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What is Loneliness and Why do We Feel Lonely?

What is Loneliness and Why do We Feel Lonely?

Greetings one and all…
Every year, my challenge as an educator is to create innovative, relevant programs for my clients and audiences. Consequently, I invest significant time and effort in reviewing the latest research and publications related to aging, caregiving, and end-of-life care. Every year without exception, a theme emerges reflecting societal concerns, needs, and/or fears. This year, loneliness takes center stage as a major concern for people of all ages.

Loneliness—A Human Experience

As Dr. John Cacioppo noted in his book, Loneliness (2008), “Humans are an obligatorily gregarious species.” Instinctively, human beings are an inherently social species, deriving a sense of safety and security when in the company of other people. However, over the course of a lifetime, we will all feel lonely from time to time. Instead of fearing loneliness, we are better served to understand the experience. What is loneliness and why do we feel lonely?

  • Loneliness is an internal, subjective reaction to our external, social circumstances.
  • Solitude (being alone) is dramatically different from social isolation (feeling alone).
  • Loneliness may be experienced even when surrounded by other people.
  • When disconnected from other people, we often feel fearful, anxious, and rejected.
  • Loneliness is a sensation (much like hunger and thirst) that indicates we need something—meaningful connections and interactions with other people.

Consequences of Chronic Loneliness

Research conducted and published within the past 10 years highlights the concerning implications of chronic loneliness. Chronic loneliness results in a downward spiral of self-perpetuating negative thoughts, feelings, and behaviors—a difficult cycle to break. Although the sensation of loneliness is an inherent part of the lived experience, chronic loneliness is not. Furthermore, chronic loneliness has significant, detrimental effects that reduce the quality and quantity of life. In fact, chronic loneliness is perceived by many experts to rival other health risk factors such as smoking, obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and lethargy. The current research indicates that chronic loneliness may result in:

  • Increased risk of mortality.
  • Increased risk of mental, cognitive, and physical decline.
  • Greater likelihood of detrimental behaviors—increased alcohol consumption, reduced exercise, higher fat diet, and less beneficial sleep.
  • Higher probability for the need of long term care and skilled nursing.

Addressing Loneliness

What can we do to mitigate the risk of chronic loneliness? How can we respond to the sensation of loneliness in such a way that we can once again enjoy life-giving and meaningful connections? Consider the following approaches:

  • As Individuals—reinforce family ties, invest time and attention in friends (old and new), be curious about life, leap at new adventures, exercise, eat well, rest well, nurture the soul, and give to others.
  • As a Community—recognize the lonely among us, listen to the lonely, take the time to BE with the lonely, and create a safe space for the lonely.
  • As a Society—advocate for overall social health, develop and offer resources that serve to reconnect the lonely, routinely screen for loneliness within the health care system.

Personally, I am thankful that loneliness is in the spotlight. Over the past few years, I have heard far too many stories from people who feel isolated and alone. By shining the light on this societal issue, perhaps we’ll be reminded that Life is not a solo sport. We are better together. As the African Proverb notes, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Obviously, a needed message in this day and time. Blessings on your journey……jane

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