You’re lying in bed, your room dark around you. Blue light shines on your fingertips as you scroll through your phone, words and images flashing by your eyes. You’re waiting, watching other people live their lives. A sinking feeling gnaws at your stomach as you yearn for something—anything—to make you feel less alone.
While it’s not something people talk about much, loneliness is a common feeling, with three out of every five people reporting they felt lonely in 2019. The COVID-19 pandemic only worsened this crisis: a Harvard University survey taken in October 2020 found 73 percent of respondents felt at least occasionally lonely. Slightly more than one-third felt alone “frequently,” “almost all the time,” or “all the time.”
Loneliness is more devastating than many of us realize—it has a profound impact on a person’s mental and physical health, and has even been found to be an accurate predictor of early mortality. For those of us who have been suffering from loneliness, it can help to understand what it is, why it makes us feel the way we do, and how, exactly, we can overcome it.
What is loneliness?
Loneliness is not just being alone; it’s feeling alone in a way that causes you distress.
The feeling of loneliness stems from the mental gap between what you want from your relationships and what you actually have. While this can be a difference in quantity (e.g. not having as many friends as you want), this feeling usually stems from the quality of relationships you have.
The effects of loneliness
Most people can recognize the gnawing, painful longing that accompanies loneliness. But beyond feelings of sadness and depression, loneliness has been shown to affect the way our minds perceive social situations.
“[Lonely people] don’t expect the other person to like them, and then it becomes kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy,” says Dan Perlman, emeritus professor of human development and family studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
People who feel lonely tend to think they’re unlikeable, expect more negative social reactions, remember these negative interactions, and build an overall negative picture of their social experiences, Perlman says. This, he explains, can make them want to withdraw from social interactions altogether.
People who feel lonely also don’t sleep as well, which has myriad effects: decreased immune response, less mental alertness and focus, and increased stress and anxiety. This likely contributes to the long-term consequences of loneliness, which can damage multiple bodily systems and eventually lead to death.
Loneliness has been linked to earlier cognitive decline, as well as cardiovascular events including heart attacks, congestive heart failures, and strokes. Louise Hawkley, a senior research scientist studying loneliness and social isolation at the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, says that loneliness can also change hormonal regulation, increasing inflammatory responses associated with chronic diseases such as diabetes and high blood pressure. Loneliness can even affect the body at the genetic level, where genes that promote inflammation are expressed more and genes that decrease inflammation are expressed less.
Why do we feel lonely?
For such an unpleasant emotion that affects so much of the body, there must be a powerful evolutionary motive for loneliness. The prevailing theory is that this feeling is our cue to seek out social relationships.
“[Loneliness] is like hunger or thirst or pain: it’s either pushing us away from or drawing us to social relationships. Because our social networks are as important to us as food, or water, or avoiding pain,” Hawkley says.
How to cope
If loneliness is a discrepancy between the relationships you want and the relationships you have, there are two ways to shrink that gap: either change the expectations you have for your relationships, or change the relationships you have.
Identify your needs
Moe Brown, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Atlanta, recommends starting by checking in with yourself.
“If we only focus on external people and we haven’t worked on ourselves, we haven’t opened up our source for connection. It’s like pouring into a bottomless pit,” he says.
Brown encourages his clients to connect with themselves through self-care practices, which he defines as “anything that grows your practice of compassion, gratitude, kindness, and self love.” He suggests endeavors such as journaling, gardening, crafting, running, meditating, or cooking—or any solitary activity that leads to your spiritual and personal growth.
Brown also recommends distinguishing if your loneliness is a result of comparison—if you feel like your relationships aren’t measuring up to the ones you’ve come to expect from media—or if you have genuine emotional or social needs that aren’t being fulfilled by your current relationships.
Deepen your relationships
The easiest way to develop meaningful social relationships is to deepen your current relationships so that they become more emotionally fulfilling. While this can take many forms, you may want to consider reaching out in vulnerable situations, like when you’re feeling sad or lonely. Doing so might seem scary, but it can strengthen these relationships in profound ways.
Making new friends is another way to find that social fulfillment. Spending time with hobbies or in environments you enjoy can bring you into contact with like-minded people and build new relationships—whether you’re at your favorite bookstore, a pottery class, or a rock climbing gym.
Find connection via the internet
As with many social issues plaguing the US, the same groups that have been historically oppressed—including communities of color, women, and LGBTQ+ communities—are also uniquely vulnerable to loneliness.
This was especially challenging during the pandemic. Jor-El Caraballo, a therapist in New York City, says police brutality, job instability, and conflicting messages of social value placed additional burdens on many people of color, piling on top of the disconnection and loneliness everyone was feeling from COVID.
“I think that one way that people really tried to manage that was everyone was getting online. The internet was really a safe haven for people to explore their identities and connect with people and find safety and family,” Caraballo says.
Living in the land of the lonely
A compelling misconception is the idea that if you feel lonely, it’s because you are not good at relationships. This is not necessarily true.
“I think of loneliness as a social failure, not as an individual failure. And when you see that large numbers of people are lonely, I think it’s a sign that communities aren’t functioning well, that we don’t have a social infrastructure that really functions very well,” says Richard Weissbourd, co-director of Harvard’s human development and psychology master’s program.
Weissbourd explains that many people feel like it’s their own fault if they’re lonely, but this isn’t the case—our societal priorities often revolve around achievement and work, instead of social fulfillment. As a result, it’s hard to find spaces where social relationships are the priority, and loneliness often ensues as a result.
Ultimately, getting to know and respect your own social needs in the same way you acknowledge your physical needs is one powerful way to improve your health, productivity, and happiness.
“Because you’re not ever alone,” Brown says. “You are with yourself.”
Morgan Sweeney is a multimedia science communicator with a bachelor's degree in cognitive science from McGill University. She's previously written about the psychology of human experience through psychological fantasy and machine learning podcasts. When she's not asking questions about the nature of human existence, she's outside swimming in the closest watering hole or playing with her cats. You can read more of her work here.