percent genetic. Previous estimates of genetic influence over loneliness was 37 to 55 percent. The researchers say that the new estimate is lower because of the different method they used, called chip heritability, which captured only common genetic variations with no rare ones.
Genetics may indeed make a person more prone to loneliness, but researchers emphasized that environment has a larger impact. They also found that those who were genetically more prone to loneliness may also be more prone to other long-term negative emotional states, like neuroticism.
Loneliness isn’t just deeply unpleasant — it can be potentially deadly when it gets bad enough. Previous research found that loneliness can increase a person’s risk of early death by 30 percent.
Declining mental and physical health are linked to loneliness, which can potentially cut people’s lives short, and this may be increasingly true the older we get. According to WebMD, loneliness puts people at a higher risk of high blood pressure, sleep problems, trouble dealing with stress and a decreased ability for the body to fight inflammation.
Lonely people can certainly turn their emotional state around by using their loneliness as a motivator to start making better connections with people. There are three keys to social connection that can help fight loneliness:
- Intimate connections are those that make you feel like you can be your authentic self. You might need to work on restoring or recreating these intimate connections with your partner, closest friends or closest family members.
- Relational connections are those that involve social interactions where everybody wins. Try finding social activities to do that satisfy everybody’s interests.
- Collective connections are those that make you feel like you’re part of a real community. Taking a class, volunteering or joining a club are great ways to feel the social satisfaction of being part of a larger group.
For the many people who live alone, loneliness can be more intense for them.
How to Overcome Loneliness When You Live Alone
Living alone, whether by choice or by unexpected circumstances, is both a blessing and a curse.
There are so many advantages—mainly, the utter and complete freedom you have to do as you please. Do you want to spend the evening shamelessly dancing around your kitchen with the music turned up high (within reason of course)? Go for it! Is the afternoon sunshine streaming through the windows calling your name? Take a nap. No one is going to bug you. Feel like enjoying your favorite guilty pleasure on Netflix? You do you.
The freedom can be grand.
But living alone also comes with its own set of challenges, not the least of which is loneliness. The feeling of being lonely can throw even the most balanced of us into a tailspin of sadness and insecurity and cause us to feel isolated from the rest of the world, even when we aren’t.
So how can we overcome loneliness and reclaim our spunky selves? Here’s some advice.
1. When your mind tells you “you’re alone,” recognize it’s only a feeling, not your reality. We all have infinitely more people on our side than we realize. Family and friends are never as far away as they seem and I can assure you, none of them are as busy as they let on. Invite someone who lives in your area over for some conversation or call your mom on the phone. It can be extremely uplifting to talk to someone who loves you.
2. When your mind tells you “you’re not worth the attention,” claim that thought and throw it into the trash. Living alone doesn’t mean you aren’t loved or liked. It’s just a form of independence that requires a little more proactivity and forces you to step outside your comfort zone to find people to be with.
3. When all you want to do is stay home and watch Netflix, examine the inclination for what it is. Are you choosing to veg on the couch with the TV because you need a quiet night in to rejuvenate and relax? Or are you avoiding the effort it takes to be with people or attend an activity? If hunkering down in your apartment has become a habit, you may want to break it.
4. When you feel like your community is lacking, grow it. With 7 billion people on this planet, there is no lack of friends to be found. Ask a friend to recommend some new restaurants or parks, test a local community you think you might enjoy, try a new hobby! Whatever the activity, trying something new with brand new people can be a great way to expand your friend group. Keep an eye out for other individuals living alone who are in the same boat as you.
5. When you find yourself wallowing at home, force yourself to show up places instead. Never stop showing up where you’re wanted and needed. Don’t pull away from environments that bring you joy and connection. If you’re having trouble getting out of the house, find an accountability partner who will encourage you to keep moving forward!
6. In the end, when it’s just you, have fun with yourself! You’re the coolest person on earth. You are fun, you are exciting and you’re making a mark on this world! Be wacky, dance in your skivvies, enjoy the freedom!
Who knows, you may never have the chance again!