Home Family & Relationship The Psychology of Loneliness: Understanding the Need for Connection

The Psychology of Loneliness: Understanding the Need for Connection

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What is the difference between being alone, and being lonely? Why are some people lonely, and others are not, in exactly the same circumstances? What impact does loneliness have on health and well-being? What causes loneliness? How can it be prevented or helped?

Loneliness is a yearning for connection that goes unfulfilled. While the words ‘alone’ and ‘lonely’ are often used interchangeably, there’s a crucial distinction between them. Many of us often seek solitude and voluntary aloneness; we want to have some pleasant time for self-reflection and rejuvenation. 

By contrast, loneliness is experienced as social isolation or a lack of meaningful human connection. 

The evolutionary roots of loneliness

We are social creatures. Our evolutionary ancestors relied on strong social bonds for survival. Mutual cooperation ensured access to food, protection from predators, successful reproduction, and adult fun. The need for connection, which is probably genetically hardwired, continues to shape our well-being today. 

Social interactions trigger the release of hormones like oxytocin, which creates feelings of trust, relaxation, and belonging. Conversely, chronic loneliness activates the stress response system and releases chemicals which are necessary in the short-term to deal with threats but profoundly harmful in the long-term, leading to a cascade of negative health consequences, both physical and mental.

Why some people feel lonely?

Loneliness is not a binary, off-or-on, one-size-fits-all experience; it has many manifestations. Loneliness can be experienced in crowded room, when surrounded by acquaintances, because there is no meaningful connection. 

Here are some factors that can increase vulnerability to loneliness:.

  • Social anxiety. People who experience social anxiety may struggle to initiate or maintain social interactions, leading to feelings of isolation.
  • Social skills deficits. People whose social skills are such that developing connections is more difficult for them, can find others unwilling to befriend them.
  • Life transitions and other life changes. Life transitions, such as moving to a new city, divorce, or the loss of a loved one, can disrupt social networks and increase loneliness.
  • Enduring characteristics. Introverts, while needing solitude, and indeed, being recharged by it, can also experience loneliness when they are deprived of social contact or have contact but no authentic connection.
  • Digital disconnect. While technology allows for connection, excessive reliance on social media can replace meaningful face-to-face interactions, leading to feelings of loneliness. A phrase has emerged which seems to pinpoint the problem: smartphones bring distant ones closer and make closer ones more distant.
  • Social stigma. Loneliness can carry a stigma, causing people to feel ashamed or hesitant to seek help. That is, loneliness can become a self-worsening phenomenon. 

How loneliness impacts health and well-being

Loneliness is emotionally unpleasant and has a significant impact on physical and mental health. Multiple studies have linked long-term loneliness to an increased risk of several adverse effects, such as:

  • Depression and anxiety. Loneliness can lead to feelings of hopelessness and isolation, and contribute to the development of depression and anxiety disorders.
  • Weak immune system. Stress lasting for protracted periods is known to impair the immune system. Chronic stress from loneliness can suppress the immune system, making people with the most severe loneliness-induced-stress more susceptible to infections and chronic illnesses.
  • Cognitive decline. Research suggests that loneliness can accelerate cognitive decline and increase the risk of dementia later in life. This harm may come indirectly: because a person interacts less with others, they have less reason to process complex social situations, and with lack of use, the brain may atrophy in the same way any other organ can waste away with lack of use.
  • Cardiovascular disease. Loneliness has been linked to an increased risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, and stroke. Stress-related hormones may mediate the higher risks.

What causes loneliness?

Before we can overcome, ameliorate, or even prevent loneliness, it is essential to understand its causes. Here are some of the key contributing factors:.

  • Social skill deficits. As with all human skills, there are levels. Some people have social skills that are so poor that they struggle with social interaction and have difficulty forming and maintaining connections.
  • Negative self-perception. People with low self-esteem or feelings of inadequacy are more likely to withdraw from, avoid, or refuse to engage in, social situations. They may feel they are not worthy of connection or fear rejection by others.
  • Mental unwellness. Some people have such poor mental health that they are incapable of forming or maintaining connections. Others with mental challenges do have the necessary social skills, but their behaviour, in some respects, is so disturbing to most people that they are shunned.
  • Life Circumstances. Living alone, being a new parent, facing the challenge of a disability, or being immobile by way of advanced old age can limit opportunities for social interaction, which in turn creates loneliness.
  • Poor quality relationships. Some people, who appear to have many friends and connections, are deeply lonely. Why? Those relationships are either of poor quality or inauthentic. If you have ever experienced feeling alone in a crowded room, you will know that physical proximity to people is not the same as meaningful connection. The feeling of loneliness can be strongest when someone is misunderstood, unsupported, or even vilified by those who, in well-functioning relationships, would be supportive.
  • Pessimism and cynicism. When people have had adverse experiences that have destroyed their ability to trust others, loneliness is almost inevitable. People who have suffered institutional betrayal, emotional, physical or sexual abuse at the hands of those who ought to have protected them, are all too common examples.
  • Combination of factors. In my experience, most people who are lonely, are so because several factors combine. For example, people who have social skills deficits, and prior experience of being rejected may have poor self-esteem, which leads to mental illness and an increasing cycle of isolation.

Preventing and addressing loneliness

The good news is that loneliness, when managed properly, is a transient experience. Here are some steps we can all take to prevent and address loneliness:.

  • Build and nurture relationships. Make time to form friendships, make connections, and engage in social activities. Join clubs or social groups that share your interests, and volunteer in your community.
  • Develop and practice your social skills. If social interaction is a challenge, consider joining a social skills training programme or seeking coaching or therapy. There are many well-written and helpful books on how to form and maintain good relationships: read some of them. Go online and conduct a search on social skills and their development. Watch some educational videos.
  • Seek support from others. Ask for help from those you have contact with. Many people respond well to being asked for their assistance and wisdom. Tell them that you want to improve your people skills and are looking for some advice and suggestions.
  • Challenge your negative thoughts. Be kind to yourself and counter your negative self-talk with empowering affirmations. You can and will make meaningful and authentic connections, if you set your mind to it.
  • Use technology to connect. Use technology to engage with loved ones who live far away. Where possible, meet people face-to-face. 
  • Seek professional help. If you’re struggling with loneliness, a therapist can provide support and guidance for developing coping mechanisms and building stronger social connections.

Loneliness as an empowering signal

Feeling lonely, for most people, is our minds giving us a signal for positive action: reach out, make connection; you need and will benefit from human interaction.

If you know someone who is lonely, what will you do to help? Your act of reaching out to connect could be the one step that changes someone’s life for the better. As my father was fond of saying: you only pass this way once; do what good you can. Leave this world a better place than you found it. 

If you are feeling lonely, drawing from the above, which steps will you take right now to make connection?




Professor Nigel MacLennan runs the performance coaching practice PsyPerform.

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