Overcoming Loneliness

Too much isolation can ruin your health and harm your community. Learn to banish the blues that affect us all.
By O’rya Hyde-Keller

Esther Trneny moved from Australia to Rhode Island to live with her fiancé when she was 22 years old. Although the move deepened her relationship with her life partner, it pulled her away from the close friends she had made during high school and college. She soon begin to crave companionship other than that of her fiancé, but when she tried to meet people, she quickly realized she didn’t have the skills or experience to make friends or build a community outside of school. For the first time in her life, she felt profoundly lonely. “I remember seeing women at coffee shops hanging out and talking, and feeling so sad because I didn’t have anybody to have coffee with,” she says. She became depressed and started to gain weight.

Like Trneny, most of us will feel lonely at points in our lives. For some, though, loneliness can persist to the point of misery, and it often leads to despondency.

The problem with loneliness is that, not only is it common, it can also threaten your health, says Jacqueline Olds, MD, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and author of The Lonely American: Drifting Apart in the Twenty-First Century (Beacon Press, 2010). “If you study two people—one connected, one isolated—the person who is socially isolated is twice as likely to die in the next 10 years.” Indeed, recent studies link loneliness—particularly when it persists for long periods of time—to increased risk of depression, substance abuse, heart disease, weakened immune function, and Alzheimer’s disease, among other illnesses.

Even more groundbreaking, perhaps, is a new study from the University of Chicago that shows it’s not just individuals who suffer when lonely: The problem is also contagious within communities. Researchers found that people are 52 percent more likely to feel lonely if a family member, friend, or neighbor is also lonely. Unfortunately, the contamination doesn’t stop there. The effect is significant up to three degrees of separation, so if a friend of a friend of a friend of yours is lonely, you are 15 percent more likely to feel lonely.

How can one person make another feel lonely? It comes down to subtle, interpersonal exchanges, says John Cacioppo, PhD, lead author of the study and director of the University of Chicago Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience. “Loneliness puts the brain on alert for social threats and makes us look at others as if they’re potentially dangerous,” he says. “And this affects our interactions with friends.” So if you’re feeling lonely because of some life-changing event, say the death of a loved one or the loss of your job, you will probably act more reserved or unfriendly toward people you know, making them feel alienated and consequently affecting how they treat others.

When Trneny was at her loneliest, she found it even more difficult to reach out to people. She felt increasingly vulnerable and was nervous about rejection. But after a couple of years of continual disconnection, she realized she needed to overcome her insecurities and learn to suppress negative emotions. She recently had given birth to her first child, and a woman whom she kept seeing at the local playground had a baby around the same age; like Trneny, the woman was always there by herself. Pushing down her fears, Trneny walked up and introduced herself. The two women are still friends today. “At that point of desperation, I realized I had to be more assertive and actively pursue friendships,” Trneny says. “And ever since, I have not been lonely, and I now have a terrific group of friends who I like to spend time with.”

If you or a loved one is facing a similar situation—or are feeling unhappily isolated—it’s time to work on reconnecting with others. Not only will you improve your health, you’ll also help others by building a community and stopping the spread of this infectious, destructive emotion. We asked experts for some ideas to get you started.

Make it your mission to connect 
Although you don’t need to invite a complete stranger to dinner every other night, you should try to make small, positive connections daily: Ask your local bookstore clerk to recommend a novel, let someone with fewer groceries pass you in line, or take the time to learn the name of the barista at your favorite coffee shop. “You build community by being friendly during everyday errands,” says Jill Spiegel, author of How to Talk to Anyone About Anything: The Secrets of Connecting (Goal Getters, 2008). “It’s not about taking drastic measures—the minute you’re friendly, you’ll usually receive that friendliness right back.” Experts say these everyday interactions can immediately lift feelings of loneliness and may eventually lead to lifelong friendships.

Think quality, not quantity
Everyday interactions are important, but when you get down to the business of cultivating deeper relationships, experts say it’s not the quantity, but the quality of friendships that matters. “Loneliness and being alone are not the same thing,” Cacioppo says. “People can still feel lonely when they’re surrounded by other people.” A 2006 study from Finland showed that elderly adults’ feelings of loneliness were not impacted by the frequency of their contact with others, but rather by the level of satisfaction they got from the contacts. Instead of trying to form dozens of friendly, yet ultimately surface relationships, focus your efforts on strengthening connections that are more meaningful to you.

Be a joiner
What should you do if you don’t have any meaningful friendships? As obvious as it may sound, join an organized group. “Doing things together with a common goal sets the building blocks in place that can eventually lead to connections and relationships,” Olds says. Although any group—a book club, a cycling class, a babysitting co-op—can help you make friends and create a deeper sense of community, experts repeatedly point to volunteerism as a particularly powerful way to alleviate loneliness. Why? Volunteers have a sense of shared mission that bonds them together. A recent Washington University study found that 56 percent of volunteers said they broadened their circle of friends through charity work. The key, says Olds, is to be patient and attend frequently. “Making good friendships takes longer than people think.” But the more often you meet up with your group, the faster you’ll make friendships.

Use technology wisely
Cyberspace may seem like an easy place to meet people, but it may actually make you feel more isolated. According to Cacioppo, virtual interactions tend to make lonely people feel more isolated. That said, there’s still a time and place for Internet socializing. “If people use the Internet as a substitute for real-life interaction, it usually makes them feel more lonely,” Cacioppo says. “But if it’s used to leverage existing relationships, it can actually help.” For instance, log onto Facebook to invite a group of friends to a movie, then start a thread to discuss the film afterward. Don’t use social media to find or chat with people you’ve never met before and most likely never will.

Take a trip down memory lane
One study found that when people have strong feelings of nostalgia, they feel less lonely. Researchers think it might be because nostalgia amplifies our perception of our own support network. Look over a family photo album or read old letters. Remember that there are people who care for you, even if they aren’t with you.

Turn up the heat
A University of Toronto study found that people who felt socially excluded perceived rooms as colder than those who felt included. Researchers hypothesize that the reverse could be true, as well. If you are warm, you may actually feel less lonely. Try turning up the heat, curling up with a big blanket, and sipping a cup of hot tea. Better yet, invite someone over to share the experience.

Connecting on a daily basis, deepening existing relationships, joining groups, and not relying on your computer for social companionship aren’t easy goals. So what should be your very first step? Psych yourself up. And cut yourself some slack. “Embrace your natural self,” Spiegel says. “Send yourself messages of warmth, love, and confidence. Know that you are as special as everyone else. Make that loving voice your new habit, and you’ll be much more able to reach out to others.”