Loneliness is an emotional response we experience when we feel isolated. It can arise when we lose someone or when we’ve been on our own for a while. It can also happen when we don’t feel understood. In fact, one of the worst feelings I’ve experienced is being in a crowded place, or in a group of people, and feeling incredibly lonely.
Human beings are the most social creatures to inhabit the earth. But lions, orcas, chimpanzees, and elephants are also known to be social creatures (there are many others but I don’t want this to turn into an Attenborough documentary). In fact elephants are deemed to be the most social animals because they mourn the loss of family members and when a new elephant is born, the other herd members come together to assist in nurturing and caring.
If our need for social connection isn’t met, or we feel misunderstood by others we can feel lonely. In fact, feeling understood is pivotal to our mental health. Strong relationships rely on connection and mutual understanding. When we feel understood by others we experience a powerful sense of belonging and acceptance. Research has shown that feeling understood can impact the part of the brain associated with reward and connection.
Even if we have lots of friends or come from a large family, feeling lonely is common. It’s not unusual to feel lonelier in some places than others. It’s perfectly normal to feel lonely at events, even when we’re surrounded by lots of people. It’s important to reflect on what we need to feel connected there. By doing that we get empowered to know how to meet our needs moving forward.
Loneliness is actually an inevitable human experience. Due to the fact we are innately social creatures we are bound to experience loneliness at some point. A very, very long time ago people relied on interaction to survive. Early humans faced unpredictable challenges and their surroundings were just as unpredictable. They learned to confront these hardships together, sharing and storing vital knowledge for survival. On their own a human could only do so much but together they began to understand the world a little better and could build a safer community.
That need for interaction is still ingrained, much like the need for sustenance. For example, when you’re thirsty the brain triggers a search for water. When we’re lonely, the brain triggers a search for connection. Our brains consider social interaction to be a basic need, just like water (or food). Feeling lonely is certainly unpleasant to experience, but it’s similar to feeling hungry or thirsty.
There are many ways to combat loneliness. I’m very lucky with my job in that I get to interact with many different people. It’s when I’m outside of my job that I struggle to fit in. I’m a loner and happy to be that way. A lone wolf wandering the earth in search of a companion. I go to a place where other lone wolves may be but I don’t fit in because I don’t drink excessively, I’m too old, I’m too young, I’m too freaky, I’m too theatrical, I’m too musical, I’m too intelligent, I’m not intelligent enough, etc.! So I prefer to spend my free time doing my own thing on my own where I don’t need to worry about being judged. But that’s not a healthy option.
What can we do to combat loneliness (if we want to)? Perhaps we could volunteer? On top of helping others it’s an impactful way of meeting others. When we volunteer we’re giving ourselves a sense of purpose. Not only are we meeting like minded people we’re also going some way to reducing our stress, improving our mood…and doing a good thing to help others.
Spending time outside is also good for mental and emotional health. Being out in the open is naturally soothing so if we can combine that with a bit of social interaction as well, that can only be a good thing. Perhaps join a walking/hiking group, or get on a bike and join a cycle club? Maybe you can join a local sports team (that don’t play competitively but rather just for fun?).
Another way to combat loneliness is a method I mention frequently in these blogs….meditation. Meditation helps train your brain, just like a gym workout trains your muscles. By meditating we can break our cycle of loneliness by anchoring our awareness in the present. We can set intentions to find connections and understanding.
All of this takes time and there is no quick fix. Being alone is never a problem if you’re genuinely happy in your own company. But being lonely needs to be addressed. We’re all worthy of companionship and interaction…we just need to know how to seek it out and that’s a discussion for another day. But reach out to people warmly and genuinely, be the sun in someone’s cloud.