My whole life I’ve felt like I’ve never gotten along with the people here. I do have some close friends, but it seems like I’m drifting from them as we get older. It’s hard to break into a social group here. I’ve felt suicidal a couple times because of it, not knowing whether it will be this way forever or not.
— 21 Year-Old Female College Student
I don’t have anyone in my life to talk to, spend time with, have a relationship with. No real friends, just a couple acquaintances and a family I hardly speak to. I’m so lonely that it almost physically hurts, it feels like my heart is being crushed; that’s the only way I can describe it.
— 47 Year-Old Male Engineer
Loneliness is Painful
And there is no natural immunity or defense against it. As the above excerpts demonstrate, loneliness affects people regardless of age, gender, income or life achievements, despite the spread of online social networks.
In fact, there has been a sharp increase in loneliness over the last decades according to John Cacioppo, the director of the University of Chicago’s Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience and author of Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection.
“The percentage of Americans who responded that they regularly or frequently felt lonely was between 11% and 20% in the 1970s and 1980s. In 2010, the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) did a nationally representative study in 2010 and found it was closer to 40% to 45%. And a recent study done on older adults out of University of California, University of California, San Francisco put it at 43%,” he notes.
In spite of the fact that loneliness is on the rise, there is this good news: loneliness can be shaped, managed and even overcome. Here are seven ways to combat and defeat loneliness.
1. Remind yourself you are not alone in feeling lonely. Loneliness is a condition which almost everyone experiences at one time or another. Even those who wrote the Bible experienced bouts of loneliness. Many Psalms are cries of loneliness. Consider Psalm 38:11: “My friends and companions avoid me because of my wounds; my neighbors stay far away” (NIV). Or hear the words of Psalm 31:11: “Because of all my enemies, I am the utter contempt of my neighbors; I am a dread to my friends. Those who see me on the street flee from me” (NIV).
2. Have an honest look at yourself. If your circle of meaningful friendships has shrunk over the past months, take an emotional inventory of yourself. Ask yourself if you have become too:
- Self-absorbed — overbearing, boring or simply uninterested in others’ lives and activities.
- Unbalanced — a loner, a workaholic or someone who struggles with social interaction.
- Lazy — depending on others to do all the initiating, reaching out or inviting.
- Critical, judgmental or angry — these are all hostile emotions that often drive people away.
- Narrow minded — closed to other points of view and overly comfortable that your perception is always correct.
If these are problems in your life, be aware of them and begin working to minimize and eliminate these behaviors and mindsets. Seek out a counselor or therapist for guidance in what practical steps you can take. By doing some work on your inner life, you will strengthen your social portfolio.
3. Help someone who needs support. “The capacity to care is the thing that gives life its greatest significance,” wrote renowned cellist Pablo Casals. Those who volunteer their time live longer and happier lives. Acting on the compassion and kindness which is latent in every heart brings fulfillment, joy and purpose. It validates our self-worth and the worth of others. And, by responding to the needs of others, you will allow love into your own life. You might even find close friends among your fellow volunteers.
4. Increase your level of caring. An important key for warding off loneliness is care. Be a person who cares for others, for animals, for the environment, for life and for everyone and everything around you. “When you maintain a pattern of caring, whether for a house, a garden, pets or other people, you are protecting yourself against despair,” says Dr. Aaron Katcher, MD, co-author of, Between Pets and People.
5. Turn to God. God is a specialist when loneliness and anguish are deep. When it seems that no one understands or cares about you, remind yourself that God knows you, loves you, cares about you and is present in your loneliness. Turn to God in prayer asking Him to help you find joy even when things feel bleak. Let your thoughts and feelings be redirected by reviewing these Scriptures which affirm God’s faithful love and constant presence:
- 1 Peter 5:7 — God cares about you and your feelings.
- Matthew 11:28-29 — An invitation to find comfort in Christ.
- Isaiah 43:1-4 — A powerful reminder that God is present, even in hard times.
- Lamentations 3:22-26 — God’s love sustains us.
- Joshua 1:9 — God is always with you.
6. Engage in more “face–to–face” time with people. Dr. Cacioppo argues that growing reports of loneliness among people are due in part to our modern, disconnected lifestyle. “We aren’t as closely bound,” he says. “We no longer live in the same village for generations, which means we don’t have the same generational connections. That releases social constraints—relationships are formed and replaced more easily today.” He recommends adding “face-to-face” time with people in addition to our online social networking: “We have Tinder, Match, eHarmony and all these kinds of places you can dial up and find friendships, connections and opportunities that didn’t exist. In the last 15 years or so, many of those “face-to-face” connections have been replaced with social networking. We’ve found that if you use social networking as a way to promote “face-to-face” conversation, it lowers loneliness. (But if it becomes a replacement for the “face-to-face,” it increases loneliness.”)
7. Remind yourself, “It’s worth the effort.” While strengthening your social portfolio does take some work and energy, the payoff is a richer, fuller, happier life. Lotte Prager owes her life and much of the happiness she has enjoyed during her 81 years to her friends. It was friends who helped her escape Nazi Germany in 1937 by paying her first year’s tuition at a British college. Friends at the college also helped her get her relatives out of Germany. Following her move to the United States, Prager met her husband-to-be at a party given by other friends. After her husband died and her children had grown up, yet another friend helped her find an apartment in New York City. Retired from her career as a social worker, Prager now relies on friends for companionship. Prager says she is comforted in the knowledge that “they will do for me and I will do for them.”
Victor M. Parachin lives in Tulsa, OK.