Loneliness has reached epidemic proportions and the UK could be called patient zero. As many as seven million Britons feel they have no close friends and roughly one in ten regularly feel isolated. Despite the rise in connectivity, we’re feeling more disconnected than ever.
Britain became the first country in Europe to appoint a Minister of Loneliness, amid research pointing to the physical and mental effects of loneliness. That raises an important question: How can we feel less lonely?
The answer isn’t simply to create more opportunities for social interaction because loneliness isn’t a by-product of being alone.
The late Dr John Cacioppo, social neuroscientist and Professor at the University of Chicago, explained in an interview with The Atlantic: “Being with others doesn’t mean you’re going to feel connected, and being alone doesn’t mean you’re going to feel lonely.”
Loneliness, like hunger, is a biological drive.
“Hunger’s purpose is to motivate you to seek food before you are so low on fuel that you can no longer have the energy [to do so],” says Dr Cacioppo. “Loneliness motivates you to repair or replace connections that you feel are threatened or lost.”
Loneliness is a warning against social isolation – a dangerous state of being for our cave dwelling ancestors. It also means that when we start feeling lonely, there’s still time to do something.
So, what can we do? The best place to start is to build connections with others. Here are four ways to get started.
1. Admit it
Psychotherapist and Head of Psychotherapy at The School of Life, Charlotte Fox Weber, believes that loneliness is universal, that we all experience loneliness at different times in our lives. “I think sometimes acknowledging that and being able to talk about it helps bridge that gap between two different people,” Fox Weber said.
“Being able to say, ‘I don’t feel close with my friends’ or ‘I don’t have enough friends’ or ‘I would like to make more friends’… it takes courage and it’s often really, really helpful in itself.”
That little act of showing vulnerability can be the key to connection and close relationships. As author and research professor Dr Brené Brown discussed, people who have a strong sense of love, belonging, and connection tended to have the courage to show their imperfections and be vulnerable.
When we stop hiding our insecurities and let our authentic selves be seen and accepted, we become much more connected to those around us.
2. Take (safe) risks
Life coach Sophia Hyder says that adults tend to create a routine that helps them feel comfortable and secure. Most of the time, it doesn’t involve people. “I tend to encourage my clients to look inward, and to ask themselves what is holding them back from making friends in a new place and what is the worst that can happen if they try something new,” Hyder said.
You can ease your way into social connections by taking comfortable risks and exposing yourself to new experiences. Fox Weber typically challenges her clients to start a conversation with a complete stranger every day for a week.
The risk is, of course, rejection or ending up in an uncomfortable situation. Fox Weber says that’s actually the point of the exercise. “It’s a kind of test for discovering you can be resilient, that you can survive awkwardness, that there can be setbacks, and that can often make people feel much more confident.
3. Seek ‘collectives’
Dr Cacioppo developed the acronym EASE to help people ease their way in personal connections.
- E stands for ‘Extend Yourself’. Find small doses of the positive sensations that come from positive social interactions.
- A stands for ‘Action Plan’. Understanding that we are in control of our own situations and can change our way of thinking and behaving.
- S stands for ‘Selection’, or more recently, ‘Seek Collectives’. Seek out people with similar interests, activities, and values to help you build quality relationships.
- E stands for ‘Expect the Best’. Social contentment can help us be more optimistic people.
Aden Eyob, cognitive neuroscientist and founder of Mind Medication, found her ‘tribe’ at The Collective, a modern take on communal living. Called co-living, it’s one way millennials are trying to stick it to loneliness. “When I broke up with my boyfriend I was like, ‘I’m not going to go and do the flat share again’ because it’s effectively living alone, but I get to see people I don’t necessarily want to see every day,” says Eyob.
The Collective was a “game changer” for her – it wasn’t just a space for being alone together. She’s made friends she speaks to daily and hangs out with outside of the co-living flat. “The Collective friends I’ve acquired are different from my other friends in that I find they’re a bit more understanding and really just let me be myself,” she says. “And they challenge me as well.”
Finding a place or activity where you can meet like-minded people – particularly if they all have the goal of connecting with others – creates the mutuality necessary for developing meaningful and satisfying relationships.
4. Put away the technology.
People who feel lonely are more likely to head online for social connection or emotion support. But resorting to the digital world creates a vicious cycle of loneliness. The connections we make with people online are fleeting and end up leaving us dissatisfied.
When you’re looking to form genuine connection, put the phone away. Studies have shown that simply having a phone nearby can damage your attempts at interpersonal connection—even if you don’t check it.
“One of the things I find about psychotherapy that makes it a really authentic encounter is that it’s two people facing each other without any technological interference,” says Fox Weber.
A face-to-face conversation where you’re making eye contact is hugely connecting, she explains. “I think that we’re all incredibly distracted and looking away and playing with gadgets and not just having tête-à-tête time.”
The ingredients for meaningful relationships and reducing loneliness are closeness, trust, connectedness, and empathy. Building those feelings requires being open and curious, putting yourself out there, spending time with like-minded people, and keeping the phones away. If you can do that, you’ll find yourself with the rewarding relationships we don’t just want, but physically and psychologically need.