Why Are We All So Lonely?

Why Are We All Lonely?

Loneliness is a feeling, a universal human emotion that is a part of everyone’s life. It can also be a stage of life, whether due to travel, moving, starting a new school or losing friends. Loneliness, in this form, is also an inevitable part of living. We go through life stages where we have a wide network of friends, and periods where we feel like we have no one around us. Yet, the development of modern society has led to loneliness becoming a more permanent state of mind for many. This overall leads to poor health, weaker immune systems and even associated higher rates of mortality.

I think the first thing people point to is our increased reliance on social media. This isn’t necessarily untrue. As our connections to other people shift to online, it isn’t the same experience as connecting to people in real life. Being able to talk out loud to others and actually hear their laughter and responses just hits different, ya know? Personally, social media just seems so performative and disingenuous that lately, I’ve been avoiding it because it feeds into my misanthropic tendencies, which doesn’t encourage me to reach out and connect with more people (but more on this later).

But like all social issues, social media is more of a mirror that shows us our issues than the true source of them. One interesting point that I got from this informative video on loneliness is that the shift from agrarian societies to modern industrialized societies means that people spend more time by themselves, and the amount of community building and human contact needed to run modern societies is a lot less than in the past. In fact, for most of human history, we relied on our communities for our very survival. And while this is still technically true, we only need to interact with very few people to get by. Even small daily interactions are fading away. I know that I personally will mobile order coffee whenever I can, use self-checkouts at grocery stores, and get food and other things delivered in order to avoid social interaction. While these features were created for convenience, they reflect an overall isolated, urban life that we are moving towards.

There are also certain populations that are more at risk than others. The “Loneliness Epidemic” is especially prevalent in senior populations, and especially dangerous. Loneliness is associated with earlier death in senior populations, and some studies report up to 43% of the sampled senior population experience loneliness. Again, our communities and families are not nearly as central to our lives anymore, and many seniors have significantly less social interaction than the rest of the adult population, especially as seniors age and their social circles get smaller and smaller as more of their friends die. Industrialized countries have overall a lack of emphasis on intergenerational relationships, which could also help mitigate against senior loneliness (especially considering that living alone does not actually affect loneliness in seniors).

So what do we do when we feel lonely? Well as with most things, there’s an answer for what we may tend to do and what we should do. While being alone can cause feelings of loneliness, loneliness is our perception of ourselves, not necessarily an accurate view of how alone (or not alone) we really are. But, the more time we spend feeling lonely, the more likely we are to self-isolate or discourage ourselves from social interaction. This is what I was hinting at earlier as far as what may cause loneliness. I have definitely experienced self-isolation to varying degrees throughout my life, and I would consider myself someone who is prone to self-isolating when faced with stressful situations (hence lack of social media use). On the more severe side, I noticed my social skills atrophy and I felt like I couldn’t “relate” to people like I used to. Because I didn’t feel like I was good at being social, I would socialize less, which only made feelings of loneliness worse. Loneliness can be a trap that we let ourselves believe is just the way things are, without taking into account how our own behaviors influence our beliefs. Plus, social interaction really is a metaphorical muscle; the less time we spend working it out, the harder it’s going to be to use it.

The best way to combat loneliness? Try and reach out to people you feel would be the easiest for you to hang around in order to start slowly working out those social muscles again. Maybe a friend you haven’t seen in a while, or one of your friends that you just haven’t had the chance to see lately. It’s easy to convince ourselves that people don’t actually want to see you, but what if your friends are feeling just as lonely and stuck and are also hesitant to initiate contact? Or, if hanging out one-on-one seems too daunting, making small trips into the public to increase your contact around people can also be helpful. For example, actually going up to the counter to order your coffee instead of relying on mobile ordering. If you’ve gone a while without having a positive interaction with other humans, especially people who you like to spend time with, you may be surprised how much it will boost your mood when you’re feeling lonely.

So for people who are feeling lonely, don’t discount your feelings. Loneliness, while a universal emotion, can cause major damage if left unexamined for long periods of time. It is important for us to understand why loneliness is such a problem so that we can combat the epidemic facing industrialized countries, as well as provide support so people can speak up and say, “Hey, I’ve been struggling lately because I’m feeling lonely” and have that struggle be considered valid and important. Because really, it is. We all need to be more aware of the importance of interpersonal relationships in our lives in order to help those, and ourselves, from feeling lonely.