Loneliness in the Modern World

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How often have you felt lonely while in a crowd? Are you in a long-term relationship yet feel hollow and alone? Do you often feel like you’re drowning in an ocean of people yet there’s no one to rescue you?

The late psychoanalyst Frieda Fromm-Reichmann, who was the inspiration behind the book I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, wrote the seminal essay "On Loneliness." She believed that loneliness is at the core of nearly all mental illness. It is, at its essence, the want of intimacy.

I believe Fromm-Reichmann hit it on the head. We are social creatures. We want to be loved and accepted. When we are rejected or betrayed by others, we can become overwhelmed with loneliness. Once we do, it can become a dangerous, deadly cycle.

People who live with loneliness typically avoid occasions to break out of their trap. It’s a phenomenon called social evasion, in which individuals focus on self-preservation. Rather than risk being rejected or unloved again, they turn inward. They isolate themselves, close themselves off from new relationships. Or they may do the opposite: jump into inappropriate situations or relationships, only to be disappointed once more before isolating themselves again.

Loneliness in the Modern World

Loneliness is a silent, insidious predator. It’s all around us, yet often we don’t recognize it. Despite all the high-tech ways we have to stay connected with others, many people are plagued by feelings of loneliness, social isolation, and being left out. In fact, the more ways we have to connect with others and the more we do, the lonelier we often feel.

For example, a recent study of Facebook users found that frequent interactions with Facebook actually work against the benefits of social connection among young adults. As the authors stated, "On the surface, Facebook provides an invaluable resource for fulfilling the basic human need for social connection. Rather than enhancing well-being, however, these findings suggest that Facebook may undermine it." Accumulating hundreds of Facebook "friends" is not an antidote for loneliness.

In an AARP survey of more than 3,000 adults age 45 years and older, 35 percent said they were lonely. (This is up from 20 percent in the 1980s.) Of those, 45 percent said they had felt that way for at least six years. When all the adults in the study were questioned about communication technology and loneliness, 13 percent of the lonely respondents said they had fewer meaningful connections with people now that they kept in touch using the Internet. This compared with 6 percent of non-lonely people who felt this way.

Loneliness is not about quantity, it’s about quality.

Having one or two strong personal relationships is psychologically better than being surrounded by dozens of people with whom you don’t feel a special bond. It’s the connection of trust and respect, the talking and sharing, and unconditional friendship that wards off loneliness.

Loneliness and physical health

Chronic loneliness can take a tremendous toll on the body. Research has shown that it can damage immune function, resulting in the production of stress hormones and inflammatory agents linked to conditions such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, obesity, Parkinson’s disease, arthritis, and more. Then, of course, the emotional and mental stress of loneliness fuels physical ailments.

Strong social relationships also keep us alive longer. A meta-analysis that included 148 studies and more than 300,000 participants found there’s a 50 percent increased likelihood of survival among individuals with stronger social relationships.

Fighting loneliness

At one level, fighting loneliness begins with childhood. Economist James Heckman, who won the Nobel Prize, has noted that deprivation of attention during early childhood and the failure of so many marriages means that too many children, especially those in the lower socioeconomic segment of society, are living solitary, unstructured lives. Single parents mean well, but they often don’t have the time or money to spend on enriching the lives of their children. Hence, loneliness is acquired at an early age.

But what about loneliness among adults? That challenge takes personal initiative and/or the support of others who are concerned about lonely individuals. This is not an easy task, but it can be overcome. Here are some tips on how to overcome loneliness, with a link to others.

  • Become a part of something. Do you have a hobby, passion, or cause that excites you? Do you want to learn something new? Join a group, volunteer for a cause, take a class, or find other ways to become a part of something about which you care. Take a risk and reach out!
  • Volunteer. When you volunteer to help people, animals, the environment, or some other cause, you divert your attention from yourself to something else that matters. In the process, you can feel fulfilled, you may meet new people, and you’ll have a sense of accomplishment.
  • Eliminate the negatives. Self-talk can be positive or detrimental. Stop the negative self-talk ("I’m too fat," "I don’t make friends easily") and replace them with positive ones. Write down some of the most inspiring ones and post them where you can see them daily.
  • Meditate. The practice of meditation can help you feel secure and comfortable with and understand the person who matters most: you. Calming your mind on a daily basis and becoming your own best friend can go a long way toward overcoming loneliness.

References 🔖

  • AARP. Loneliness among older adults: a national survey of adults 45+
  • Holt-Lunstad J et al. Social relationships and mortality risk: a meta-analytic review. PLoS 2010 Jul 27; DOI:10.1371/journal.pmed.1000316
  • Kross E et al. Facebook use predicts declines in subjective well-being in young adults. PLoS One 2013 Aug 14
  • The lethality of loneliness. New Republic 2013 May 13
  • Ohio State University. Loneliness, like chronic stress, taxes the immune system.