What You Should Know About Loneliness

Causes and Health Consequences of Feeling Lonely

Hispanic teenaged girl sitting alone at prom
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Loneliness is a universal human emotion that is both complex and unique to each individual. Because it has no single common cause, the prevention and treatment of this potentially damaging state of mind can vary dramatically.

For example, a lonely child who struggles to make friends at his school has different needs than a lonely old man whose wife has recently died.

In order to understand loneliness, it's important to take a closer look at exactly what we mean by the term "lonely," as well as the various causes, health consequences, symptoms, and potential treatments for loneliness.

Loneliness Is a State of Mind

While common definitions of loneliness describe it as a state of solitude or being alone, loneliness is actually a state of mind. Loneliness causes people to feel empty, alone, and unwanted. People who are lonely often crave human contact, but their state of mind makes it more difficult to form connections with other people.

Loneliness, according to many experts, is not necessarily about being alone. Instead, if you feel alone and isolated, then that is how loneliness plays into your state of mind. For example, a college freshman might feel lonely despite being surrounded by roommates and other peers. A soldier beginning his military career might feel lonely after being deployed to a foreign country, despite being constantly surrounded by other troop members.

Causes

According to research by Dr. John Cacioppo, Tiffany and Margaret Blake Distinguished Service Professor and the founder and director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago, co-founder of the field of social neuroscience, and one of the top loneliness experts in the U.S., loneliness is strongly connected to genetics.

Other contributing factors include situational variables, such as physical isolation, moving to a new location, and divorce. The death of someone significant in a person's life can also lead to feelings of loneliness. Additionally, it can be a symptom of a psychological disorder such as depression.

Loneliness can also be attributed to internal factors such as low self-esteem. People who lack confidence in themselves often believe that they are unworthy of the attention or regard of other people. This can lead to isolation and chronic loneliness.

Health Risks Associated With Loneliness

Loneliness has a wide range of negative effects on both physical and mental health, including:

  • Depression and suicide
  • Cardiovascular disease and stroke
  • Increased stress levels
  • Decreased memory and learning
  • Antisocial behavior
  • Poor decision-making
  • Alcoholism and drug abuse
  • The progression of Alzheimer's disease
  • Altered brain function

These are not the only areas in which loneliness takes its toll.

"Lonely adults consume more alcohol and get less exercise than those who are not lonely. Their diet is higher in fat, their sleep is less efficient, and they report more daytime fatigue. Loneliness also disrupts the regulation of cellular processes deep within the body, predisposing us to premature aging." —Dr. John Cacioppo

Researchers have found that low levels of loneliness are associated with marriage, higher incomes, and higher educational status. High levels of loneliness are associated with physical health symptoms, living alone, small social networks, and low-quality social relationships.

Close Friends Combat Loneliness

Researchers also suggest that loneliness is becoming more common in the United States. Since 1985, the number of people in the U.S. with no close friends has tripled. The rise of the internet and ironically, social media, are partially to blame.

Experts believe that it is not the quantity of social interaction that combats loneliness, but it's the quality.

Having just three or four close friends is enough to ward off loneliness and reduce the negative health consequences associated with this state of mind.

Loneliness Can Be Contagious

One study suggests that loneliness may actually be contagious. In a ten-year study, researchers examined how loneliness spreads in social networks. The results indicated that people close to someone experiencing loneliness were 52 percent more likely to become lonely as well.

Tips to Prevent Loneliness

Loneliness can be overcome. It does require a conscious effort on your part to make a change. Making a change, in the long run, can make you happier, healthier, and enable you to impact others around you in a positive way.

Here are some ways to prevent loneliness:

  • Recognize that loneliness is a sign that something needs to change.
  • Understand the effects that loneliness has on your life, both physically and mentally.
  • Consider doing community service or another activity that you enjoy. These situations present great opportunities to meet people and cultivate new friendships and social interactions.
  • Focus on developing quality relationships with people who share similar attitudes, interests, and values with you.
  • Expect the best. Lonely people often expect rejection, so instead focus on positive thoughts and attitudes in your social relationships.

Sources:

Beaton C. Why Millennials Are Lonely. Forbes. Published February 9, 2017.

Cacioppo JT, Fowler JH, Christakis NA. Alone in the Crowd: The Structure and Spread of Loneliness in a Large Social Network. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. January 1, 2010;97(6):977-991. doi:10.1037/a0016076.

Cacioppo JT, Decety J. What Are the Brain Mechanisms on Which Psychological Processes Are Based? Perspectives on Psychological Science. January 2009;4(1):10-18. doi:10.1111/j.1745-6924.2009.01094.x.

Ebesutani C, Drescher C, Reise S, et al. The Loneliness Questionnaire—Short Version: An Evaluation of Reverse-Worded and Non-Reverse-Worded Items Via Item Response Theory. Journal of Personality Assessment. Published March 9, 2012.

University of Chicago. Loneliness Affects How the Brain Operates. Science Daily. Published February 17, 2009.