When was the last time you felt lonely? In order to thrive during these socially unusual times, and even times that aren’t unusual at all, it’s important to understand the difference between being alone and experiencing real loneliness, and what we can do to combat the loneliness epidemic that seems to be sweeping many countries.
According to 2021 Harvard research findings, “61 percent of young people ages 18 to 25 reported feeling lonely.” Many of those interviewed for the study called their loneliness “serious loneliness” and mentioned experiencing loneliness many times a week. (Harvard Study: An Epidemic of Loneliness Is Spreading Across America, “Fee Stories,” Kerry McDonald, February 2021)
Young adults aren’t the only ones experiencing extreme loneliness in recent years. Other age groups also reported an increase in loneliness, as well. (socialpronow.com/loneliness-statistics/) It truly does seem as if the loneliness epidemic needs more attention.
Even though the COVID-19 situation has caused more people to have alone time, being alone isn’t what causes loneliness. In fact, before COVID-19 loneliness was already increasing in America. Alone time and loneliness are very different. Even though loneliness can happen when a person is alone, some people can be alone and be full of joy and happiness, while others can be surrounded by people and feel extreme loneliness.
Being Alone Is Okay
When a person is alone, that means that no one else is around. This is a time when a person can ponder, do their own projects, feed their own soul, and fill their emotional buckets. Alone time often provides the environment for personal progress. It is during alone times that we evaluate truths, examine ourselves, sort out concerns and problems, study, and stay in tune with our hearts.
Loneliness can occur during alone times, surrounded by friends, while chatting or conferencing online, at public functions, in private, and even when someone is talking to us. Loneliness is an emotional condition of heart and mind that can feel painful and hopeless. Loneliness can cause a person to question their personal worth, social appeal, and lead a person to experience depression and other side effects.
Signs of loneliness include the following: having a hard time sleeping, taking a long time to do normal things like shower or pack a bag, loving things more than loving people, socializing regularly with other lonely people, having more online friends than real friends, making lists of bad experiences, talking about bad experiences again and again, getting sick more often than usual, gaining weight, experiencing depression, etc.
“Psychology Today” defines loneliness like this, ”Being lonely is a psychological state characterized by a distressing experience occurring when one’s social relationships are (self-) perceived to be less in quantity and quality than desired. So, when the social contact you have at a given time does not fulfill you.”
Our psychological states are heavily influenced by our spiritual and familial states as well. In contrast, if we have healthy spiritual and familial connections, then feelings of loneliness decrease. When a person doesn’t bond with their family members or with God in meaningful ways, then a person becomes insecure and lonely. Without a bond with God a person can feel like there is no one watching out for them, and that life is going nowhere. A relationship with God is instrumental in creating purpose and identity. Additionally, when familial bonds are broken or damaged, then a person doesn’t have the basic social unit of society (the family) to ground them in their other areas of life. Families also provide the seed bed for a person’s identity and life path.
In recent years, religious worship and functional family relationships have been declining while rates of loneliness have been increasing. I don’t think this is a coincidence. It seems that loneliness has increased as people have stopped having healthy relationships with God and family.
Luckily, there is hope for combating loneliness and some of the other symptoms of loneliness. Here are 5 things that have worked well for many who suffer from loneliness.
- Know the difference between being alone and being lonely, and make plans for good, meaningful alone time. Paint a picture, read a book, or pursue a hobby. My parents used to always tell me that in order to be “enough” when you have friends with you, you have to be “enough” when you’re all by yourself.
- Strengthen yourself spiritually by praying to God, reading holy scripture, taking time for worship, and regularly practicing gratitude for God’s blessings.
- Spend less time online and on social media. People who do less social media and gaming report feeling an increased feeling of purpose and satisfaction. This likely occurs because they usually get more things on their To Do lists done.
- Reach out to family members and plan times to have in-person gatherings with family and friends.
- When something bad happens, drop the subject. There are many “no” answers in life. And a wise, emotionally strong person accepts “no” answers and disappointments by staying calm and telling themselves to drop the subject (meaning to stop thinking about the disappointment or mistake) and keep trying to improve.
Many people get stuck in a loneliness lifestyle and don’t even know it. One of the best things that people can do is to instruct themselves to move forward and not dwell on disappointing or lonely minutes. Loneliness holds a person back, and without loneliness a person can live purposefully and improve relationships.
With the increase in loneliness, suicide, and depression numbers that have been steadily rising, even before COVID-19, we need to be asking ourselves more questions. What foundational pieces am I missing? What skills do I still need to learn? Who am I and where am I going? What people do I need to bond with? What am I grateful for? How can I improve my relationships to God and family?
Bonding to those around us and to God is the biggest game changer in combatting loneliness. If we are attached to others in healthy ways then we become more secure in our identities and we become enough to handle any future situation, no matter if it involves being alone or not.