Orson Wells wrote, “We are born alone, we live alone, we die alone. Only through our love and friendship can we create for the moment that we are not alone.” The experience of loneliness strikes humans of all shapes, sizes, ages and demographics. We can feel alone when we are with others, and there is a difference between loneliness and introversion. The experience of loneliness is pervasive this time of year, when we feel the let down and after effects of a holiday season.
There are certain ages that loneliness experiences appear to peak or have higher incident rates. Impacting 75% of Americans, individuals in their late 20s, mid 50s, and late 80s are the age ranges where loneliness spikes. Corresponding with developmental stages identified by Erik Erikson, these are the psychosocial crisis period of intimacy versus isolation, defined by our coupling-up experiences, generativity versus stagnation, where we reflect on the impact we have left on the world, and ego integrity versus despair, a time of reflection and fulfillment.
Loneliness is a highly subjective experience, and therefore there are no universal definitions or universal solutions. It is an experience or mindset of being isolated, unwanted, and alone, and is based upon our environmental experiences and internal factors, such as self-esteem. Those that feel chronic loneliness are at risk for many health difficulties, including depression, increased stress, decreased memory and learning, increased risk of memory disorders, alcoholism and drug abuse, and poor decision making, among others.
Once you distinguish between the feeling of loneliness, which is an emotion, and isolation, the condition of being truly alone, you can push yourself to address the feeling. Track your mood; is there a certain memory or condition in which you tend to feel more loneliness? Identify the triggers, and target them. Do something solo that still breeds connection, such as visiting a coffee shop or attending a movie. That first time of doing something completely alone can be daunting, but it may end up being rewarding.
Physicians and health care providers are beginning to recognize the impact that loneliness has on overall well-being. Social supports are inquired about as part of routine screening, and initiatives to create community and support networks are being established across the globe. This can like bringing in volunteers and in-home supports to those who may be medically housebound, or creating community support groups and activities that allow for commonality and connection. Volunteering together, or using websites like Meetup.com to find individuals with common interests and hobbies can help when you are feeling lonely. There are other ways to use technology to bridge connection gaps, such as using video messaging apps to connect with loved ones from afar.
As with many things, gratitude can be a solution for loneliness. Because the experience of loneliness is a mindset, actively harnessing our thoughts to focus on our appreciations can chase away the lonely thoughts. Gratitude is an important factor of mindfulness because it is so mutually exclusive to our more toxic and negative thoughts. Remember too that familiarity comes from repeated interactions and proximity. It usually takes on average 7 conversations or social exchanges to elevate a social relationship. Practice being outgoing and social with service personnel, acquaintances, or friendly strangers. Look to the past, as well. Are there friendships or loved ones that have faded away? Perhaps now would be a perfect time to reconnect and fortify the connections that have already been established.
The important thing to remember with loneliness is that you aren’t alone. With 3 out of 4 of our fellow humans experiencing the phenomenon, the most isolating of feelings is actually one of the more pervasive and universal. Growing awareness brings with it increased supports and decreased stigmas. It is ok to ask for help and support if you experience loneliness, and it is important to remind yourself that it is a feeling – as real is it feels, it is a mindset that is fully internal. Changing the environment and changing the thought patterns might help with the feeling of being alone.