Loneliness is a universal human experience that can affect us just as much as any physical illness. At the start of the new year, the faded hustle and bustle of the holidays can sometimes leave behind a sense of emptiness and isolation. So how can we overcome it?
As the American writer Fanny Howe says, loneliness is “an uninvited and uncreated companion,” who “slips in next to you” without prior notice.
Psychologists define loneliness in various ways and often divide it into categories depending on its duration.
But essentially, most specialists agree that loneliness, although a shared human experience, is an unwanted and hurtful emotion that can affect both our physical and mental health. Recent studies have found that loneliness can affect how our immune systems work, impair sleep quality, and put us at risk of heart disease.
A study from last year argued that loneliness “significantly increases the risk of premature mortality,” more than other health factors.
A survey aimed at adults aged 45 and over in the US found that around a third of respondents were rated as “lonely.” Reports that focused on children and young adults also showed that a significant percentage of respondents experienced loneliness between the ages of 17 and 25.
Finally, a study that attracted media attention claimed that 35 is the age at which men feel loneliest. In short, it seems that no age group is certain to face this damaging emotion.
Since the beginning of January is apparently the deadliest time of the year and the legendary Blue Monday — supposedly the most depressing day of the year, the third Monday in January — is just around the corner, we are looking for ways to overcome the feeling of loneliness that comes to us after the winter vacation.
Even if loneliness doesn’t happen at the end of the New Year parties, with the tools and ideas described below, you’re better equipped to ward off that unwanted companion whenever he tries to grab your hand—or heart—for you.
Recognition and response
John Cacioppo, the Distinguished Service Professor of Tiffany and Margaret Blake at the University of Chicago, IL, specializes in loneliness, why we can experience it, how it can affect us; and what we can do to cope with it.
In the TED talk, which you can watch below, Prof. Cacioppo argues that our society places an increasing emphasis on individualism and self-sufficiency, which often causes people to become isolated and refuse to acknowledge loneliness when they experience it.
“You don’t hear people talking about feeling lonely,” Prof. Cacioppo explains in the talk, “and that’s because loneliness is stigmatized, the psychological equivalent of being a loser in life or a weak person, and that’s really unfortunate because it means we’re more likely to deny being lonely What makes no greater sense than to deny that we feel hunger, thirst, or pain.”
According to Prof. Cacioppo, denial would only exacerbate feelings of loneliness and lead to counterproductive strategies, such as striving for further isolation. Therefore, the first step to combating the negative effects of this emotional state is to recognize that what we are feeling is loneliness.
“Second,” he continues, “understand what [loneliness] is doing to your brain, your body, your behavior.”
“As a member of a social species, it is dangerous to feel isolated and our brains go into self-preservation mode. This has some unwanted and unknown effects on how we think and act towards others.”
Professor John Cacioppo
As soon as we recognize our feelings and understand that they can seriously affect our mental and physical health and behavior, Prof. Cacioppo advises us to respond to our sense of loneliness by making and strengthening connections.
“You can encourage intimate connections by developing [a relationship with] someone you trust, confide in, and who can confide in you,” he explains. “You can encourage relational connection by simply sharing good times with friends and family,” without distractions.
Finally, “[C] collective solidarity can be fostered by becoming part of something that is bigger than yourself.” So why not “consider volunteering for something you enjoy”?
To support the mental wellbeing of you and your loved ones during this difficult time, visit our dedicated hub to discover more research-backed information.
A pet can help
When no human contact is available, it may be useful to enjoy the presence of a furry friend, as some studies suggest.
A study conducted last year found that owning a dog can help reduce the risk of premature death, particularly among people who live alone and are the group most at risk of debilitating loneliness.
Previous research has also found that pet owners may have better social and communication skills and be more involved in community activities.
Animals can be great conversation starters, and caring for a pet — by taking it out for a walk or going to the vet — can prevent lack of exercise and provide opportunities to meet new people.
If a larger animal such as a dog or cat seems too cumbersome or too expensive, why not consider a tiny, usually straightforward and much cheaper alternative, such as fish, snails, or insects?
A 2016 study found that older adults who were offered barbecues as pets to care for were less depressed within 8 weeks and had improved cognitive functions; from the start of the experiment.
Or you can volunteer at an animal shelter or offer to take care of friends’ and acquaintances’s pets when they go on vacation to enjoy the same benefits and improve your social relationships.
Rewrite the story
If you can’t escape being alone and it makes you feel lonely, try turning that loneliness into loneliness and use it to your own advantage. If you’re stuck on your own, why not use it as a “me time” opportunity so you can get to know yourself better, reduce stress, and develop new — or old — skills?
A study co-authored by clinical psychologist Ami Rokach states that “acceptance and reflection” are a way to transform the negative effects of loneliness into a more positive attitude.
The authors define this approach as “using the opportunity to be alone and to become aware of one’s fears, wishes and needs, as the most outstanding means of dealing with loneliness.”
Rokach and his co-author explain that we can avoid loneliness and its negative effects if we learn to welcome loneliness and use it to our own advantage.
“The results of the present study suggest that loneliness (i.e. welcome solitude as opposed to loneliness) can help effectively manage the pain of loneliness, as loneliness stops attempts to deny loneliness and thus its acceptance as existential and sometimes unavoidable human condition.”
In Addressing Loneliness, researchers from Tel Aviv University in Israel also suggest that mindfulness meditation could be useful in this context, as it “can reduce the subjective feeling of loneliness by reducing maladjusted cognitive functions.”
So if you’re alone and loneliness strikes, it might be a good idea to make yourself a cup of tea, play some relaxing meditation music, and enjoy the opportunity to make friends with yourself first.
“Think of loneliness as a good thing. Make room for it,” Turkle encourages in her TED talk, suggesting that learning to just be comfortable with ourselves could help us break through loneliness and improve our relationships with others.