Jump to section
Nearly 40% of Americans are experiencing loneliness either all or part of the time — and it’s no longer an option to ignore it at home or at work.
Loneliness is making people sick, and it’s costing employers a ton of money. According to Gabriella Rosen Kellerman, psychiatrist and chief innovation officer for BetterUp, “loneliness is an expensive problem that will affect their bottom line,” she said, “whether they realize it or not.”
In this complete overview of loneliness, we’ll cover its risks, causes, and when to see a specialist for help. We’ll also share some tips on overcoming loneliness (and some tips on preventing it from happening in the first place).
It’s more important than ever to eliminate the stigma and take a hard look at loneliness psychology.
Solving this public health issue is absolutely crucial for our mental fitness, overall health, and general wellbeing at home, in the workplace, and in the world at large.
It’s important to realize that loneliness and social isolation are different — even though they influence one another often.
Loneliness is the discrepancy between one’s actual level of connection and one’s desired level of connection, while social isolation means having few relationships or having infrequent contact with others.
Feelings of loneliness are subjective and can only truly be defined by the person feeling them. These feelings often involve feeling misunderstood, left out, unheard, unwanted, unseen, unloved, not enough, or a mix of these.
Feeling this way can lead to social isolation which in turn leads to more loneliness (and the vicious cycle continues).
Ready to take your leaders to the next level? Try a demo of BetterUp.
If loneliness goes unchecked too long, it becomes ingrained in your daily experience and that’s when chronic loneliness sets in.
Chronic loneliness is the constant feeling of separation from other people, inability to connect with others in a meaningful way, and feelings of deep loneliness.
Feeling alone can be caused by a number of things that impede being able to feel fully connected. Here are some of the top causes of loneliness:
- Increased mobility: since we have more options as far as work and travel go (at least pre-pandemic), we have the ability to live anywhere (and move for new opportunities). Every time we move, we leave behind communities and personal face-to-face connections and have to build new relationships from scratch.
- Working long hours: when work spills over into our evenings, we’re missing out on quality time with our partners, children, friends, and being out making new friends — instead of focusing our attention on fostering strong connections with our loved ones.
- Feeling misunderstood or invisible: feeling like you’re different from others, suffering from a chronic illness, or having trouble knowing how to interact with others can all lead to feeling lonely.
- Lack of belonging: a work or school culture that favors conformity or is just naturally homogeneous can create a sense that the unique parts that make you "you" are not welcomed or understood, especially for people who are visibly different from the norm, although anyone who feels unable to be themselves can feel lonely.
- Communication barriers: a language barrier, a strong difference of opinion, or the inability to understand and empathize with someone else’s perspective are common communication barriers that threaten connection.
- Grieving an unhealed trauma: whether it’s grief from losing a loved one, getting divorced, or experiencing some form of abuse, grieving an unhealed trauma for too long is a cocktail for loneliness.
- Lack of connection with oneself: it’s hard to connect deeply with other people if you haven’t formed a personal connection with yourself first
- Struggling with mental health: experiencing PTSD, anxiety, depression, and other mental health concerns creates even more challenges for creating and sustaining positive relationships.
- Spending too much time on social media: research has found that spending more than 30 minutes a day on social media can lead to loneliness, depression, and anxiety.
What does the research say?
The percentage of Americans experiencing loneliness is nearly 40%.
Unfortunately, that percentage has been steadily increasing with senior citizens and 18-25 year olds being impacted the most (likely due to a major disruption in social support.)
Workers are also a cause for concern.
America’s loneliest workers are single, childless and well educated (with doctors and lawyers feeling the most loneliest). They’re more likely to be government workers, non-heterosexual, and non-religious — and they’re at great risk.
Workers who reported having a strong social connection and a strong sense of shared meaning with work peers, increased their chances of getting a raise by 30%, and they’re likelihood of quitting fell by an additional 24%.
Feeling deeply disconnected and alone is the number one sign of loneliness. Other signs of loneliness and symptoms include:
- Drug and alcohol use: using drugs and alcohol to cope with loneliness
- Trouble sleeping: dealing with insomnia or having trouble falling asleep
- Extreme reclusiveness: going long periods of time without human interaction
- Restlessness: feeling like you’re going to jump out of your skin
- Body pain: feeling aches and pains on various parts of your body (inside or out)
- Decreased mental health: experiencing depression, anxiety, bipolar episodes, etc.
- Cardiovascular problems: increased heart rate and blood pressure
Several studies have shown that loneliness causes major health issues and stress responses in the body. Health risks include but are not limited to:
- Dementia: loneliness points to a 40% increased risk of dementia
- High inflammation: when the body senses a threat (like stress or loneliness) it can create a rise in inflammation
- Cardiovascular responses: i.e. heart disease and stroke
- Mental health risks: i.e. anxiety, depression, and suicide
- Drug and alcohol addiction: coping with loneliness by using drug or alcohol can lead to a severe drug or alcohol addiction that will likely need medical intervention
- Increased stress: physical stress responses are another way the body reacts to threats like loneliness
Now that we’ve covered the risks, let’s move on to our top tips for overcoming loneliness.
Our top tips for overcoming loneliness include:
1. Connect deeper to yourself: self-love, self-acceptance, and self-worthiness can help you feel confident about yourself (and therefore more open to connecting with others). Why? When you accept yourself and love yourself for who you are, you feel more comfortable in your own skin, making it easier to be more comfortable around others.
2. Find an environment where deep sharing is celebrated: whether it’s a support group, your family, partner, or friendship circle, make sure you find an environment where you feel safe and encouraged to be open about your feelings.
3. Prioritize social connection: social connection increases resiliency, wellbeing, mental health, and work performance. Make sure to schedule time to nurture your connections and create healthy boundaries to be fully present (i.e. no phones at dinner or Zoom meetings). Check-in on your people — what have they been doing? What’s been on their mind lately?
4. Don’t expect or focus on rejection: people who struggle with loneliness may stop themselves from connecting with others out of fear of being rejected. While you can’t control other people’s behavior, what you can control is giving people the benefit of the doubt.
Don’t assume you’ll be turned down when striking up a conversation or trying to start a friendship — try anyway. And if it doesn’t work out, there are plenty of people in the world who would be delighted to connect with you.
5. Focus on quality interactions: it’s not important to have a lot of friends or people in your life, what’s more important is having high-quality friendships and quality interactions with other people.
It’s about being a part of a give and take relationship where both friends understand each other, care about each other’s thoughts and feelings, and are there for each other through the good and the bad.
6. Nurture your emotional intelligence: hold space for your emotions, and ask yourself: Is there a message here? What’s the root of this? How can I learn from this?
When you learn how to manage your emotions in positive ways, you end up communicating with empathy and connecting even deeper with other people — and bonus: you learn how to manage your stress levels in a healthier way.
But, what if you want to stop loneliness from ever creeping in?
That’s where prevention comes in.
Our top three tips for preventing loneliness are:
1. Stay engaged with your community and your family: go on family walks around your neighborhood, volunteer, participate in events, schedule a night out with friends, and go on a date night as often as you need it.
If in-person gathering isn’t an option (due to COVID-19 or another reason), get creative and stay in touch online. Watch movies together online or schedule a social distancing gathering or drive-by party if appropriate.
2. Reframe your mindset around social connection: focus on social connection as part of living a healthy lifestyle. Just like we know that healthy food and exercise are important for living a healthy life, we should give the same amount of importance to nurturing social connections.
Make sure to weave nurturing your social connections into your healthy diet and exercise plan (i.e. stay hydrated, eat a vegetable with every meal, do yoga, go to brunch with Lisa, plan a date with Tom).
3. Be part of a welcoming work environment: it’s important to feel a sense of belonging and inclusion with your work peers and to feel valued at work. Whether it’s messaging each other fun memes on Slack (if you work remotely), cracking jokes by the water cooler, or solving a pressing issue together, it’s important to feel like you share a sense of purpose.
If you’re a solopreneur, look for in-person and virtual coworking spaces to regularly connect with others just like you.
Which age group is most vulnerable?
Although loneliness can affect anyone, senior citizens and young adults are the two groups most vulnerable.
Here’s a look at the two groups and why they’re vulnerable:
Young Adults (ages 18-25)
Spouses, friends, and family are passing away
Reported having seriously considered suicide
Friends and family are moving away or can’t visit
Take on more hours, feel afraid to pushback
Onset of debilitating illnesses
Feel a sense of alienation or detachment around peers and ‘friends’
Since these groups constantly experience major changes and losses in their lives, it’s no wonder they’re the most vulnerable to experiencing loneliness.
Solitude vs. loneliness
Unlike loneliness, solitude is a positive and healthy way to spend time alone.
Solitude generally involves a desire to be alone to regroup, refocus, or relax, while loneliness involves feeling disconnected from others when you don’t want to be.
Note: Introverts may experience solitude differently than extroverts. While introverts derive energy from being alone, extroverts derive energy from being with other people.
Everyone's a little introverted and a little extroverted, but determining what’s considered solitude versus what’s considered loneliness will depend on each person’s feelings and interpretations.
Can you die from loneliness?
The effects of loneliness over time is a cause for concern
Social isolation and loneliness are both risk factors for premature mortality. According to loneliness and social isolation expert, Dr. Julianne Holt-Lunstad, lacking social connections has a mortality impact equivalent to smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day.
Dr. Holt-Lunstad also concluded that while you may not die from loneliness immediately, loneliness has a greater impact on our health than obesity, physical inactivity, and air pollution.
Is loneliness contagious?
Because people influence one another, loneliness can be contagious — especially when a ‘non-lonely’ person spends time with a lonely person. Researchers have also found 15 gene regions linked to loneliness meaning that loneliness can also be hereditary.
When should you see a specialist?
If you’re having a hard time managing your loneliness, or if you’ve reached a state of chronic loneliness, it’s time to seek help and support.
Some red flags that point to needing a specialist are: experiencing suicidal thoughts, feeling anxious or depressed, having difficulty sleeping, experiencing physical pain, or feeling a lack of wellbeing due to loneliness or chronic loneliness.
It’s time to beat the stigma around mental health and loneliness. There’s nothing wrong with getting help — your life might depend on it.
BE THE FIRST TO KNOW
Stay up to date with new resources and insights.
Thank you for your interest in BetterUp.
Loneliness is an epidemic and a major public health concern that must be addressed immediately (or the numbers will continue to rise).
By understanding the causes, the signs, the symptoms, and some tips on how to approach loneliness, you can overcome a current state of loneliness and prevent loneliness from coming back in the future.
Ready to learn more? Use our resource kit ‘Overcoming Loneliness in a Time of Social Distancing’ — hand-selected by researchers to help you get as much value as possible!