- Loneliness is a common and serious public health problem, and many experts think it should be considered an epidemic.
- Being lonely has significant negative effects on a person’s health and changes the brain in ways that make it harder to feel less lonely.
- A psychologist who pioneered much of the research about loneliness has developed a simple set of strategies to help people feel less lonely.
The term “loneliness” calls to mind the feeling of being disconnected from the world and the people around you.
But that feeling is far more common and devastating than many people realise.
Recent research has found that loneliness has such a significant effect on mortality rates that it could be considered a public health threat that’s more harmful than obesity and about as bad as smoking. Being lonely can disrupt sleep, increase stress and inflammation, and weaken a person’s immune system. It’s also associated with cognitive decline, heart disease, and more frailty later in life.
According to a recent survey by the health insurance company Cigna, loneliness is so common in the US that most American adults are considered lonely. Younger Generation Z and millennial Americans were found to be the most lonely.
Many experts think that loneliness has become a big enough health problem that it should be considered an epidemic. Researchers have suggested that communities and workplaces take a bigger role in combatting loneliness – the UK has even appointed a minister of loneliness to work on this.
But dealing with loneliness on a large scale isn’t easy. In the mean time, there are important steps that individuals who are feeling lonely can take.
Psychologist-recommended tips for feeling less lonely
John Cacioppo, who died earlier this year, founded the University of Chicago’s Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience and helped pioneer the field of social psychology.
Cacioppo studied how the brains of lonely people changed in ways that could exacerbate the negative feelings associated with loneliness. He wrote about how changing your mindset – a psychological strategy called “social cognitive retraining” – can help combat loneliness or even to head it off before it becomes a problem.
To help fight off loneliness, he recommended a four-step strategy with the acronym EASE, which he further explained in a book he wrote with William Patrick, “Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection.”
Here are Cacioppo’s four steps for dealing with loneliness:
- Extend yourself: As Cacioppo wrote in a blog post for Psychology Today, you need simple, regular experiences that provide “small doses of the positive sensations that come from positive social interactions” – something you can’t get when isolated. He recommends starting with simple activities like attending social events and making small talk or volunteering in a setting that involves some social contact.
- Action plan: Know that you have the capacity to take action that will help. It’s important to realise you’re not “adrift on a genetic and environmental raft over whose course [you] have no control,” Cacioppo wrote. Just knowing that it’s possible to take concrete steps toward eliminating even longstanding feelings of social isolation makes it easier to retrain your approach to interacting with the world. Picking things you want to be a part of and intentionally getting out in social settings can make a big difference.
- Selection: Selecting social activities – and the people that come with them – that are of interest to you can make it a lot easier to connect with others, since any fellow attendees already share an interest with you. If running or reading is something you enjoy, join a running group or a book club.
- Expect the best: If you enter a social activity expecting to be ignored or thinking that people won’t be friendly, it’s easy to turn that into a self-fulfilling prophecy. On the other hand, expecting warmth and connection makes it easier to project that same warmth – which is then more likely to be reciprocated. Along the same lines, Cacioppo wrote that it’s important to be understanding if someone seems like they’re blowing you off; that person may be having a bad day or may be struggling with something else on their own.
Researchers have found that when people are able to become more engaged in social pursuits, they report greater well-being and life satisfaction. The loneliness epidemic is a big problem, but if a person feels able to take some steps on their own to feel less lonely, these tips could help.