What is Loneliness and How Does it Affect Us?

What is loneliness?

Research studies have determined that feeling lonely is different than simply being alone. In fact, the sensation of loneliness doesn’t actually have much to do with how many people you spoke to in a given day or week. To the contrary, some of the most people who report feeling the most severely lonely are those who actually talk to lots of people everyday. This is due to the fact that these people don’t perceive these people they are talking with as meaningful connections with another person.

To experience relief from loneliness, you need not only other people but also to feel that you are sharing something with the other person (or group) that is meaningful to both of you. It is essential for you to both be engaged together in something you both think has meaning and value. And, the relationship has to be reciprocal or two-way, and to include a sense of “mutual aid and protection” according to researcher John Cacciopo. [1]

So, loneliness is best defined as the sense that you’re not sharing anything that matters with anyone else.

How does loneliness affect us?

Research studies have found that extended loneliness causes us to shut down socially, and to be more suspicious of any social contact. We become more hypervigilant, more likely to take offense when none was intended, and to be afraid of strangers. This is a paradox because we start to be afraid of connection which is what we need more than anything when we are lonely. Researcher John Cacciopo calls this a “snowball” effect where disconnection spirals into even more disconnection. [1]

People who are lonely have been found in research studies to be scanning for threats because they unconsciously know that no one is looking out for them and thus know that no one will help them when they are hurt.

The good news is that this “snowball” effect of loneliness can be reversed. [1] However, to help a depressed or severely anxious person out of loneliness, they need more love and reassurance than they would have needed before they became lonely. The saddest part about this to me as a therapist is that many depressed and anxious people receive less love and reassurance as they become less enjoyable to be around. As they receive judgment and criticism from others, their retreat from the world accelerates and their loneliness deepens and increases.

If you would like to learn more about these findings and what you can do to decrease loneliness, I would strongly encourage you to buy the book below and begin to apply the principles to your life. It’s one of the best books I’ve read on the subject of depression and anxiety in many years. If you’d like additional assistance and support, please contact me.

1. Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression —And the Unexpected Solutions,

by Johann Hari

Please note that I will receive a small amount on purchases made from my website in return for directing people to the books I recommend most highly as an experienced therapist. However, I have been recommending this book to my clients, friends and family with no compensation, and will continue to recommend this particular book even if I don’t receive any compensation whatsoever.