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Feeling Lonely? You Are Definitely Not Alone

When loneliness overwhelms me, I do this.

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illustration of woman sitting at desk looking lonely
Ellis Brown
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There are times in my life when I’ve felt I could literally die of loneliness. And yet I have a partner I’ve been happily married to for over 20 years, two beloved kids, many friends and a generally rewarding although isolating career.

So why the loneliness? And why does it feel so embarrassing to admit this?

For me, saying I’m lonely implies that I have no friends, or at least not meaningful ones or not many of them. And who wants to admit that? What I’ve come to realize is that loneliness isn’t just about our relationships or connections to others — although certainly that is a big part of it. It is also about our relationship to ourselves, and our connections to nature, to spirituality, to meaningful employment or interests and to creative outlets that inspire us.

Psychologist Dr. Jameca Woody Cooper, based in Missouri, says loneliness can also be linked to personality. Extroverted people are more likely to feel lonely than introverts who don’t rely as much on connections for their sense of well-being. Loneliness can also be linked to depression: lonely people can become depressed, and loneliness can also be a symptom of depression.

Older adults can be particularly vulnerable because lack of social connections is a big factor in loneliness.

“They may lose a spouse: that could be 80 percent of their social contact,” Cooper says. “They may move from their home into assisted living [and away from close friends].” Cooper adds that health issues can also impair networking, such as hearing loss and vision issues. “And limited mobility can make it more arduous to get in and out of a car, so many people decide it’s simply easier to not go out.”

When I am depressed (which I am periodically), I tend to withdraw from people and that makes me lonelier. I stop being able to concentrate on things I normally enjoy, simple things, like reading a novel before bed or listening to news programs. My mind feels dull, like it’s been inhabited by a big black space. All this makes me feel, well, lonely.

It is of some solace to know I am not alone in often feeling lonely. “Approximately half of U.S. adults report experiencing loneliness,” according to the 2023 report Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation: The U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory on the Healing Effects of Social Connection and Community. And for me, therapy has been huge in helping me work through my feelings of loneliness and twinges of depression.

The pandemic pushed many of us to talk about this issue, as millions of people were isolated from one another by necessity. In fact, rather than loneliness making us feel flawed or inadequate, it is increasingly acknowledged by medical professionals to be common. Dr. Jeremy Nobel, the founder and president of The Foundation for Art & Healing, developed a signature initiative to address chronic and persistent loneliness. His Project UnLonely features films you can download about loneliness and connection, ideally watched with others to promote conversation.

Nobel describes three types of loneliness. There is psychological loneliness, as in, “Is there someone you can tell your troubles to, a confidante, someone you feel a sense of safety and friendship with?” he asks. This is all about authentic connections.

Then there is societal loneliness, which he explains as, “If you’re imagining a room full of people, and you have to go in that room, either for work or whatever, [does] your arrival into that room [feel] welcome and safe? ... If it’s not, you [may be] hesitant, cautious, maybe even afraid to go in that room…”

The third is existential loneliness. “That’s the big spiritual question. Why am I here? Does my life have meaning and purpose? Does my life have consequences?” Nobel asks rhetorically.

Because my loneliness has been linked to depression, I often have difficulty believing in more positive aspects of my life and relationships. So learning, with the help of my therapist, to take in compliments, and believe in people’s love for me, has meant that I can maintain positive feelings of connection even when I am physically alone. And that definitely makes me feel less lonely.

Cooper recommends having an advocate to help those experiencing loneliness or depression with navigating the medical maze. “This advocate could be a trusted family member, friend or mental healthcare provider. Never be afraid to get a second opinion if you feel that your doctor has not prioritized your needs,” she advises.

illustration of 2 cell phones displaying video call between mother, son and grandmother, loneliness, connections
Ellis Brown

Technology can also be used to reduce people’s loneliness. Cooper says she often speaks to younger members of families teaching older, low-tech persons how to connect via video calls and other social media. She has found that octogenarians “find it cool and amazing to interact using technology.”

When I am with my 90-year-old mother, I show her Instagram posts from out-of-town relatives. I have helped to set up video calls with her book club and how to video chat with our children at college.

In my only life, I've arranged lots of face-to-face real-time meetups, including dinner parties, and I started a Scrabble club with a group of my literary friends. Creativity is also important to making connections, whether that involves making art, or simply “beholding” art, says Nobel. On a recent trip to New York City, I toured the Whitney Museum. Although I was alone in a crowd of mostly strangers, I didn’t feel lonely as we were all connected to the images in the paintings. And when I am feeling lonely because I haven’t seen friends for a while, I simply organize times to get together.

I have learned with age that social connections that combat loneliness don’t mean having to bare our souls to each other. Sometimes a meaningful connection is as simple as the time I spend with my mother when — without expectations — we admire gardens together on a neighborhood walk or sit next to each other on the sofa, and enjoy a show together.

Do YOU ever experience loneliness? What do you do about it? Let us know in the comments below.

 

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