First, let’s accept the premise that being lonely, over an extended period, will impact your health.
A Google Scholar search reveals a mountain of published studies and meta-analyses providing evidence why loneliness is both a personal and public health issue.
Following the research comes important suggestions to combat it, which range from targeting the individual (e.g., join a group), local governments (e.g., more communal spaces) and national parliament (e.g., legislation and representation).
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For this piece, we’ll work at the individual level and we’ll take a slightly left of centre approach.
For our long-gone ancestors, social isolation meant inevitable death in the wilderness. So, we’re hardwired to fear isolation but studies* show that the fear response is still so disruptive that a persistent sense of rejection or isolation can impair DNA transcription in our immune cells. However, since the industrial revolution about 250 years ago, the world has changed, much faster than the evolution of our bodies and minds.
Fast forward to 2023 and we can project “ourselves” to the palm of someone’s hand almost anywhere in the world. Additionally, we have the ability to bring almost anyone right into our living room.
So, why are we feeling lonely?
Because we want something that we currently lack.
Now what can we do about that?
It’s agreed that loneliness occurs because of THE GAP between our ideal level of social interaction and our current reality.
Mindset being a contributing factor is good news, because that’s something we can learn to shape.
We can’t control other people’s capacity or desire to spend time with us. We can’t force a romantic connection, and we can’t insist that our friendships be more fulfilling. So how CAN we bridge the gap between ideal and reality?
Here are 6 ways.
1: Stop wanting the thing that you lack.
Oh, it’s that easy, is it? For some people, yes. “Radical acceptance” is a starting point (or resting point) taught by many wellness practitioners and spiritual leaders.
2: Separate loneliness from other feelings like grief or fear or boredom
Address your life circumstances and emotional responses individually.
Are you lonely, or are you responding in a very natural way to losing someone you love?
Are you lonely, or are you afraid that you’re ultimately unlovable?
Are you lonely, or are you yearning to be on a life path you feel more excited about?
Do the investigative work to get down to the heart of the issue and heal the wound with an appropriate treatment, otherwise it’s like trying to cure thirst with salt water.
3: Choose the solution you are ready for
To address loneliness, you have to prioritise lifestyle changes which could include moving house, adopting a pet, committing to attend regular programs or repairing relationships. These are significant tactics and may require a lot of effort, so be aware that you will only be willing to take on something challenging, when you feel it’s worth it.
4: “Reality” check your world view
Most of what we see on social media is curated and the TV we stream is scripted. Now I know that sounds obvious, but it’s easy to forget. We’re seeing devised characters, edited versions of reality. Also remember that consumerism plays a part. The role of advertising is to present a solution, so first they must assure you that you have a problem, which their product will solve. Keep a watchful eye for messages that are designed to make you feel like who you are and the life you have isn’t “enough” of something. Remember that relationships and families are sacred and private to most people, so very few of them let the world see the full, authentic representation of what’s really going on for them.
5: Find your “normal”
It's important to set your own standards for what is fulfilling in terms of social connection. Listen to your body and mind before and after you attend events. What is it telling you? Which parts of the social interaction filled your cup and which ones drained it? Try skipping events, hosting your own, leaving early or arriving late, taking unusual outings and pretty soon you’ll find a pattern that balances your companionship needs with your social battery.
6: Lose the fear of solitude
Alone time can be just as valuable as companionship, so it might help to embrace periods when you’re experiencing less frequent connection and use them for self discovery, creativity and personal growth that can enrich the rest of your life. When you’re alone, it’s easier to identify what else can bring you joy or fulfillment.
As the old Greek Philosopher Heraclitus says, “change is constant”, so if being alone is making you feel lonely, just hang in there, it won’t be like that forever.
*Cacioppo, J. T.,& Patrick, W. (2008). Loneliness: Human nature and the need for social connection. WW Norton & Co.