The last two red numerals on the clock changed to zeros, three hours after 'Jane' (pseudonym) had promised herself she’d be in bed. Tonight was going to be different, she had vowed. She’d shut it all down early—right after she checked her Twitter feed. But the numbers in the tiny alert circles on her phone never disappeared. She had to let her online friends know she was still playing the game. She wanted to watch just one last YouTube video. There was just one more link she had to check out.
She scrolled down. The low battery light was on. Bummer, the wall connection must have come loose. She plugged the phone back in, fell into her already unmade bed, and turned off the light. Once again, she hadn’t washed her face, flossed her teeth, or packed the nutritious lunch she’d planned for the next day. She knew she wouldn’t make the morning exercise class either. Tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow, she never wanted to wake up and face another bleak tomorrow. No one understood.
Jane had thought it would be easier to make friends after graduation. Work would provide a community, she was told. But everyone was always so busy, so in a hurry, so overwhelmed, so married, so caught up in their own lives, so mesmerised by their phones, so unavailable for friendship. No one had anything to give, and she couldn’t put a name to her feelings, to the black hole sucking her in...
Loneliness can be an excruciating emotion, and one that is hard to label. It can often elude people while they’re busy browsing photos, commenting on social media posts, or playing games—things that appear to create feelings of friendship but may not truly do so.
Today, we can connect with others quickly and easily, in more ways than ever before in human history. Yet we are lonelier than any previous generation. In twenty years, we’ve lost two-thirds of the social connections we used to have. Rates of depression, teen suicide, and addictions are on the rise at a time when life-threatening dangers are at all-time lows for a majority of humanity.
So then, if people have more proximity and more ability to communicate with each other than ever before, why do so many of us experience these crushing feelings of loneliness?
Loneliness May Increase with Reliance on Technology, Changing Cultural Values
The causes of loneliness may not be readily understood or addressed. Even though there are more humans on the planet, and the pool of potential friends may be wider due to technology, many activities that used to require human interaction no longer do. We can shop from home without interacting with a retail clerk or salesperson. We can visit a drive-thru or order takeout and eat dinner alone. Earbuds insulate us when we are around others, and even when we do make eye contact, others are often in a hurry.
Our use of technology and the interactions we have online can impact our state of loneliness significantly, but how the internet specifically affects feelings of isolation can be complicated. Lonely people may find more feelings of connection digitally, for example, but a person who only connects to others digitally and desires other types of connection may be dissatisfied with this way of being part of a community, and their sense of isolation in the external world may increase.
Many social institutions once required for survival are not automatic any more. People of generations past were socially obligated to participate in family religious practices, cultural celebrations, rites of passage, and other traditions. Individuals were identified by these distinct circles, and they showed up, if for no other reason than to avoid ridicule or ostracism. Past generations often had no choice about belonging to their religious and ethnic communities, but today, many people see these circles as voluntary and less able to fill their emotional needs. Some individuals may not even know what community events are offered.
The heterogeneous nature of many modern communities offers increased diversity, greater acceptance of others, and more choices, but these benefits are accompanied by greater personal responsibility. To join and belong requires more individual risk, as new communities are not under the past obligation of accepting a new member simply based on heritage or family ties.
Even education, an institution historically requiring group affiliation and interaction, is now gravitating towards seclusion. Degrees can be obtained online, but even when classes take place in a classroom, digital class notes, internet registration, and online book purchases are all done in isolation in front of a screen. Participating in a group discussion through a message board and submitting online reviews may be the closest thing to socialising some students experience.
Families are often spread out, and some may be estranged. Individuals today may have greater opportunity to find groups that are more accepting, more like-minded, or even more accessible than their biological families, but getting out and physically joining these groups requires more social risk and courage. Even if a lonely person finds the motivation to join a desired group, their emotions can sometimes sabotage a good thing. Research shows one lonely person may destabilise the cohesion of a group. Further, any failures or disappointing experiences a person has can make trying again all the more difficult.
Without built-in social circles and expected participation in family activities, joining and showing up requires more vulnerability and greater personal commitment. Even when a new circle of friends might be welcoming and accepting, a lonely person may not realise this right away, or ever. Research has shown that people who feel lonely are less able to pick up signals of commitment from others, and this can leave a lonely person feeling left out even when they’re really welcomed in.
Beyond these listed barriers to finding connection and attaining a sense of belonging, our culture tends to value independence and autonomy. Some people may not want to admit to feelings of loneliness out of a fear they will be seen as weak. But humans are social animals. We advanced as a species by forming tribes, villages, and devout groups that made us feel special and protected. We sat at fires, told stories, made plans, and felt connected. But as these age-old institutions become more voluntary and less obligatory, membership became more of an individual responsibility.
Learning to Find a Community
I often see people in treatment who have deep feelings of loneliness. They understand these feelings to be a sign that something needs to change, and with good reason: loneliness can have significant and serious effects. It can increase the risk of physical illness and mortality by up to 32%. Further, loneliness can spread and often occurs in clusters, meaning lonely people may be more likely to have lonely people around them, which can contribute to feelings of hopelessness.
Isolation, and resulting loneliness may develop as a symptom or effect of certain mental health conditions, and working through these issues with the help of a qualified professional can, in turn, help a person overcome isolation and loneliness. But loneliness may have other causes. With busy schedules, digital communication, and personal attendance at events required less frequently, many of the people I work with aren’t even aware of the possible communities available to them. I generally encourage them to browse groups in their area and volunteer opportunities in their communities.
Even making a list of possible groups is a great start for those who are nervous, anxious, or otherwise finding it hard to take that first step. Write the dates and addresses of interesting activities in the calendar. Doing this will increase the chances of you actually attending. Find a colleague or associate who is willing to go along the first time. If you’re nervous or reluctant, think about how you’ll feel when other people are happy to see you and miss you when you are absent. Think about what you can bring to a group that enhances the experience of others. Are you funny? A good listener? Do you have new ideas? Are you willing to help out with projects? And so on.
Another satisfying way to connect might be giving back from the place of one’s own wounding—in other words, helping others who are now where you once were. This may be on an individual basis or you might choose to assist an already established group, using the hardships you have experienced in your own life as expertise and credibility to reach out and lend a hand to others just beginning a difficult journey.
Donating supplies or volunteering time to a pet rescue
Helping out with a divorce recovery group after divorce, a grief group after a loss, Al-Anon after experiencing addiction, and so on
Staffing a rape crisis or suicide hotline after recovering from trauma
Bars, parties, or activities focused on drugs or alcohol, while often easy places to meet people, may not be the best places to find true friends. Looking for friendship in places where people are anesthetising their emotions may set you up for eventual emptiness that is not worth the emotional shortcut. While it is certainly possible to find friends in these places, you may find it more helpful to seek out friendship in places people are attempting to better themselves (classes, athletic endeavors, causes, travel destinations, and so on) or the world (volunteer events, charity drives, community meetings, and so on).
Remember Jane? She eventually found a farm-to-table cooking class where she met friends who cared about the environment and liked to cook and eat well. Her self-care habits improved, giving her the energy and motivation to attend classes and events after work. She found a rekindled sense of enthusiasm and creativity in the class and looked forward to exploring dining experiences with her new friends.
You, like Jane, are a unique individual with special qualities and talents. You deserve to have people in your life who accept you for who you are and enjoy your company. You are a gift to the communities where you show up. Though taking a risk on finding a true connection may seem an insurmountable task, things often seem more daunting before we try. But in the end, we often realise it wasn’t so hard, after all, and wonder why we were so afraid.