Loneliness has been on the rise in the United States in recent decades, causing concern about our health and well-being. More people are reporting that they feel lonely often and lack close confidants or meaningful social interactions. After suffering greater social isolation imposed by a worldwide pandemic, we are only feeling worse.
Loneliness isn’t just about being alone, per se. Solitude can actually be enjoyable and enriching, helping us to recharge. But when our social needs are not being met—either because we have few social connections or feel dissatisfied with the ones we have—that’s when loneliness can set in. And it can be painful—activating the same neural networks as physical pain.
While everyone can experience loneliness from time to time, it’s not something to just ignore. Like all difficult emotions, it can be a sign that something is wrong, and we need to attend to it, to soothe ourselves. If loneliness becomes a chronic problem, it can wreak havoc with our health and well-being. So, it’s best to figure out what you need and give it to yourself.
What can you do when you feel lonely? There are a lot of possible courses of action, depending on who you are and where you live. Some of them involve strengthening current relationships; some may involve going inward. Below are some suggestions on how to fight loneliness.
Reach out to friends or family
Some of us are lonely because we don’t have close relationships in our lives. But if that’s not the case for you, by all means let your friends or family know how you’re feeling and ask for support. Calling—or texting, if that’s easier—can be a proactive way to shift your mood and help relieve the sting of loneliness.
Better yet, use that call or text to set up a time to meet in person—maybe to grab a cup of coffee or take a walk around the neighborhood. Being in the physical presence of someone who knows you and cares about you can do wonders for feeling connected and reducing social pain. Plus, sharing vulnerable feelings is a way of strengthening your relationships, which can make you feel less alone, too.
Get out of your house and go where other people congregate
Not all of us have close contacts we can count on to relieve loneliness. But, luckily, they are not the only people who can help. We benefit from connecting with more distant social ties, too—the ones that come from living within a community (like neighbors, colleagues, store owners, and even people you pass on the street). Consider going to a local café, park, talk, performance space, or anywhere you might come across people. Interacting with others in small ways—like saying “hi” to a neighbor on your dog walk or chatting with the barista making your cup of coffee—can promote a sense of belonging and make us happier.
Be kind to the people around you—including strangers
When we’re lonely, it’s normal to focus on ourselves and our sorrowful feelings. But we can sometimes shift our mood by focusing instead on how to help others. Being kind to other people has many benefits—among them, feeling more connected—and is appreciated more than we may realize. It might be a good idea to practice random acts of kindness, too—like putting money in an expired parking meter or buying a cup of coffee for the person behind you in line at the café. Offering kindness feels good to all involved—recipients and givers of kindness alike.
Volunteering at a local community agency is another good choice for reducing loneliness and may help us live longer, to boot. Just choose a cause or program congruent with your values and abilities and go to it. Volunteering has the added benefit of putting you together with people of like mind, which may be an opportunity for making new friends.
Connect with others online…with caution
A lot of us start scrolling through our social media when we’re lonely. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It can sometimes make us feel less alone if we connect online, especially if we can practice vulnerability and share honest feelings with a responsive network—or use it as a way to enhance existing relationships.
When loneliness comes from being unable to leave your house, feeling painfully shy, or living somewhere where people don’t readily accept who you are—maybe because you identify as LGBTQ+ in a highly conservative community—going online for social support may be a good option. Just be careful not to succumb to social comparisons (imagining everyone online but you is living a carefree, wonderful life). That’s bound to backfire and leave you feeling worse.
Adopt a furry pet
There are many reasons to have a pet. But one good reason is that they can provide companionship and unconditional love, which is especially helpful for people who may be isolated from other humans and feeling lonely.
Pets can sometimes help us to meet other people, too—at dog parks or on walks in the neighborhood, for example. One study even found that people who walk dogs are considered friendlier—something that’s bound to help you connect if you’re looking to meet new people.
Still, sometimes interacting with others (pets included) doesn’t seem to help lonely feelings dissipate. When that’s the case, we shouldn’t just deny our pain and be stoic or tell ourselves that people don’t matter. Instead, we should try to be more self-aware and take better care of our feelings, in some of the following ways.
If we’re lonely, it does no good to berate ourselves for perceived failures (like telling ourselves we’re too “needy” or “unlikeable”). Beating ourselves up is not nearly as helpful as practicing self-compassion—a combination of being aware of our feelings and thoughts, recognizing suffering as a part of the human condition, and offering ourselves messages of kindness and care. People who are self-compassionate seem to suffer less from loneliness, perhaps because they are less sensitive to feelings of rejection.
Take care of your physical health—with exercise, eating right, and good sleep
We often underestimate the connections between physical and mental well-being. But taking care of our bodies may be the best thing we can do for relieving loneliness. Engaging in some kind of physical exercise can help you feel less lonely, perhaps by getting you out of ruminative thinking. Though we may be tempted to eat our troubles away or use drugs or alcohol to blunt the pain of loneliness, neither of those will help in the long run. Instead, eating healthy food is more likely to help us feel better, in general, and may even stave off depression. And making sure we get a good night’s sleep has many positive social consequences, including protecting us against loneliness.
Try a loving-kindness meditation
Not everyone likes to engage in mindfulness meditation. But it has been found to reduce loneliness, perhaps because it helps us to accept our negative emotions more easily and recognize their transience.
Using loving-kindness meditation—a practice that involves bringing different people in your life to mind and wishing them love, health, peace, and happiness—can also help you increase a sense of connection to others even when they are not around, suggesting it could help counter feelings of loneliness.
Engage in nostalgia
Remembering past events with nostalgia can also help us fight off loneliness, according to research, by reminding us of experiences when we felt socially connected. Nostalgia can also increase our sense of meaning in life—something that often suffers when we’re feeling lonely.
Count your blessings
While expressing gratitude toward others can improve social bonds and counteract loneliness directly, it’s also possible to practice gratitude on your own and feel less lonely. In one study, older adults who were assigned a daily gratitude journaling exercise felt less lonely over time—and felt healthier, too.
Contact a therapist or online support group
Even though these practices can help you feel less lonely, it may be necessary to talk to a therapist if you feel stuck. It may be that you need to work on challenging distorted thinking about yourself or overcoming social anxiety or other psychological blocks to a healthier social life. There are also support groups for lonely people that could help you gain new skills and also feel less alone.
Whatever you do, though, don’t let loneliness fester and affect your well-being. Counter it by reaching out to others or soothing yourself as best you can. You’ll not only be helping yourself, you’ll also help others, by keeping loneliness from spreading. And that will be good for everyone’s health and happiness in 2023.