Have you ever wondered why you feel lonely, even when you're not alone? I know it sounds like a pretty depressing topic, but hear me out: Loneliness is a real emotion, and studies show that if you're feeling lonely, you're certainly not alone. In fact, a 2014 study released from Relate shares that one in 10 people feel they do not have a single close friend, which breaks down to about 4.7 million people. That's a pretty high number, and a sad one, too.
Of course, the tricky thing about emotions is that they're different for everyone: Some people, for example, are perfectly fine having few friends, or enjoy spending a great deal of time alone. For other people, those same scenarios would create a deep sense of loneliness and isolation. If you enjoy being alone, that's great! There's no need to create a tension when you're happy with a situation.
That said, loneliness can have serious effects on your mental and physical health. For example, experiencing chronic loneliness can lead to a higher risk for dying of heart disease, weaker immune systems, and consuming less healthy foods, like vegetables. Loneliness can also hurt your sleep patterns, increase your risk for developing dementia later in life, and may even contribute to early death.
So, now that we have a foundation for how serious loneliness can be, and what impacts it can have on your health, let's look at some reasons why people experience loneliness — even when they're not alone.
1. You Crave Closeness
Relationship coach Kira Asatryn explains loneliness in a really interesting way, pointing out, "If my relationship with someone didn’t have that element of closeness, it tended to make me feel more isolated than just being alone," which makes a lot of sense to me. I think there's a stereotype out there about how lonely people are; that is, that if you're lonely, you're hiding away all by yourself and refuse to socialize with others. While some people who spend a lot of time alone are indeed lonely, I think the stereotype is ultimately harmful. Even people who are very social experience loneliness, and I think it stems back to what Asatryn points out: You can have lots of relationships, but if they're not close relationships, you feel unfulfilled. Sometimes, the distance between yourself and an aquantice can only heighten how isolated you feel, as it may make you feel more misunderstood or separate than to begin with.
2. You're An Introvert
Introverts definitely can get a bad reputation for living in isolation. In reality, for a lot of introverts, socializing can simply be exhausting, especially with big groups of people or environments where there's lots of networking. I know for myself personally, it can feel overwhelming to make small talk with lots of people in a big environment, and while it can be enjoyable to catch up on a surface level, it doesn't necessarily make me feel closer to those around me. This ties back into Asatryn's statement about loneliness stemming from a desire for closeness.
3. You Need More Quality Relationships, Not A Higher Quantity Of Them
This one is a bummer, but I think it's true for a lot of people: You can have friends and still feel lonely. You can, theoretically, have a million friends, but if you don't invest time and energy into them, it's likely you'll continue feeling lonely. When it comes to relationships, it's all about the feelings, not the numbers. Of course, developing relationships is a two-way street: Becoming closer to a person doesn't mean you're dumping all of your problems on them, but that you're developing a connection and forming a bond that is mutually beneficial. I think this is important to note because when people are sad, it's easy to want to vent that feeling onto others, just to get it off our chests. And sometimes, that's great! But if you want to feel less lonely and connect more with others, remember close friends can't solve your problems; they can only offer support. Furthermore, it's your job to support them when they need it, too.
As Marie Hartwell-Walker points out in her article, The Roots of Loneliness, you need to keep your expectations of others realistic, saying, "When their new friend can’t be friends on the terms they want, they feel burned yet again, may get depressed, and decide it isn’t worth it to try." Basically, this is a reminder that even if you are open to developing good relationships, you can't expect everyone else to jump onto the same page with you, and unfortunately, not everyone will be open to delving into a closer bond. The best thing to do, I think, is keep pushing forward, without hard feelings.
4. You Have Your Guard Up
Ever feel like people don't genuinely know you? It's possible that you're surrounded by people who are not emotionally available or who aren't looking for new friends or close relationships. It's also possible that you have your own guard up, and therefore aren't sending out clear messages that you're open for new bonds or connections. I know no one wants to think of themselves as the problem, but it's always good to step back and see how you're possibly contributing to a situation. In social situations, remember to make eye contact, listen actively to what others are saying, and make sure your body language reinforces your interest in the conversation. These are subtle ways of showing others you're engaged in what they're sharing with you, and (ideally) people will return the interest and you can share your thoughts and feelings as well. Sharing yourself can be scary, but if you want to form a bond with others, it has to start somewhere.
5. You Spend Too Much Time on Social Media
For me personally, social media can be a real downer. Even if I'm having an excellent day myself, nothing can bring me down like seeing distant friends having an amazing time together while I scroll through Facebook or Twitter. Of course, social media is frequently about appearances and perceptions, and if we're already feeling a little lonely or isolated, it's easy to believe that everyone is having fun without us. In reality, we don't know what life is like for our peers behind the computer screen (unless we're actually, you know, there with them) so it's important not to put too much stock into social media. However, some studies show that the lonelier a person is, the more time they're likely to spend on social media, thus contributing to the cycle. Social media can also give us the sense that we're with tons of other people, but because we're not gaining anything from a face-to-face interaction, or actively experiencing their lives with them, it can further contribute to the sense that we're feeling isolated in a big group (even if that group is only virtual and perceived).
So, what to do if you're feeling lonely? It really depends on who you are, and what energies and environments suit you best. For some people, just chatting with others and experiencing new situations can do the trick. For others, forming closer bonds with people is the key to feeling less lonely. No matter what works best for you, it's important to keep yourself open and focus on the here-and-now of your life — because ultimately, it's all about possibility.