You can be lonely whether or not you have a partner, relatives, or many friends. When you have a need and desire to be interpersonally connected and recognize that it’s missing, you may become wrapped in the emotion of loneliness. Emotions, by definition, are immediately felt when triggered by a particular event or stimulus. Loneliness can be triggered when you’re thinking of a significant relationship that has ended, if you realize that your relationships are not emotionally satisfying, if you have lost a loved one, if your access to social relationships has been altered because of a life circumstance, or at the moment you recognize that you are not truly known and understood by another.
When you’re lonely, it’s unlikely you’ll remember that emotions serve a purpose, since what possible purpose can the heartache of loneliness serve? If you think about how this emotion makes you feel and think, then you will easily recognize that it alerts you to the fact that your relationships are inadequate and your needs to belong are not being met. Beyond that, loneliness motivates you to take necessary action that will relieve it. Emotions do have a purpose, regardless of how unpleasant some of them can make us feel.
Loneliness can make you feel empty and a sense of longing for someone to really know you. If you are without friends you may wish to have someone in your life who will relieve the emptiness. Yet loneliness may not be clearly linked to the reality of a situation because it can exist when connections with others are fleeting, meaningless, or not what you consider to be significant. Thus, you may have many friends, or be in a room filled with people, and still be lonely.
Aloneness is different than loneliness, although the two are a bit conflated and you can feel either without the other. The amount of time you spend alone has little to do with being lonely. Many people find solitude to be a pleasant experience that allows one to think, be creative, rest, or simply pass time in solitary activity. There are people in whom fear or anxiety is triggered when they are alone, but this is different than the experience of loneliness, as are situations where a person prefers to be alone in order to avoid the anxiety inherent in social activities.
Loneliness, like all emotions, creates certain cognitions and therefore can cause you to imagine that everyone else has the kinds of affiliations that you strongly desire, or that other people are enjoying the company of others while you are feeling inadequately connected. Your longing for closeness may, at times, lead you to believe that your situation might never end. It’s understandable why people who are lonely might feel unwanted, unloved, undesirable, insignificant, despairing, insecure, or abandoned. Such attributions falsely account for the lack of connection.
Emotions differ from the prolonged emotional states that define moods. A lonely mood is akin to a lingering sadness, but with a particular referent; it’s sadness about not having someone in your life where caring and deep understanding is mutually felt. Even so, a prolonged loneliness can lead you to believe that you are depressed, or, in some circumstances, can lead to depression.
Across cultures, humans are motivated by a need to belong, and their emotions and behaviors are geared toward satisfying this need.[i] Far more effort gets put into maintaining social bonds than dissolving them. However, you can’t get rid of lonely feelings with personal contact that is inconsequential.
People have a need to be connected with others. Researchers studied people who were recently excluded from relationships and found that these people may behave in certain ways in social situations just because they need connection.[ii] (DeWall et al., 2009). Early on, a person who is excluded seeks emotional contact and needs to find others who are accepting. Excluded people paid closer attention to others who had smiling faces, as opposed to those whose faces showed disapproval. The researchers concluded that people who feel the threat of social exclusion are highly motivated to look for sources of acceptance, and their perceptions are in gear to find a friendly face. Being connected to others is important, and it shows in the basic ways in which our brain has evolved to seek out others.
However, it takes more than recognizing a friendly face to extract oneself out of a lonely state. Having a willingness to take risks socially, to be assertive, to self-disclose, and be responsive to others are strategies to defeat loneliness. Drowning your feelings of isolation in alcohol or subjecting them to substances in order to forget is not listening to what your emotions are telling you to do. Loneliness can lead to self-absorption and a high sensitivity where you hopelessly avoid others, or desperately seek their positive affirmation. For these reasons it is important to remain mindful of the needs of others in social interactions.
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[i] Baumeister, R.F. & Leary, M.R. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117, 497-529.
[ii] DeWall, C., Maner, J. & Rouby, D. (2009). Social exclusion and early-stage interpersonal perception: Selective attention to signs of acceptance Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 96(4), 729–741.