The Psychology of Loneliness: Why You’re Lonely and What to Do About It

Loneliness is one of the most powerful experiences in human psychology. It’s also one of the most misunderstood.

While everybody basically knows what it means to be lonely, it’s surprisingly hard to define it precisely. This is partly because our experience of loneliness tends to be so varied and individual-specific.

What’s more, loneliness and the fear of loneliness are often powerful influences in our lives, frequently leading to poor decisions and self-sabotage.

In this article, we’ll take a look at what loneliness is and how it’s different than similar concepts like isolation and solitude. Then we’ll explore different causes of loneliness and common types of loneliness, as well as the negative effects loneliness can have on our lives. Finally, we’ll end by exploring how to deal with loneliness in a healthy way and some tips for helping friends or loved ones who are lonely.

Table of Contents

Feel free to use the links below to jump to a specific section you’re interested in:


What Is Loneliness?

There’s no official definition of loneliness. And while any definition will of course leave things out or not fit with everybody’s experience, it’s important to at least come up with a working definition that most of us can agree on.

Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines loneliness like this:

  • a. being without company
  • b. cut off from others

This is a good starting point but I think we can do better. Specifically, I think we can generate a definition that gets at a bit more of the psychological side of loneliness.

Loneliness: A Psychological Definition

Here’s how I would define loneliness:

Loneliness is an emotion characterized by the feeling of pain caused by a perceived lack of intimacy with other people or ourselves.

A few points worth noting:

  1. Loneliness is an emotion. I think it’s important to distinguish upfront that we are thinking about loneliness as an internal emotion rather than an external state of affairs. In other words, loneliness is different than isolation. Many people who are isolated experience loneliness. But many people seek out isolation and experience it as a positive thing. When this happens, we often describe it as solitude. It’s also worth noting that isolation is not a requirement for loneliness: you can feel lonely even when you’re surrounded by other people. In fact, many people describe the most acute bouts of loneliness occurring precisely when they are surrounded by people.
  2. Loneliness is painful. This may seem obvious that loneliness is an aversive or uncomfortable feeling. But it’s good to be clear about this since many people feel good when they are alone or distant from others. As we mentioned above, many people seek out solitude because they find it restorative or helpful in promoting creativity, for example.
  3. Loneliness comes from a perception. Loneliness is never something that can be definitively observed by an external observer because—like all emotions—it comes from a person’s subjective perception. I think that’s important to be clear about the fundamentally subjective and individual-specific nature of loneliness. While there are many common elements of loneliness across individuals, I think it’s safe to say that no two people’s experience of loneliness is exactly the same.
  4. Loneliness is about a lack of intimacy. This is where I diverge the most from other definitions of loneliness that I’ve seen. In my experience—both personal and professional as a therapist—what seems to characterize loneliness most uniquely is that it’s about the absence of intimacy with other people. While this lack of intimacy often happens on the level of the physical or in terms of shared interests or values, the core of it seems to be fundamentally emotional in nature—that is, it’s about not feeling connected enough with other people (or ourselves) on an emotional level.

Of course, this is just my definition. I’m not claiming this is gospel when it comes to defining loneliness. And like I said, it’s the nature of definitions that they are always somewhat inadequate to everybody’s unique experience.

Still, I think it’s a good start that covers a lot of bases and also adds something important to the typical way of thinking about loneliness.

Now that we’ve got a working definition of what loneliness is, let’s move on to a discussion of where it comes from and what causes it.


What Causes Loneliness?

I believe there’s a pretty vast array of possible causes of loneliness.

  • For one person, being in a relationship with someone who has a hard time communicating could be the cause of their loneliness.
  • For another person, being abused as a child could be the cause of loneliness.
  • And for another person still, a mental habit of negative self-talk could be the cause of their loneliness.

It’s important to remember that loneliness is a far more subjective experience than we realize. Whether someone feels lonely depends a great deal on their unique history, temperament, personality, explanatory style, living situation, culture, etc.

So while any number of external events or things may serve as a trigger for loneliness (e.g: not getting invited to a party when your roommate was), I think it’s best to consider the causes of loneliness from a more psychological and internal perspective.

For example, if we stick with that scenario of not being invited somewhere when another person close to you was, it doesn’t really make sense to say that the lack of invitation was the thing that caused the loneliness. After all, while one person might feel lonely after not getting an invitation to a part, another person might feel relieved!

Whether a person feels lonely, depends on how they interpret the specific trigger or situation.

If your interpretation of not receiving an invitation is “nobody likes me” it’s not hard to see how loneliness might result. But if your interpretation of not receiving the invite is “Ah, finally I get the house to myself for a night!” Your emotional reaction might be very different.

Here are a few more considerations when thinking about the question of what causes loneliness.

Proximal vs Distal Causes of Loneliness

Causality is usually more complicated than we like to admit.

Here’s an example:

If I ask you why your favorite team lost the game yesterday, your answer is likely to be something like: The stupid refs blew it on the final play or Our quarterback threw that interception on the final play. But in reality, there were probably many, many factors that contributed to the loss.

You could say that your quarterback throwing an interception on the final play caused the loss. But you could also say that the coach’s decision to call a passing play instead of a running play caused the loss. You could even say that the team’s lack of effort during practice the week prior caused the loss.

When it comes to thinking about the causes of things—including loneliness—it’s important to distinguish between proximal and distal causes:

  • A proximal cause (think proximate, as in close to) is something that happened very close to the effect. The quarterback throwing an interception instead of a touchdown on the final play, for example, is a proximal cause of the team’s loss. Similarly, your mental interpretation of what the non-invite to the party means (nobody likes me) is a proximal cause of the feeling of loneliness.
  • A distal cause (think distant, as in far away from) is something that happened far away from the final effect. The quarterback’s decision to start a new weight lifting routine earlier that week which led to him being sore during the game and not playing well, for example, would be a more distal cause of the team losing. Similarly, the fact that, growing up, your older sibling was incredibly popular and you were shy might be a distal cause of you feeling lonely following your non-invite to the party.

Initial vs Maintaining Causes of Loneliness

Another way to think about the causes of loneliness is initial vs maintaining causes.

Sticking with the example of not being invited to the party when your roommate was, your mental interpretation that “nobody likes me” may have been the initial cause of your loneliness. But sitting on your couch doing nothing except ruminating on all the other times in your life when you’ve been ignored or not invited to things is likely the maintaining cause of your loneliness.

This distinction between initial and maintaining causes of loneliness is critical… While the initial causes of loneliness are often things that are either not under your control or very difficult to control, the maintaining causes of loneliness are often much more amenable to change and intervention.

Key Takeaway: It’s usually best to focus on the maintaining causes of loneliness because you usually have some control over them. Whereas the initial causes of your loneliness are in the past and therefore not something you can do anything about.

A Few of the Most Common Causes of Loneliness

There are many possible causes of loneliness. But I’ve observed a handful of patterns that show up over and over again when people describe why they feel lonely.

Here are the most common causes of loneliness in my experience working as a psychologist:

  • Social Anxiety. Unsurprisingly, it can be hard to make and maintain close social connections and relationships when you feel anxious being around people. Social anxiety is a specific form of anxiety usually characterized by one or both of the following: A) Fear of being judged or thought ill of by others, B) Fear of being too anxious in the presence of others—and being judged or thought badly of because of it.
  • Trauma. Trauma is a big term that encompasses a wide variety of experiences. But in general, trauma is when an especially frightening, painful, or disturbing event leads to a sustained fear/anxiety response. For example, if you were abused as a child, you might develop a lasting fear of people of the same gender as the person who abused you. This could lead to significant difficulties making connections and being around a large chunk of people.
  • Low Self-Esteem. When you think poorly of yourself, it easily generalizes to imagining that others will think poorly of you as well. This can then lead to a hesitance to meet or engage with others. In other words, if low self-esteem causes you to feel unworthy of other people’s time/attention, you can see how that might lead to quite a bit of loneliness and isolation. Plus, even if you are around others and have good relationships, that chronic sense of unworthiness might make it hard to take those relationships to a deeper, more intimate level.
  • Lack of Assertiveness. Assertiveness is the ability to ask for what you want (or say no to what you don’t want) in a way that is honest to yourself and respectful of others. It’s the most effective form of communication because it allows for the free expression of your honest wants and needs. But when you feel afraid to be assertive—and resort to other forms of communication like passive or passive-aggressive—it’s very hard to build honest, intimate relationships with people. And when you’re surrounded by people who you think you should be closer to but aren’t, well… that’s a setup for loneliness.
  • Values Confusion. Values are the things that matter most to us in our lives—our aspirations and ideals. And one of the primary ways we stave off loneliness is to be around people who share our values. The trouble is, if you don’t know your values and have clarity about what they are exactly, it’s easy to end up around people with conflicting values—and as a result, you can end up feeling chronically lonely and disconnected.
  • Poor Self-Awareness. Self-awareness is the ability to be aware of your own psychology—your thoughts, emotions, beliefs, expectations, desires, etc. Just like loneliness often comes from not feeling connected on a deep level with other people around you, similarly, you can end up feeling lonely when you’re not connected in a genuine way with yourself. Because many people are essentially afraid of their own minds, they get into the habit of ignoring their own minds and staying distracted from their own thoughts and feelings. This often results in low self-awareness—and along with it, loneliness.

These common causes of loneliness are fairly specific. But as you probably noticed reading through them, there are some broader themes that run throughout the many specific causes of loneliness. These common themes are what I think of as types of loneliness.


Common Types of Loneliness

While there’s no single set of characteristics that define someone who’s lonely, it’s my experience that most lonely people fall into one or more of the following types of loneliness.

Note: There’s nothing official about these types. I describe them here because I find them useful as a way to think about loneliness, how people experience it, and how best to help people who are lonely.

Lack of Physical Connection

Some people feel lonely primarily because they are physically isolated from others.

At the time that I write this, much of the world is grappling with the coronavirus pandemic and all its effects, one of which is isolation and lack of physical connection. Many people are still able to connect with others via technology like phone, text, FaceTime, Zoom, etc. And yet, for many people, there’s something lacking.

We humans often crave literal, physical closeness in a special way. And when that closeness is deprived for extended periods of time, we can end up feeling quite lonely despite still being connected in many other ways.

Lack of Common Interests

A surprisingly common type of loneliness stems from not having shared interests with people you interact with regularly.

For example: If you’re a sports fanatic surrounded by people who couldn’t tell a fastball from a slam dunk, that will eventually lead to feelings of loneliness and disconnect. This is especially important when it comes to the handful of people in your life who are the most important: spouses, children, parents, friends.

Another example:

One of the biggest situations where this loneliness stemming from lack of shared interest shows up is marriages and other long-term romantic relationships.

Basically, people get into a relationship because they’re “in love,” only to realize that they don’t actually have many common interests once the honeymoon phase ends. And without a lot of proactive and intentional work to build shared interests, this division can lead to resentments and loneliness.

Lack of Shared Values

Even if you’re in close physical proximity to people—and even if those people share similar interests—if you don’t have at least a couple people in your life who share similar values you can end up feeling quite lonely.

Values are the things that matter most to us. But if you’re surrounded by people who have very different ideas of what matters most in life, it can get kind of lonely. On the other hand, even if you don’t have many shared interests, very strong alignment between core values can bring people together in remarkable ways.

Unfortunately, values are not something many of us spend a lot of time deliberately considering and clarifying. And if you aren’t clear yourself what your own values are, it’s difficult to find other people who share them.

Lack of Emotional Intimacy

Whenever I talk to people who are very lonely, a common denominator is that they don’t feel connected to other people on a genuine emotional level:

  • They have a hard time opening up and expressing their feelings.
  • They have the sense that other people don’t really “get” them in a deep way and frequently feel misunderstood or not appreciated.
  • They open up a little bit, but easily feel frightened or threatened by vulnerability and end up sabotaging promising relationships for fear of future vulnerability.

Sadly, this lack of emotional intimacy is incredibly painful because there’s such a strong tension between desperately wanting to feel close but being terrified to act in a way that would allow for closeness.

So not only do these people feel chronically lonely but they also frequently experience a lot of anxiety and shame about knowing what they “should” do to be closer but not actually doing it.

Lack of Self-Intimacy

Self-intimacy is the term I use to describe the quality of your relationship with yourself. And for many people who struggle with chronic loneliness, the core issue is that they don’t have a very good relationship with themselves.

Here are a few examples of what a lack of self-intimacy might look like:

  • You keep yourself constantly busy so that you never have to be alone with your own thoughts.
  • You habitually try to “fix” difficult emotions like fear, sadness, or anger rather than trying to understand them.
  • You intellectualize your moods and feelings—talking about them only in the vaguest and most general or metaphorical terms.

In short, poor self-intimacy means that you don’t make time to be with and understand your own mind—your thoughts, feelings, beliefs, moods, expectations, desires, etc.

This avoidance of your own mind can be a relief in the moment since it gets you out of having to experience something difficult or painful. But in the long-run, it disconnects you from yourself—leading you to feel like “a stranger in your own skin,” and therefore, very lonely.


Negative Effects of Chronic Loneliness

Obviously, loneliness itself is not a pleasant feeling. And for some, it’s downright painful.

But in the long run, the really severe effects of loneliness tend to be side effects of unhelpful strategies for managing the feeling of loneliness. In other words, when it comes to loneliness, the treatment is often worse than the symptoms.

What follows are a handful of the most common negative effects of chronic loneliness.

Getting Into (or Staying In) Unhealthy Relationships

When you’re feeling lonely, nothing could be more natural than the desire for companionship. And companionship with anyone is often a very good temporary relief from loneliness.

Unfortunately, like so many things in life that feel good in the short term, the long term effects can be disastrous. That is, when loneliness is severe enough, people will often get themselves into the first relationship available to them without much thought about compatibility, values, personality, financial stability, etc—all the things that factor into a healthy long-term romantic relationship.

Similarly, many people end up staying in unhealthy or even abusive relationships for fear of going back to being lonely.

For people who have never experienced severe loneliness, it can seem confusing why someone we know or love would stay in a relationship that’s so obviously unhealthy. More often than we realize, the reason is that they are willing to accept anything rather than risk being alone again.

Loneliness—or the fear of it—can be a surprisingly powerful motivator, often to very harmful ends.

Substance Abuse

For many people, the simplest way to feel less lonely is to numb it out. And drugs and alcohol are often quite effective at this—temporarily.

Of course, it’s easy to look at this in the abstract and say, “Sure, substances will alleviate your loneliness for now but the long-term costs are way too high… Why do people do it?”

Well, if you’ve never personally been severely lonely, it’s hard to imagine what that kind of intense, long-lasting loneliness feels like—how desperate you can get to alleviate it, even if the costs are high.

The fact that loneliness can be A) intensely painful, but also B) chronic and long-lasting means that many people see substance abuse as their only way to cope with feeling lonely and the despair that comes from imagining that they always will be.

Chronic Busyness & Stress

A less commonly observed negative effect of loneliness is chronic busyness and the stress that comes with it.

See, for many people who are either lonely or afraid of becoming lonely (perhaps because they have been in the past), one way to stave it off is to keep themselves constantly busy and occupied.

Like substances or impulsive relationships, chronic busyness is a distraction. It keeps you occupied and active—so much so that you may not even have time to consider the fact that you are indeed lonely.

The trouble with using chronic busyness as a way to cope with loneliness is that it trades off quality for quantity. That is, you spend so much time in shallow, superficial relationships that you never have time to cultivate deeper, more meaningful ones.

Once again, we see the short-term/long-term dilemma:

While chronic business can temporarily alleviate that fear of loneliness, it does so at the expense of actually attaining the connection and intimacy you really crave.

And on top of that, being constantly busy is just plain exhausting and can easily lead to chronic stress, burnout, and anxiety.

Depression

Depression is a difficult thing to write or talk about because it’s so complex and individual-specific. But a common pattern I’ve observed among chronically lonely people is that they can end up becoming quite depressed.

In other words, when you’re lonely and isolated for long enough, it’s not surprising that symptoms of depression like low mood, lack of energy or enthusiasm, and hopelessness kick in.

Unfortunately, the loneliness-depression connection easily becomes a vicious cycle: While loneliness leads to depression, depression easily intensifies loneliness and makes it harder to break free of.


How to Be Less Lonely: 4 Practical Strategies

What follows are a few strategies I’ve found for dealing with loneliness in an effective way.

By targeting the underlying causes of loneliness rather than the symptoms, they tend to be quite effective in the long-run if implemented consistently.

1. Use Behavioral Activation to Get Moving

Behavioral activation is a technique to help you do things you know you should do despite not feeling interested or motivated to do them.

In some ways, the core problem with chronic loneliness is that you want more connection but you seem to lack the motivation to go get that connection:

  • You know you should pick up the phone and call some old friends, but you just can’t bring yourself to do it…
  • You know you should start going back to your weekly church service, but you just can’t bring yourself to do it…
  • You know you should give dating another shot, but you just can’t bring yourself to do it…

Behavioral activation is a structured approach to helping you get started doing those things you know would be good for you and reducing your loneliness. And while it’s historically been used as a very effective approach to helping people who struggle with depression specifically, I’ve found that it can be equally effective as a way to deal with chronic loneliness.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Brainstorm a list of things you’ve enjoyed doing in the past. Don’t worry if they don’t seem enjoyable or interesting right now. When you’re in the grips of chronic loneliness, often nothing seems particularly enjoyable, which means your past experiences are probably a better guide here. This list can include really big things (travel to foreign countries) or very small things (that particular brand of vanilla tea I used to drink in college).
  2. Rank the items on your list according to doableness. Once you’ve got a pretty good-sized list, the next task is to sort or rank the items according to how doable they seem to you in the moment. Even if traveling sounds wonderful, if it’s not very doable right now, it should go toward the bottom of the list.
  3. Assign each of the most doable items an enjoyment score. Quickly, scan through your top 5-10 items that are most doable and, on a scale of 1-10, assign each item a value in terms of how enjoyable you imagine it would be if you did it.
  4. Take your top, most doable, item and break it down into its smallest steps. For example, if your item is “go for a walk,” your steps might include 1) gather walking clothes since it’s cold outside; 2) cue up a good podcast or music to listen to while I walk; 3) decide where I’m going to walk; 4) decide when and for how long I’m going to walk; 5) set a reminder in my phone for my walk time. Now, if this sounds painfully detailed, good! Lack of clarity is usually the main obstacle to getting things done, so the more clear you can be about even simple things you have a hard time doing, the more likely you will be to actually do them. Plus, the mere act of clarifying these steps is itself rewarding and motivating in a small way.
  5. Track your progress. Keep a little notepad on your counter, for example, and write down each day of the week. Then, each time you successfully go for a walk, cross off the day with a big, colorful marker. This has three big benefits: 1) The notepad itself serves as a reminder and small accountability mechanism; 2) Crossing off the days is itself rewarding and therefore reinforcing; 3) Being reminded of your past successes walking will be rewarding and reinforcing of future walks.
  6. Track your enjoyment. After completing an item, note how enjoyable it was and compare it with your initial assessment. On average, these activities will tend to be more enjoyable than your initial assessment. When you “prove” this to yourself repeatedly, it starts to change how you look at these activities and increase your future motivation for them.
  7. Rinse and repeat. Once you’ve successfully done the first item on your list at least once, begin working your way down the list using steps 4-6.

The “secret sauce” of behavioral activation is two-fold:

  1. The Power of Specificity. By forcing you to clarify and get specific about the actions you would like to take, it dramatically increases your odds of actually following through on them. Generality leads to stuckness; clarity leads to motivation.
  2. Harnessing Reward and Reinforcement. Just like isolation and inactivity tend to make it harder and harder to get energy and motivation, taking action and getting even small amounts of enjoyment back into your life creates motivation. And once you have a little more motivation, it makes it a little easier to do a little more. From vicious cycles to virtuous circles.

If you’ve been feeling lonely and have a pretty good idea of what you need to do—but just can’t seem to find the motivation—behavioral activation is worth a shot.

2. Clarify Your Values

As we discussed earlier in this guide, one of the core drivers of chronic loneliness is a lack of shared values. When we’re either isolated or surrounded by people with different values, it can feel disconnecting and alienating.

Our values are a hugely important part of our identity and sense of self, which means it’s important to have people in our lives whom we can relate to on a values level—people who inspire us and whom we inspire.

The problem is a lot of the time we’re not actually very clear about what our core personal values are. And when you’re not really clear about your values, it’s hard to find other people who share them.

All of which means, if you want to surround yourself with and feel more connected to people who share your values, it’s critical to really get to know your values and clarify them more specifically.

Here’s one technique I like that can help you to clarify your core personal values: Relive the three happiest days of your life.

Often, the happiest days we experience are happy precisely because we’re really connecting with and living out our values:

  • Maybe it was the day you ran and finished your first marathon.
  • Maybe it was the day you had your first date with your first girlfriend/boyfriend.

Whatever the case may be, if you were genuinely happy that means you were connecting with some of your most important values. And those extremely happy days can be a good place to look for clues to help rediscover those values.

Here’s how to get started:

  1. Schedule yourself an hour or so of quiet time and make a list of your three happiest days.
  2. For each day, try to really remember as many details of the day as possible. If it helps, revisit old photos of that day or call/text an old friend/family member who was present and pick their brains about it too. You could also just start writing about it—literally tell the story of each day as if you were writing a short story.
  3. Next, look for patterns among the three days. What are the elements that are consistent between them all? For example, maybe in all three of your happiest days, you were doing something intellectually stimulating and exciting. Or maybe all three of your happiest days involved your sister. Or perhaps in all three of those days you were outdoors.
  4. Make a list of these common elements or patterns, and for each, try to articulate a particular personal value they represent. For example, spending time with my sister. Spending time outdoors. Intellectual stimulation. Etc.
  5. Pick the one personal value that seems most exciting or appealing and try to identify activities or situations in the present that could help you connect with and elaborate on that value. For example, if spending time outdoors is the value you choose, you might write down Go hiking in the national forest.
  6. Once you’ve identified several activities that align with your newly clarified value, try to generate a shortlist of people you know who would also enjoy that activity.
  7. Experiment with doing activities that align with your values, and if possible, inviting people who share that value to do it with you.

For more ideas and strategies for clarifying your values, see this guide: Know Your Values: 7 Ways to Discover and Clarify Your Personal Values

3. Practice Intentional Vulnerability

Emotional vulnerability is the willingness to acknowledge your emotions, especially the difficult or painful ones. And while it’s typically thought of in terms of expressing your emotions to other people, it’s just as much about being willing to look at your own difficult emotions.

This ability and willingness to acknowledge painful emotions is important when it comes to working through loneliness because, for many people, the key driver of their loneliness is a lack of genuine emotional connection—either with themselves or others. And by far the biggest reason this happens is that people are afraid to be vulnerable with their emotions.

Consequently, if you want to build more meaningful relationships with yourself or others, emotional vulnerability is key.

The trouble is, it’s hard. Being more emotionally vulnerable with yourself or others isn’t something you can just decide to do. Instead, it’s a skill that has to be built up slowly and progressively over time (much like any other skill).

The best method I know for doing this—for training yourself to be more capable and confident acknowledging your emotions and expressing them—is what I call intentional vulnerability.

Now, intentional vulnerability isn’t as complicated as it perhaps sounds… All it means is that you deliberately make time to be emotionally vulnerable—initially in small ways and then in progressively bigger ways as your skill and confidence with it increases.

If you want to practice intentional vulnerability, here are a few good places to start:

  1. Label your emotions with plain emotional language. One of the reasons many people feel so emotionally disconnected from themselves and others is that the language they use to describe how they feel is overly-intellectual and vague. When you describe how you’re feeling emotionally as stressed, or bugged, or just tired, you’re avoiding the actual emotion (afraid, for example). And when you get in the habit of avoiding your emotions, you train your mind to see them as threats, which makes you even more likely to avoid them (instead of acknowledging them) in the future. So, a great way to practice intentional vulnerability is to get in the habit of using simple, plain language to describe how you feel instead of intellectualizing your emotions.
  2. Practice emotion-focused journaling. A big part of what makes being emotionally vulnerable hard is that we have many thoughts and feelings in our heads, but we don’t express them and articulate them very often. This means we don’t feel very confident in our ability to acknowledge or express our feelings in a coherent way. You can practice expressing your emotions clearly by forcing yourself to write them down. Try spending 5 or 10 minutes per day free-writing about how you’ve been feeling.
  3. Learn to be more assertive. Assertiveness means communicating your wants and needs honestly and respectfully. If you do this regularly—when you are direct about asking for what you want and saying no to what you don’t want—you become more confident in your ability to express difficult moods and emotions. For example, practice expressing what you actually want to watch on TV instead of simply deferring to what your partner suggests. Practice requesting a better table at a restaurant instead of sitting wherever the hostess leads you. You can learn more about assertiveness here: A Beginner’s Guide to Assertiveness

4. Address Preexisting Mental Health Issues

Sometimes chronic loneliness is a very direct result of a preexisting mental health issue.

For example, in my work as a therapist, there have been many times when a client came to me with a primary complaint of loneliness. But when I discovered that they also had an existing mental health issue that seemed related, addressing that issue often took care of the loneliness on its own.

For example, if you’re chronically lonely but also struggle with social anxiety, often simply addressing the social anxiety on its own is enough to alleviate most of the loneliness.

In other words, just because you’ve been chronically lonely for a long time, that doesn’t mean that loneliness is actually your “biggest issue.” For many people, it will resolve itself once another mental health issue driving it is resolved.

While anxiety is often a hidden driver of chronic loneliness, I’ve seen the same thing be true of insomnia, trauma, bipolar disorder, depression, and eating disorders.

If you have a preexisting mental health issue that could be contributing to your chronic loneliness, it’s a good idea to talk to a qualified mental health professional and see about addressing the mental health issue first.

If you’re interested in seeing a therapist or counselor but feel a bit overwhelmed by the prospect, or aren’t sure where to begin, I wrote a guide on that very topic: Find Your Therapy: A Practical Guide to Finding Quality Therapy


How to Help People Who Are Lonely

In this final section, I want to cover some general guidelines for being helpful to other people who are struggling with loneliness.

Keep in mind that these aren’t fixed rules. They’re just suggestions I’ve formed over the years—based on the particular psychological elements of loneliness—that I’ve found to be helpful:

  • Focus on quality time rather than actions. Let’s say you’ve got an aging parent who is especially lonely and you want to help. So you decide that you will make a point to call them regularly. Rather than assuming that your conversations are a kind of mission where it’s your job to A) figure out why they’re lonely, and B) Come up with ways to help them be less lonely, instead just focus on being present with them. You don’t have to talk about anything in particular or even be especially “helpful.” Often, just being there with someone who’s lonely is by far the most valuable thing you can do.
  • Consistency over intensity. It’s my experience that small consistent connection is more helpful for people than big intermittent ones. If you have a friend, for example, whom you know is really struggling with loneliness, it’s very possible that catching up on the phone for 5 minutes once a day is much more helpful to them than one or two hour-long conversations each month—this is especially true early on.
  • Be explicit about your feelings toward them. This is one of those things we all probably know but really need to be reminded of. Even if the person who’s lonely technically knows that you care about them, they may not feel it. Which means one of the most helpful things you can do is to be explicit about how you feel about that person: Say I love you; remind them of what you really appreciate about them; tell them specifically how your relationship has been important or meaningful to you. The other reason this is really important is because it models and makes safe similar behavior from them. A lot of people who are lonely are hesitant to be emotionally expressive (even if they know they should). You doing it can send a signal to them that it’s okay to do so and therefore make it a little easier for them to follow suit.
  • Be persistent (but not pushy). If someone you care about has struggled with loneliness for a long time, that’s unlikely to change overnight. Think about how a flower grows: after the seed is planted, it looks like nothing is happening for weeks or months. But then, all of a sudden, it sprouts. Of course, it’s not really all of a sudden—things were happening, you just couldn’t see it. Well, the same thing can happen when you’re trying to be supportive of people who are lonely: it might look like they’re unappreciative or not making any effort, but in reality it could be that there’s more movement happening than you can see and that you just need to be patient. On the other hand, you don’t want to be pushy or aggressive, so try to be mindful of that balance.
  • Help them to be comfortable first. A big mistake I often see with people who are trying to help lonely people in their life is that they try to just push them into action that they assume will be good for them. But here’s the thing: they might need a warm-up period first. For example, let’s say you have a friend who’s been very lonely and you want to try and convince them to get back out there on the basketball court because you know how much they used to enjoy playing pickup basketball. Well, instead of trying to convince them to start playing basketball cold-turkey after a couple years of not, you might start by inviting them to watch basketball on TV with you a few times. Then maybe you guys just shoot hoops together on your own for a while. And only then, introduce the idea of getting back to pick up games. In other words, most people will need to ease out of loneliness rather than simply breaking free of it.

Summary and Key Points

Loneliness is an emotion characterized by the feeling of pain caused by a perceived lack of intimacy with other people (or oneself).

And while loneliness can be experienced differently depending on your history, personality, and circumstances, the following ideas are generally helpful for thinking about loneliness and how to address it:

  • The initial cause of loneliness may not be the same thing that’s maintaining loneliness in the present.
  • Some of the most common causes of loneliness include: Social Anxiety, Isolation, Difficulty with Assertiveness, and Poor Self-awareness.
  • Common types or forms of loneliness include: Lack of Physical Connection, Lack of Common Interests, Lack of Shared Values, Lack of Emotional Intimacy, and Lack of Self-Intimacy.
  • Some of the most common negative effects of loneliness are unhealthy relationships, substance abuse, chronic busyness, and depression.
  • 4 practical ways to address loneliness are: Behavioral Activation, Values Clarification, Intentional Vulnerability, and Addressing Preexisting Mental Health Issues.
  • A few tips to keep in mind if you’re trying to help someone else who struggles with loneliness: quality time over actions, consistency over intensity, be explicit about your feelings toward them, try to be persistent (but not pushy), and help them to be comfortable first.

6 Comments

Add Yours

Reading this article has put clarity to many of the feelings I have had since my husband died in April after a 20 year battle with blood cancers. It is the lack of emotional intimacy that has me so down. He and I, despite the challenges of his illness, had a wonderful marriage and life together for nearly 30 years. People always saw us as “the perfect couple” because it was always evident to them how much we loved each other.
I feel a sense of relief now, I have so many wonderful friends who are keep me busy in this COVID plagued world, and I enjoy my time with them. I don’t mind living alone, but I can make sense of my sadness.

I feel like I have struggled with some form of loneliness all of my life. I grew up with a disabled brother and always felt like an outsider in groups and often guilty for having needs that might burden my parents. I think this feeling of being set aside from others was two-directional in hindsight.
Only at university did I start to build truly meaningful connections, a few of which have stood the test of time but over the years geography and jobs have spread us widely.
The last few years I have increasingly felt apart from people and now my marriage is in real difficulties my sense of loneliness is more acute than ever. Despite searching for connection I find it hard to find and sustain – and COVID hadn’t really helped… I will try the methods described in your article. Thanks for posting.

Excellent. I had to write out some of it as I read it, to make sure I was absorbing it in a deep way, and for consulting again in the future. Thank you very much.

“you can feel lonely even when you’re surrounded by other people”

“lack of intimacy often happens on the level of the physical or in terms of shared interests or values, the core of it seems to be fundamentally emotional in nature—that is, it’s about not feeling connected enough with other people (or ourselves) on an emotional level”

These sentences is exactly what I feel. I live a lonely life, I spent a lot of time alone and I like to be alone the most part, mainly because when I am with a lot people I still feel lonely.

I also feel a big lack of intimacy with other people, on the physical level AND in terms of shared interests/values, and, of course, I also I am not feel connected enough with other people.

It was very good to read this article to clear and understand a little bit more of my mind and my loneliness.

Thanks. Keep writing about loneliness.

Hi Nick. I really appreciate how you so clearly define and explain an issue, then get practical about how to change. You have a great ability to compartmentalise an issue and look at the contributing factors. This happens to be very much how my mind works, so your articles are a joy to read. Your capacity to both inspire and to provide the real life “how to” makes for a very reassuring combination indeed. Thank you for your work.

Leave a Reply