Loneliness is an emotional state caused when people perceive themselves to be isolated from other people. Loneliness is painful and the person experiencing loneliness often shows signs of depression.
However, loneliness differs from a depressed mood in one important way- loneliness also makes a person feel unsafe.
Other effects of loneliness include increased stress, decreased immunity, and disrupted sleep.1 Loneliness puts your body into a high-alert mode, making you hypervigilant to environmental threats, particularly social threats.
Loneliness also impairs higher-order cognitive functioning, meaning you’re less likely to score well on a mentally demanding task when you’re feeling lonely.
What causes loneliness in people?
Okay, loneliness feels bad and makes us dumb but why do we experience it? It’s a universal feeling and this suggests that loneliness must have had some advantages over evolutionary time.
To understand the purpose of loneliness we need to start with the fact that humans are social mammals.
Sticking together has helped human tribes survive for thousands of years so it’s not surprising that we have psychological mechanisms geared toward assessing our social life. How good or bad our social life was in ancestral environments could’ve easily meant the difference between life and death.
An ancestral human separated from his or her tribe couldn’t survive for long.
We still have these mental adaptations that motivate us to gauge the state of our current social life. If our social life is thriving, we feel good and if we find ourselves lonely, we feel bad.
The bad feelings of loneliness are there to motivate us to seek social connection. The depressive symptoms that accompany loneliness reflect in our facial expressions and body language, which may motivate others who see us in this state to connect with us.2
Therefore, the antidote to loneliness is social connection. As soon as your mind finds that your social life is back on track, it’ll stop sending you the feelings of loneliness.
The challenge in overcoming loneliness
Of course, lonely people know that they need to seek social connection to end their bad feelings. Yet, they keep struggling with the feelings of loneliness. They keep struggling when trying to form social connections. But why?
I’m sure you’ve noticed that we tend to get along with people who’re like us, who’re, at least in part, our reflection. Like attracts like. We like hanging out with people who share our thoughts, beliefs, interests, and values. Friendships with people who’re like us seem to emerge naturally without much effort.
By liking what you like, they signal to you, “I like what you like. Therefore, I like you.” In this way, people with whom we develop social bonds help us validate our life choices, tastes, and interests- they validate who we are. It feels good. It gives a boost to our self-worth when we find that other people like what we like.
Thus, our social connections become a well of self-worth and self-esteem for us to keep drawing from. We value ourselves because others value us.
Of course, the downside of all this is that we tend to become dependent on others to feel good about ourselves. We are caught in an endless cycle of trying to gain and maintain their approval. We do have the social life that we want, and we don’t experience loneliness but our sense of worth is heavily reliant on others.
People naturally become friends with those who’re like them and approve of them. But some people realize that they need to stop caring what others think of them. They realize they can’t base their self-worth on such a fragile thing as others’ approval.
So, they decide to derive their sense of worth from within and try to do things that impress them, not necessarily others. They achieve great things in life, build their character and personality, and develop an identity of their own.
However, they soon realize that to develop an identity of their own, they increasingly need to break off from people who don’t match up to their newly-built identity. One by one, they lose their social connections.
They realize that in the process of getting rid of their previous approval-seeking personality, they’ve thrown away the baby with the bathwater. They feel lonely and miss the social life they once enjoyed.
The challenge for them now is to seek social connection again, but without losing the identity and personality they’ve worked so hard to build.
The first and foremost thing that they can do is realize that others have identities of their own that don’t have to correspond to theirs. Sure, it’s hard being friends with those who’re not like you but the alternative is loneliness.
The way out is to realize that others have a right to their own identity. You can’t go about changing them if you want them in your life. If you do, they’ll lose themselves and end up resenting you.
Yet, people do the opposite of this when they enter friendships and relationships. In an attempt to seek approval and validation, they impose their own identity- their likes and dislikes- onto others. This is the shortcut to loneliness and eliminating people from your life.
Instead, when you form a relationship with someone, you should see them for who they are. You should be like, “Okay, person X has these positive traits and these negative traits. Their positive traits are amazing and their negative traits are tolerable. I’m glad to have X in my life.”
Also, “X likes some things that I don’t like and I like some things that X doesn’t like. That’s okay. There are also things that we both like and dislike.”
This is a more rational and balanced approach to relationships than trying to convert every other person into you. This approach will bring more people into your life. You’ll acknowledge their positive and negative traits and find a common ground to build the relationship on.
Quality vs. quantity of relationships
You can have hundreds of people in your life and still feel lonely. If you’re accumulating more people into your life without developing a meaningful relationship with them, you put yourself on the path to loneliness.
The strategy I described in the previous section will open you up to more people but you’ll have to filter out most people, retaining those few gems you want to form lasting relationships with.
These few, lasting relationships can be more satisfying than hundreds of superficial relationships.
What constitutes lasting, satisfying relationships?
Well, the relationships where other people allow you to express who you really are, and you do the same. These are the people you don’t have to hide from, with whom you share your deepest joys and concerns.
They understand you and you understand them. There’s a harmony between you two and no one’s trying to radically change anyone.
Romantic relationships overcome loneliness
Sure we feel good when we have friends and relatives to talk to and hang out with. But nothing beats entering a romantic relationship when you’re trying to overcome loneliness.
This is because romantic relationships tend to have a higher degree of intimacy attached to them. Evolution ultimately only cares about reproduction. Being in a romantic relationship means an opportunity to pass on your genes and your brain rewards you for it.
Often, when people worry about loneliness, they don’t worry about not having friends as much as they do about not being in a romantic relationship.
When people enter romantic relationships, they tend to spend less time with their friends because now, evolutionarily speaking, they’re after a more important goal.
‘I hate people’ may mean ‘I am lonely’
As discussed earlier, loneliness makes people feel unsafe. They become hypervigilant to potential social threats in the environment. This can lead them to perceive even harmless social situations and events as harmful. They view others negatively and recall events and instances that confirm their perception.3
This is a useful behaviour when the lonely person is, in fact, in a hostile situation but more often than not, they fabricate hostile situations in their minds. This is essentially a defence mechanism to protect themselves from the ‘hostile’ others.
- Cacioppo, J. T., Hawkley, L. C., Crawford, L. E., Ernst, J. M., Burleson, M. H., Kowalewski, R. B., … & Berntson, G. G. (2002). Loneliness and health: Potential mechanisms. Psychosomatic medicine, 64(3), 407-417.
- Cacioppo, J. T., Cacioppo, S., & Boomsma, D. I. (2014). Evolutionary mechanisms for loneliness. Cognition & emotion, 28(1), 3-21.
- Duck, S., Pond, K., & Leatham, G. (1994). Loneliness and the evaluation of relational events. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 11(2), 253-276.