Are you lonely?
It’s a difficult feeling, and the solution seems obvious: go out and meet some people!
But there’s a really big problem…
The real truth about loneliness and how to beat it
The problem is that loneliness is not the same as being alone.
In fact you may be feeling the most lonely in your life while in a big crowd of people or casual friends.
1) Loneliness is about lack of quality, not quantity
In their 2018 paper Quality not quantity: loneliness subtypes, psychological trauma, and mental health in the US adult population, Psychology Professor Philip Hyland Ph. D. of Trinity College, Dublin and a team of researchers put this hypothesis to the test.
As they note, the two principle types of loneliness that have been traditionally identified are social and emotional.
Social loneliness is typically associated with not having enough deep connections to make you feel seen, heard and understood, while emotional loneliness is a lack of intimacy and bonds with a close partner.
Hyland et. al.’s study found that a lack of close and meaningful bonds was far more of a devastating problem than a lack of socializing and meeting anyone.
As they note:
“Our findings revealed that the perception of reduced quality, not quantity, of interpersonal relationships was associated with poor psychological health.
From a societal perspective and in the interests of reducing the burden of psychological distress, efforts should be made to enhance the quality of social connections as opposed to promoting the virtues of larger social networks.”
2) Loneliness is far more common than many realize
If you’re feeling lonely, you’re not alone.
Feeling very lonely is actually far more common than many of us realize.
Hyland and his team found that 17.1% of US adults overall between 18 to 70-years-old, feel lonely and that this gets much higher as you get older.
In fact, a stunning 35% of adults over 45 report feeling quite lonely on a regular basis.
That’s a massive, huge amount of people.
It includes people of all demographic backgrounds, marital statuses, religions and classes.
Although loneliness varies widely between groups, there is no guarantee than an outer structure, strong family or large friend group will alleviate or prevent feeling very lonely.
If you feel that you’re fundamentally not understood, then it’s impossible to be accepted or even related to for who you really are, whether it’s in a romantic relationship or with friends.
This can lead to crushing loneliness.
3) Loneliness gets worse when we rely on someone for happiness
A lack of close partner bonds is a big reason why Hyland and his team found people are lonely to the point of psychological distress.
However, relying on someone for your happiness in a codependent way can be even worse than having nobody to rely on.
Many of us would like a romantic partner, but we can also become so attached to the idea of somebody fulfilling us that we lose ourselves in another person and become fully reliant on them for our emotional validation.
When you’re dealing with feeling very alienated and lonely, it’s easy to become frustrated and even feel helpless.
You may even be tempted to throw in the towel and give up on love or just embrace your needy, desperate side that wants to find someone – anyone – to cling to for validation.
I want to suggest doing something different.
It’s something I learned from the world-renowned shaman Rudá Iandê. He taught me that the way to find love and intimacy is not what we have been culturally conditioned to believe.
In fact, many of us self-sabotage and trick ourselves for years, getting in the way of meeting a partner who can truly fulfill us.
As Rudá explains in this mind blowing free video, many of us chase love and relationships in a toxic way that ends up stabbing us in the back.
I found his insights extremely helpful and clarifying, and I encourage you to watch the free video as well.
What else did Hyland’s study find?
Analyzing data and findings from the De Jong Gierveld Loneliness Scale, Hyland’s study found that feeling lonely depends a lot on why you are feeling lonely.
They also found that those who feel socially lonely to a moderate degree don’t have a higher rate of anxiety, depression and psychological distress.
However, those who feel emotionally lonely as a result of lack of close ties romantically and platonically do experience noticeably higher correlation of psychological distress.
Childhood and adult trauma is also tied into this and correlates to those who are more prone to experience loneliness.
The bottom line is that Hyland and his team found that all loneliness is not created equal and affects people very differently.
Some are more vulnerable to becoming distressed by loneliness, but the trend is that a lack of meaningful and close personal relationships is psychologically and socially devastating.
You can have 100 friends who you can have a great time with at the bar, but may end up far more psychologically unwell and lonely than someone with one friend or partner who they truly relate to and love.
The scary truth about loneliness
The scary truth about loneliness is that loneliness is killing us. This isn’t just in a metaphorical or psychological way.
It’s also literally harming our bodies.
As Professor Gillian Leithman notes:
“40 per cent of Americans don’t feel close to others at any given time. And the number of lonely Americans has doubled since the 1980s…
…While obesity increases your odds of an early death by 20 per cent, loneliness increases your odds by 45 per cent.”
That’s a serious public health crisis!
Coupled with Hyland’s findings, it’s very convincing data to point the way to a more meaningful society that prizes deep connection over superficial socialization, hookups and fun.
Clearly these things are not bringing people deep satisfaction or psychological wellbeing.
While it’s crucial to not rely on others for our happiness, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t prize and value those who do make us happy and make us feel understood and vice versa.
It’s necessary for both our body and soul that we have these kind of relationships in our lives.
Finding your tribe
The thing about finding your tribe is that it’s often a smaller-scale initiative than finding a group.
While group belonging and a sense of tied fates and meaning is vital, a tribe can be as simple as you and your wife and family, or you and your best friend.
Your tribe is the close ties that can’t be broken and that involve high interdependence and healthy attachment.
Your tribe is your commitment to others and their commitment to you.
It’s high-quality and committed interpersonal relationships that actually mean something.
Sifting through the results
Looking through Hyland’s results, which are available on the full version of the study via DeepDyve, we can see that there are many factors which influence loneliness.
It’s not always possible to fully separate personal psychological problems and past trauma from being hit with loneliness to a greater degree than others, but it’s clearly also not always possible to separate emotional loneliness experiences with a greater degree of trauma and psychological problems.
The two are innately tied in a disturbing and vicious cycle.
As Hyland found, if you have experienced significant childhood trauma you have a 28% higher chance of being seriously affected by emotional loneliness as an adult.
They also found a “U-curve” in the sense that younger people tended to have quite higher levels of emotional loneliness, settling out to lower levels of emotional loneliness in middle age and much higher levels of emotional loneliness after forty-five.
The conclusion here is that there is clearly a gap in society in terms of providing a framework for the kind of deep relationships that would nurture our younger and older folks in meaningful and life-giving ways.
Still, it’s important to emphasize that Hyland and his team conclusively found that quality of relationships is much more important than quantity, and that they found that people are actually quite a bit lonelier than generally recognized in the mental health field.
They urge clinicians and therapists to take this into fuller account when treating mentally ill individuals who are depressed and anxious and may be feeling that way partly as a result of strong experiences of emotional loneliness.
One isn’t the loneliest number
The bottom line here is that Hyland and his crew of researchers found that being alone isn’t what makes us lonely.
It’s a feeling of having nobody who truly gets us and who we can truly turn to and love and be loved in return.
Their finding is that it isn’t a lack of conversation and casual friendship that’s making so many people feel blue, it’s a lack of connection on a deeper, intimate level.
This is a good study to reflect on as we all navigate the search for true love and intimacy and balancing it with respect and love for ourselves.