In an age of increased social isolation online, loneliness may feel more chronic. But solitude isn’t a condition to be treated; it’s a fact of life.
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“The whole conviction of my life now rests upon the belief that loneliness, far from being a rare and curious phenomenon, is the central and inevitable fact of human existence.”
― Thomas Wolfe, The Anatomy of Loneliness, 1941
Are we destined to be lonely? It’s a question that everyone has probably asked themselves at one point (or at many points) throughout their lives. The answer isn’t exactly satisfying or reassuring. “Everyone is going to feel lonely at some point in life. It’s very rare to imagine a situation where all of your needs are always going to be met. People are not perfect. We’re destined to feel some amount. But we’re not destined to be crippled by it,” says Jenna Clark, senior behavioral researcher at Duke University’s Center for Advanced Hindsight. So keeping in mind that loneliness is a core aspect of the human condition, science has spent decades tackling the “how’s” and “why’s” behind that universal truth. After all, loneliness is nothing new. For hundreds of years writers have been documenting the pain of unwanted solitude. The term itself was coined by Shakespeare when he made the word “lone” an adjective in the play Coriolanus, written in 1623. And though the word itself didn’t exist before that, there’s an argument to be made that the ancient Greek Stoics, like Marcus Aurelius, spent time thinking about loneliness by discussing how to overcome the feeling that was accompanied by unwanted solitude. Still, there’s something about our current society and the way that we have increasingly isolated ourselves online that makes loneliness feel more prevalent. But is it?
As with most aspects of our various emotive states the answer is: Oh, boy is it complicated. The science of loneliness is an exercise in contradictions and complexities. The way you feel loneliness and the way I feel it aren’t necessarily going to be the same. Loneliness can be perceived (everyone on Instagram is out having fun and you’ve convinced yourself you have no friends—even though you actually have lots). Or it can be very real (for example it is a huge problem among the elderly who are isolated by the loss of friends and family and have difficulty communicating or moving around). Loneliness can be characterized by a feeling of not fitting in with societal norms or experiencing prejudice (race, minority status, and sexual identity can all lead to a feeling of loneliness). With this massive set of varying factors that contribute to how people feel lonely, one has to wonder if it can even be generalized enough to truly understand it: “That’s the tough question. I was wincing as you were asking that,” says Clark. So the way that science tackles this challenge is to attempt, first, to define the concept.
One of the ways that psychology tries to define loneliness is by looking at human needs and how they are met. It’s called Self-Determination Theory and it suggests that all humans have three basic needs. First we need autonomy—control over our own lives. Second we need competence—the ability to master something and be good at it. And lastly, we need relatedness—to feel connections to other people. Loneliness, then, at its most basic and least complicated, is a feeling that our need for relatedness isn’t being met.
Why relatedness is one of our most intrinsic needs is harder to say. Clark suggests it might have to do with the human race’s historical tendency to exist in tribes. We’re just evolved to live this way. “There’s an unavoidable bit of speculation, but humans are very social and we can’t survive very well on our own. All human accomplishments and the creation of society has happened by working with other humans. It keeps us cooperating with other humans so we can survive,” she says. So does this mean that our culture’s migration online and retreat from personal face-to-face interactions is going to make us more lonely? Political scientist Robert Putnam, who wrote Bowling Alone, says we can use tools to measure social capital—and human interactions have been noticeably decreasing.
Some of the ways this is measured is by looking at how our society has shifted. For example, church attendance has dropped over time and, whether you are a religious person or not, attending services has always been a way to create social interactions. Research has also shown that neighborhoods are changing—people move more often these days then in the past and the population of cities are growing, where people are less likely to bump into their neighbors on their front lawns. “In city spaces there’s also fear and distrust of neighbors. All of those things can make it harder to have incidental social connections that people used to have all the time. A lot of those have been disappearing,” Clark says.
As her work focuses specifically on how we measure social interactions in the Internet age, she says that the reality of personal relationships today is much more nuanced than simply counting social interactions. Just because we’re having fewer face-to-face moments doesn’t mean we’re actually less social. And part of the problem is that science, at least in the past, and our culture as a whole discounts the value of digital relationships. According to Clark: “People don’t believe in technological relationships. They discount them. If you start looking at the papers, half say online interaction is terrible and half say online interaction is great. It’s a story of contradiction. How can you be getting such a different result? It’s not solved now by a long shot but we’ve come a long way towards figuring out all these contradictions.”
People are more isolated but also more connected. The value of these connections, and whether or not they cause or cure loneliness, is intertwined with how people choose to engage.
She says that if you look at the amount of time people spend communicating, the number of interactions has probably gone up, it’s that just many of them are technologically mediated. People are more isolated but also more connected, Clark says. Of course there are exceptions to every rule. The value of these connections, and whether or not they cause or cure loneliness, is intertwined with how people choose to engage.
This is best explained in science by a theory called the Interpersonal Process Model of Intimacy. Put very simply, relationships grow stronger when one person chooses to express a vulnerability and the person they are expressing it to receives it in a way that validates the expression. Clark says this method of risking vulnerability, being validated, and growing closer should be able to exist in text messages or on Twitter, anywhere in the digital universe. Wherever people are talking and engaging with each other, growing closer is possible.
However, she says, this only happens if you believe it to be true. “If you view an interaction as less real or less important you’re never going to have this process occur. Interacting with people is going to feel fun but it’s not going to develop relationships. It’s like social snacking—the junk food of personal relationships,” she says. This means that if your online interaction is simply liking tweets or scrolling through photos or posting the occasional comment it will never feel significant and that may lead to a digital lifestyle that creates loneliness.
“Sometimes people online are less lonely and sometimes people are more—because if you just social snack you’re not any closer to anyone then you were before. If you’re having a problem you can’t go talk to [these online relationships] because you aren’t that close to them. Realizing you’ve been spending all this time in meaningless interactions is going to leave you feeling more lonely,” she says.
On the flipside of social snacking is what’s called they Hyperpersonal Model of Computer-Mediated Communication, developed by UC Santa Barbara Communications researcher Joseph Walther. It’s a theory that suggests deep human connections are actually easier to make in the digital space because it leaves many of the boundaries experienced in face-to-face interaction behind. The idea being that people are more likely to take risks in being vulnerable online because anonymity eliminates the fear of being judged based on looks, race, or personal physical characteristics. “People feel more free and able to express their true self online. They feel the ability to share more rapidly and freely,” she says.
Of course, this freedom and anonymity can open the door for online abuse and bullying. However, she says, “there are some interesting studies that show people who are socially anxious benefit from talking to someone online first because they’ve had time to prepare and know the person in a less threatening environment.” And that means digital connections can also open the door to removing barriers that would otherwise make people in minority groups feel lonely and isolated. Society is often set up to isolate people from social situations when they’re considered “other” — so if you’re LGBTQ or non-white the internet is helping you make connections and feel less lonely because it builds opportunities to find like-minded people, which may be harder to do in real life.
According to Clark, “Because people are less likely to be judged for visual characteristics like gender, race, looks, etc., they tend to feel that self-presentation is far more possible online. You control the cues you’re sending to other people to a much greater extent. There’s less need to be anxious because you have a lot more control over that impression. It’s less frightening to self-disclose. Because you don’t have to worry about incidental aspects you can shape that impression and tailor it.”
The stumbling block with all of these scientific theories is that loneliness is very difficult to study in a laboratory setting because it’s impossible to change a person’s loneliness in a few minutes and then measure what impacted that change. Neuroscience has attempted to tackle studying loneliness in the brain—but those studies tend to focus on what loneliness looks like after it has developed and can’t capture its creation or the factors that cause it. We do know, however, that like many other emotional states loneliness has a whole slew of physical impacts on the body. It raises stress hormones and some research has even suggested that it can be as bad for your long-term health as smoking. In fact, the epidemic of loneliness in England has become so severe and poses such a great risk to public health that the government has recently appointed a Minister for Loneliness and set up a campaign to research and combat it.
Clark says that it’s important to remember that, because loneliness is nothing new, science has developed methods that you can use to try and fight it. When you’re feeling a momentary spike of loneliness, she says, try and reach out to the people you are connected with. Remember Self-Determination Theory means you are probably momentarily lacking relatedness. Even doing this in small ways will help. “Most people have at least one good meaningful social connection in their life. So actively reach out. Just call a friend,” she says.
For more long term, chronic feelings of loneliness consider the benefits of the Interpersonal Process Model. Develop your skill of being vulnerable to people and allowing them to respond positively to you, which will grow and deepen your relationships. “Do things that increase connection,” she says. “Tell a friend something they don’t know about you. Engage in interaction, offer them support. Do a new activity together.”
And above all remember that personal relationships are never perfect. People will sometimes let you down just as you will sometimes let them down in return. Adjust your expectations for human interactions and remember that loneliness is often a perception that doesn’t match the reality that you are, actually, not at all alone.
Still, despite the difficulties of studying loneliness, researchers are focused on figuring it out in all its forms. Among those studying it, the AARP does regular surveys about the impact of aging on loneliness. The U.K. Ministry of Loneliness is working on understanding loneliness reduction techniques, how diversity impacts the feeling of isolation, and how to identify lonely people in communities they’re not connected to. According to Clark, the major trends going forward in the area are focused deeply on the question of technology and its impact. Current research is focusing on social platforms, how we’re using them, and who we’re talking to. Scientists are especially interested these days at looking at social comparison—how seeing others have seemingly happy lives through social media (especially Instagram) can make us feel more lonely.
But the reality is we’ll probably never fully understand loneliness—it’s a basic human condition but the variability in defining it from person to person is such a moving target. We can attempt to gently grasp it, but as new technologies emerge we’ll surely have to redefine it again in every new era. Says Clark, “So many things are more apparent in the modern world then they used to be so they seem new. It takes a long time for people to adjust to communication. When newspapers first came out people were worried they’d destroy conversation over breakfast. People have been worried about destroying communication for a long time. Everyone takes it for granted that online conversation is bad because of the internet. It’s important to question that assumption even if there’s some truth in it.”
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