The Conversation That Nobody Wants to Have: The Truth About Loneliness
~46% of the people that read this article likely feel lonely on a regular basis. That’s nearly half of you.
Why is this important?
Because it’s literally killing you.
Chronic loneliness is twice as bad for you as being obese and is the equivalent of smoking a pack of cigarettes every day. It’ll make you age quicker, it’ll make cancer deadlier, and it’ll weaken your immune system.
Before I continue, I would like to quickly clarify that there is a distinct difference between loneliness and being alone. Loneliness is an overwhelmingly negative or empty feeling that derives from lack of connection with or overall isolation from others; in other words, loneliness is the feeling you get when your social needs aren’t being met. On the other hand, being alone is simply being without company, usually the company of another human. Loneliness is much more emotional while being alone is much more physical.
Despite what is likely half of the people that you know suffering from it, loneliness has become a “taboo” topic to discuss.
I get it, no one wants to admit that they’re lonely or talk about what it feels like. It’s usually awkward, uncomfortable, or just flat out embarrassing to have a conversation about feeling those emotions in such an open manner. Yet, 46% of the U.S population feels lonely regularly, and 60% of 18–34 year olds in the UK report that they often feel lonely.
So, to help “break the ice” and get the snowball to start rolling, I can openly admit that when I moved from Phoenix, Arizona to New York, New York I was extremely lonely and mildly depressed as a result. From the outside looking in, I can only assume how that would have been really difficult to see; I just landed a job working for a notable entrepreneur, I entered a new relationship, and I moved to one of the greatest cities in the world where the metropolitan area has a population of over 20 million people.
I tried to be more introspective to figure out why I was feeling the way I did. Is New York not right for me? Maybe I wasn’t enjoying my work as much as I thought I would? Is my relationship holding me back? I was asking myself so many questions, but I still had no idea.
With so many exciting things going on while living in a city with nearly as many people as the country of Australia, how could I possibly have felt lonely or even depressed?
Frankly, the answer is simple:
10,000 years ago, the average human being was born into a group or tribe of about 50–150 people; a group which they stuck with for the rest of their lives. Traveling and living with such large groups made it much easier to hunt for food, create shelter, and fight off predators. On the other hand, if you were alone, you were much more vulnerable to predators, would have a much harder time building shelter or hunting, and ultimately would be much less likely to survive.
Being together meant survival, being alone meant death.
To help fix this, our bodies developed a social pain. In the same way that your stomach may hurt when you are very hungry, social pain causes you to hurt when you are alone. We developed this pain as a way of preventing ourselves from continuing certain behaviors that may leave us isolated. In today’s terms, if staying in your apartment every weekend and binge-watching Netflix results in prolonged sessions of being alone, loneliness will typically then ensue in a way that is supposed to prevent you from continuing this habit.
While 10,000 years ago may sound like an extremely long period of time, from an evolutionary standpoint, it’s almost nothing. Even though our lives have changed dramatically since then as a result of new technology and scientific research, on a biological level we are still very much the same as our ancestors from 100 centuries ago.
Here’s where things get particularly interesting.
As humans became more civilized and started building large towns and cities which resulted in an influx in the local population, loneliness became much more frequent. The large-scale loneliness epidemic that we’re seeing today actually started in the late Renaissance. Western cultures started to focus more and more on the individual rather than the group or population as a whole. As technology advanced and societies became larger, we started meeting fewer and fewer people, and of the people that we do meet, we meet with them less often.
The irony is that despite having more people around, most people unintentionally slip into loneliness, and typically without even realizing it until they’re already in it. We get tied up with our work, education, romance, kids, or the newest season of Game of Thrones. There are a million ways that it happens and they’re all unique.
In hindsight, I now understand that one of the reasons why I felt so lonely upon moving to New York was that I really didn’t have any friends that I would spend time with outside of work. However, at the time, I was so consumed by the fact that I felt like I was in the wrong for being lonely when I seemed to have so many great things going on. I was ashamed of it.
If you’re dealing with a similar situation and you are experiencing prolonged loneliness, the best thing that you can do try to look at your behavior holistically and identify the things that are causing you to be isolated. It’ll usually be caused by an initial feeling of isolation which leads to feelings of anger or sadness. These feelings more often than not cause you to only really recognize negative social interactions rather than the positive ones, which creates a desire to avoid social settings altogether. This cycle can become more and more vicious as time moves on and can eventually lead to depression. Thus, the way that you can break free is by first understanding that what you’re experiencing is human nature. Because of our biological programming, everyone you know has experienced, is experiencing, or will experience the same exact feeling that you’re dealing with right now — you’re not alone in being lonely, so don’t beat yourself up. Also, it’s never a good idea to ignore a feeling and hope that it will magically solve itself; acknowledging and addressing the way you feel is always going to be the best approach to finding a solution. Lastly, ease into becoming more social with those around you. As with most processes, it’s always safest and most effective to ease things. I’m not telling you to book ten coffee dates with friends this upcoming week as an attempt to get out of this cycle — that could lead to a social burnout. Instead, try making plans to get lunch with a friend that you haven’t talked to in a while sometime this weekend. Over time, slowly increase the number of social settings that you’re putting yourself in, but focus less on the number of people that you see rather than the quality of people that you see. It’ll be much more beneficial to your social health to have 3–5 great friends than it will be to have 10–20 associates.
To conclude, I want to treat this article as a call to action. I think that it’s absurd that half of the people you and I know could be suffering from the same things, yet we refuse to have a real conversation about it. Frankly, it took me anywhere from 7–10 months of being in New York until I met what is now my core group of about four friends, which is when that feeling of loneliness finally went away. The eye-opening part of that process was that I didn’t want to tell anyone about what I was feeling because I thought it sounded too petty or made me seem weak; everyone has their fair share of things that they’re dealing with so why would anyone care about me feeling lonely? Perhaps one of the scariest things to me is that when I first felt this way, I convinced myself that it was actually a good thing. I thought that it meant that I was working hard and that I was on a path to being successful. Even worse, I know that there are hundreds of thousands of people that have this same mentality right now. They’ll say things like “it’s lonely at the top” or that “you have to cut people out to get what you want”. Trust me when I say it, you can live a happy, healthy, and social life and still achieve all of the business successes that you’re striving towards — please don’t buy into some bogus propaganda that promotes a destructive lifestyle framed as “the path to success”.
I appreciate you taking the time to read this, it is a subject that I recently became quite passionate about and wanted to share my thoughts and findings on. If there is anything that you wish that I would have done differently in this article, I would love to get your feedback in the comments! Lastly, if you want to stay up-to-date with me and my world on a more frequent basis, feel free to follow me on Instagram — like millions of others, I post photos of myself with captions talking about my thoughts on a handful of subjects.
Lastly, I want to give a TON of credit to Kurzgesagt — the creators of the video that I used to find many of my sources and that ultimately inspired me to write about this. They create a handful of very digestible science-related content that I always find fascinating.