Well-Being//

Why Is it So Hard to Say We’re Lonely?

If we really want to address the loneliness epidemic, we need to break the stigma of admitting we’re lonely.

Parks and Recreation / NBC
Parks and Recreation / NBC

It might seem a bit odd to say that loneliness is having a moment, but it is. You can’t open a newspaper or watch a TV show these days without getting a sobering reminder that loneliness is an epidemic, with real costs to individuals and to society. The more we discuss the reality of loneliness, the more of a makeover it’s getting the public eye. The image of a lonely person that many of us may have instinctively conjured in the past — a sad person at home with the shades drawn — is being increasingly challenged, and we’re starting to understand that loneliness looks different on everyone. 

Take me, for example: a social, extroverted (according to both the Myers-Briggs personality test, and the people who know me well) 30-something with a stimulating life and career in a big city. I’m single, but I have several close friends, a loving, big-enough Greek family, and plenty of acquaintances that I could tap into for a get-together at any time (only I often don’t, because I tend to feel lonelier at the end of those interactions). And if one’s social media feed was a marker of loneliness — it’s decidedly not — you’d probably have even more evidence to peg me as a “rarely lonely” type.

You’d be wrong. 

Of course, loneliness is not something with a medical threshold, like hypertension or diabetes. That’s why it’s often referred to as a silent killer (more on that later). Since you can’t cross a physical line into loneliness, researchers usually define it as “the perceived discrepancy between one’s desired level of social connection and their actual level of social connection,” Brigham Young University psychology and neuroscience professor Julianne Holt-Lunstad told New York Magazine’s The Cut. In other words, not everyone who is socially isolated feels lonely, and on the flip side, there are people who are constantly surrounded by people, yet still feel a deep sense of loneliness.

Afraid of the L word

Interestingly, in studies of loneliness, people may be given questionnaires asking how often they feel isolated from others, but the word “lonely” is almost never used, Kerstin Gerst Emerson, Ph.D., a clinical associate professor in the College of Public Health at the University of Georgia told “Time Mental Health,” a special issue by the editors of Time. “A lot of people don’t like to use that word or admit feeling it,” added Emerson.

We may be reluctant to name it, but that doesn’t take away the power loneliness holds over us. Over the last decade, researchers have been studying the impact of loneliness and social isolation on health, well-being, and mortality — and the data is overwhelming: Loneliness is more lethal than obesity, or smoking 15 cigarettes a day. But it isn’t just the lethal part that’s worrisome — it’s also about the emotional toll that people endure every day. In a New York Times op-ed called “Let’s Wage a War on Loneliness,” Nicholas Kristof wrote that “loneliness increases inflammation, heart disease, dementia and death rates, researchers say — but it also simply makes us heartsick and leaves us inhabiting an Edvard Munch canvas.”

The numbers of people living in those Edvard Munch paintings are shocking. Nearly half of Americans ages 18 years and older reported always or sometimes feeling lonely, according to a recent survey of over 20,000 Americans conducted by market research firm Ipsos. The effects of loneliness are making themselves known in the workplace, too. Another survey of over 2,000 managers and employees found that slightly more than half feel lonely always or very often — and 60 percent said having friends at work would be a deciding factor in their willingness to stay with a company.

On the one hand, we’re starting to acknowledge that loneliness is a dire public health threat that affects everyone from teens and young adults to people in their 50s, 60s, and beyond. We’re realizing it’s a personal happiness issue, a workplace issue, and a societal issue. So why is it so hard for us to say those two little words: I’m lonely

In Britain — the first country to create a Minister for Loneliness role within its government — the current minister, Diana Barran, stops short of actually using the word lonely in initiatives to bring people together. “One early lesson, Barran said: Because of stigma, don’t post a sign inviting lonely people to show up. Rather, have an upbeat sign inviting people to take part in a dog-walking club, a community garden or some other activity,” Kristof reported in his Times piece. 

Ending the stigma 

Creating ways to connect is a good way to bring people out of their homes to seek community with each other. But Barran’s lesson points to something else worth addressing: Why is admitting we’re lonely — if so many of us feel it — still so stigmatized? And if we don’t come out owning our loneliness, won’t we make it harder for others to talk about theirs, too? My fear is that loneliness shrouded in silence is preventing us from finding real solutions — and real connections. 

I certainly get why we stay mum. As a writer, I’ve put some of the most personal parts of myself out there for the world to read. And yet, admitting that I’m often lonely feels harder — more shameful, somehow — than most other revelations, like my struggles with food addiction. The thoughts that keep circling me: Am I lonelier than other people? Do others — those who are truly alone in life — have it worse than I do? And if so why can’t I just snap out of it? How did I miss the rule book on living a more connected life? Why, in the depths of my loneliness, do I sometimes become so willfully resistant to the chances for connection that exist all around me?

Loneliness has complicated roots, and those roots cover different ground for everyone. But there’s an undeniable reality to how easy our modern lives make it to be lonely a lot of the time. “Extended families have dissolved, and social institutions like churches, bowling leagues and neighborhood clubs have frayed. We are no longer so deeply embedded in our communities,” writes Kristof. And in one of the biggest ironies of our civilization: our feelings of dire disconnectedness come at a time when we’ve never had so many different ways to connect, through technology.

A powerful essay by Natalie Gil for Refinery 29 in the U.K. describes some of the ways this lack of connection manifests in people’s day-to-day lives: “A typical day for me involves a long commute from my place in Peckham to my office in Islington… I don’t interact with anyone until I get to the office. It’s rare to get a smile or eye contact on the Overground. My first interaction will usually be with the girl who works at the coffee shop, which is a nice way to start the day. My job is people-focused, so I spend a lot of the day interacting with people but I do find the office environment quite lonely sometimes even though you’re surrounded by people…In the office, it’s easy to have the same conversations with the same few people and never feel like you’re connecting on a deeper level. You get a coffee and they’re like ‘Hi, how are you?’ so you say, ‘Fine, how are you?’ It’s all small talk. My whole day is like that and then I go home and that’s it.”

That loneliness cycle — a groundhog day of sorts — can add stress to our lives and keep us from experiencing true well-being and joy. And while it may sound a bit simplistic, maybe the first step to feeling less lonely is simply relating to others who feel the same way. As people have opened up about their anxiety and depression, stigma has begun to fall away. The same could happen for loneliness. I’ve heard from friends who belong to Alcoholics Anonymous that there’s a widely repeated slogan in 12-step groups: “The opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety, it’s connection.” Well, maybe the opposite of loneliness is connecting with other people… who are willing to admit that they’re lonely, too.

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