Loneliness is the feeling of being isolated, or alone. It comes from a gap between the relationships you have and the ones you need or want. It can come from a lack of close, personal connections with other people. Or it can come from not having enough regular social contact with others.
But loneliness isn't always tied to the amount of time you spend with other people. It's possible to spend a lot of time around other people and still feel lonely. For example, a person may be married and have a family and still feel lonely. And another person might spend a lot of time alone and not feel lonely at all.
How it feels
Loneliness doesn't feel the same for everyone. Some people call it an ache. Others describe it as feeling empty or sad, or feeling disconnected or misunderstood. You may feel like you don't fit in, or that people just don't "get" you. And if you're feeling lonely, you might also be feeling depressed or anxious.
Some people feel lonely for a while, but then the feeling goes away. Others feel lonely for long stretches of time, or all of the time. This is sometimes called chronic loneliness.
Who experiences loneliness
Anyone can feel lonely. But people are more likely to feel lonely if they:
- Live alone.
- Lack a daily companion.
- Have health problems.
- Have few social connections in their community.
- Are unemployed.
- Work from home, or work in a place where most communication is electronic.
- Don't feel like the relationships they do have are meaningful.
Loneliness can also be more likely during certain stages of life. For example, people in their late 20s often have a lot of life changes happen as they begin adulthood. People in mid-life may start to see changes in their own health and the health of their friends. And people in the late stages of life may experience changes in where they live, a decline in health, and the death of friends or family members. These times in life can be difficult and lonely.
Loneliness can cause higher amounts of stress hormones in your body. This can have negative physical effects on your body. It can make it hard for you to sleep well, think clearly, and avoid illness. Feeling lonely can also make it feel hard to take care of your health, or to get help when you're having problems.
If you're lonely for a long time, your risk for certain health conditions may increase. These conditions can include:
- Heart disease.
- Type 2 diabetes.
Taking steps to reduce loneliness
It might seem overwhelming to think about how to find ways to be social or make more meaningful connections. But taking small steps can make a big difference. Here are some ideas to think about.
- Try volunteering.
Look for organizations you're interested in that have needs you can help with. For example, animal shelters often need people to walk dogs or play with cats. And local food banks may need people to organize shelves or help visitors find what they need.
- Consider a meet-up group.
Many cities have meet-up groups organized around activities, interests, or hobbies. You may find groups for hikers, caregivers, people who enjoy board games, or for those who just like drinking coffee. Websites like www.meetup.com can help you find groups near you.
- Think about getting a pet.
If you can care for one, a pet can be an excellent companion. The type of pet you choose is up to you. Your local animal shelter can help you find a pet that fits your lifestyle.
- Shift negative thinking.
When you feel lonely, it's common to have negative thoughts and emotions. But if negative thinking becomes a pattern, it can make you start to believe that the positive changes you're looking for aren't possible. If you can learn to catch negative thinking, you can learn to shift it.
- Consider seeing a counselor or other mental health professional.
It can be hard to make changes in your habits or your thinking on your own. And it can be scary to think about putting yourself "out there" in social situations. In some cases, loneliness may be part of a mental health condition, such as depression. If you feel like you need some support getting started, or if loneliness is making it hard for you to function, a counselor or other mental health professional can help.