Feeling Lonely? Consider Trying These 7 Strategies.

Every Wednesday is Tip Day, or List Day, or Quiz Day.

This Wednesday: 7 tips for battling loneliness.

One major challenge within happiness is loneliness.  The more I’ve learned about happiness, the more I’ve come to believe that loneliness is a terrible, common, and important obstacle to consider.

According to Elizabeth Bernstein’s recent Wall Street Journal piece, Alone or Lonely, the rate of loneliness in the U.S. has doubled over the past thirty years. About 40% of Americans report being lonely; in the 1980s, it was 20%. One reason: more people live alone (27% in 2012; 17% in 1970). But being alone and being lonely aren’t the same.

A while back, after reading John Cacioppo’s fascinating book Loneliness, I posted Some counter-intuitive facts about loneliness, and several people responded by asking, “Okay, but what do I do about it? What steps can I take to feel less lonely?”

I then read another fascinating book, Lonely — a memoir by Emily White, about her own experiences and research into loneliness. White doesn’t attempt to give specific advice about how to combat loneliness, and I don’t want to put words in her mouth, but from her book, I gleaned these strategies:

1. Remember that although the distinction can be difficult to draw, loneliness and solitude are different. White observes, “It’s entirely reasonable to feel lonely yet still feel as though you need some time to yourself.” Loneliness feels draining, distracting, and upsetting; desired solitude feels peaceful, creative, restorative.

2. Nurturing others — raising children, teaching, caring for animals — helps to alleviate loneliness.

3. Keep in mind that to avoid loneliness, many people need both a social circle and an intimate attachment. Having just one of two may still leave you feeling lonely.

4. Work hard to get your sleep. One of the most common indicators of loneliness is broken sleep — taking a long time to fall asleep, waking frequently, and feeling sleepy during the day. Sleep deprivation, under any circumstances, brings down people’s moods, makes them more likely to get sick, and dampens their energy, so it’s important to tackle this issue. (Here are some tips on getting good sleep.)

5. Try to figure out what’s missing from your life. White observes that making lots of plans with friends didn’t alleviate her loneliness. “What I wanted,” she writes, “was the quiet presence of another person.” She longed to have someone else just hanging around the house with her. The more clearly you see what’s lacking, the more clearly you’ll see possible solutions.

6. Take steps to connect with other people (to state the obvious). Show up, make plans, sign up for a class, take a minute to chat.

7. Stay open. Negative emotions like loneliness, envy, and guilt have an important role to play in a happy life; they’re big, flashing signs that something needs to change. The pain of loneliness can prod you to connect with other people. Unfortunately–and this may seem counter-intuitive--loneliness itself can make people feel more negative, critical, and judgmental. If you recognize that your loneliness may be affecting you in that way, you can take steps to counter it.

Most people have suffered from loneliness at some point. Have you found any good strategies for making yourself less lonely? What worked — or didn’t work?

For more along these lines, check out Happier at Home, chapter on “Neighborhood.”

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  • Sarah @ Home

    I think #2 might depend on personality. I find nuturing children to be very lonely.

    • Sheryl Sirkel Patton

      I’m going to guess that you care for very young children. That’s a very isolating part of the work. As they get older, it gets much better. Hang in there!

      • Molly

        It’s true. Now that my son is in kindergarten, I miss him, and relish spending time with him, making his lunch something he will really like, and helping him be prepared, happy, and successful in school. (We talk about the kids he is meeting, what he is doing, and making good lunches makes me feel like I am doing what I can to help him get through the long-ish day. I didn’t relish this stuff when he was home all the time and not particularly cognitive. Hang in there!! (I wouldn’t have made it without the library reading hour, activities, and some mommy friends I met. But beware of play groups, especially in middle upper class areas. People in these groups have great ideas for activities, and they are motivated to make friends for their kids, but they also tend to be competitive people. The exception is the library. Moms and dads who hang out at the library seem to have a different energy and drive.

    • letters2mary

      I find a lot of ‘givers’ to be deeply needy. They make me run in the opposite direction. Not a pleasant revelation (how dare I criticize ‘the good’?), but it is true from my perspective.

  • Moses Kim

    “3. Keep in mind that to avoid loneliness, many people need both a social circle and an intimate attachment. Having just one of two may still leave you feeling lonely.”

    This really resonated with me.

    Some very, very good advice in this article. I’ll expand on my thoughts a little…

    I think what makes dealing with loneliness difficult is the stigma that comes with it: in my high school, people who eat alone, even by choice, are seen as strange. On the other hand, it’s not like eating with your classmates is the be-all-end-all cure to loneliness, either. Sometimes I look up from my tray and everybody just has their heads down, or they’re talking and not including you. That feeling of being just outside your peer group but not quite in it either can be even more lonely than just being alone.

    Personally, I think all of us would benefit from putting less emphasis on time and efficiency. Back to my lunch room: it just seems like everybody wants to eat as fast as possible so they can go off and play soccer or study or do other things that are productive. Efficiency is important, but when is come at the expense of human needs like conversation and recreation and even just plain interaction, maybe we just need to take more time for one another.

    On one last note, most people don’t seem to be willing to admit they’re lonely, which only exacerbates the issue because almost everybody deals with it but nobody brings it up.

    • Shawna Thibodeau

      Moses,

      I really resonated when you said “I think what makes dealing with loneliness difficult is the stigma that comes with it: in my high school, people who eat alone, even by choice, are seen as strange.”

      I also believe there is such a stigma with doing things alone. Often when I am alone I feel quite content with my solitude until I start wondering what others think of me being alone, eating alone, in a coffee shop alone, etc.

      I find that when I start worrying about feeling “lonely” I go back to remembering my primary purposes and desires. It always comes back that I want to be in a coffee shop alone working on my website, etc and that makes me feel better about it and cherish the time alone. Or if I’m relaxing, I remember the times when I yearn to be relaxing alone and know that this is valued time :)

      • Moses Kim

        Hi, Shawna! I think that’s wonderful. Sometimes you really just want to be on your own for a bit, and that’s fine, too. I think there’s a balance between spending time with yourself and in the company of others. :)

  • peninith1

    I think it is important to accept each relationship or social group for what it IS. Took me a long time to stop feeling that my friendships were ‘all very well’ but not a patch on the one-on-one romantic relationship that I so sadly felt to be lacking in my life. Two things helped me: FIrst I learned to invest my attention as much as possible in the here and now and appreciate what was going on as much as I could, without comparing it with what was not there. In other words I stopped treating my friendships as distractions or stopgaps.

    Second, I decided to simply accept that I was not going to remarry or find a mate, and that I could still have a ‘good enough’ life. Once I gave up yearning morning noon and night for Plan A and turned my attention to the solitary life of Plan B, I was finally able to accept a relationship that was far less living-together than I had dreamed, but far more sustaining than I could ever have believed a male-female friendship could ever be. I don’t really know how I got myself to the point of genuine acceptance, but I still remember that moment, sitting on a rock outdoors and saying to myself ‘you are not going to find ‘the one’ and that’s just the way it’s going to be, but you can still have a good enough life.’ How did I get myself to accept? It’s still a mystery to me. But it sure has been a blessing.

  • e

    this is a bit off topic, but i’m a long time follower of your blog and reader of your books. i wanted to ask you your thoughts on a topic (and humbly request that you write a blog post on the topic.)

    i have a blessed life (and i know it): i am healthy, employed, married to a wonderful man, the mother to two amazing children, etc.. of course i have grievances: my job is not very fulfilling, my husband and i have some issues in our marriage, i could do with more sleep, etc.

    in the last weeks (or has it been months already?) i have been struggling with a depressive episode. probably not clinical depression. but i’ve been grumpy, dissatisfied, emotional, in a funk, etc. i can’t seem to get any motivation (or focus) to do the things that i want to do, whether it’s engaging with my children & husband, projects around the house, or the work i am paid to do. i feel in a fog (and, yes, lonely!). i know (hope!) it’s a temporary state, but i can’t yet make out a light at the end of this tunnel.

    here’s the issue i would love your thoughts on: how do we encourage ourselves to be grateful for everything we have while leaving room for depression & frustration with our lives. i keep coming back to the (unhealthy, in my opinion) internal accusation: “what do you have to be unhappy about?!” (which, FYI, is exactly what my mother said to me when i confided to her recently that i’m down in the dumps.) how can i be compassionate with myself about my current state without coming back to that question??

    there’s a lot out there on the internet that tells you that “gratitude combats depression”, even that “gratitude can cure depression”. but does that mean that, if i’m depressed, i’m ungrateful for everything i have? …. that would be… depressing!

    • Diane

      Your post doesn’t say how old you are, but hormonal changes can play a MAJOR factor in our moods. If you’re not old enough to be going through menopause, you may be experiencing perimenopause which depression or being in an emotional funk are just a few of the myriad of symptoms.

      Even though you have a blessed life, you may be experiencing a bout of boredom, too. Don’t be hard on yourself. There’s nothing wrong with being honest with how you feel. Yes, you’re a wife, mother, daughter and employee which takes a lot of emotional energy and time because you’re always giving out, but you’re still an individual with needs. Do you have a hobby or interest that you’ve put aside because you’re taking care of your family? Perhaps it’s time to give yourself permission to pamper yourself and recharge!!

    • Molly

      I think it is so hard not to beat up on yourself when you are depressed, but it would be so helpful for you if you didn’t do that. I really hate advice like ‘gratitude can cure depression.’ It’s probably true, but the problem with being depressed distorts thoughts and it becomes a spiral effect. It isn’t your fault you don’t feel grateful, it’s the depression. The only thing that helps me with depression or the blues, or dealing with frustrating situations is reading blogs like this one, and going to the bookstore or library, and spending time reading books on these topics. Slowly, you may feel motivated to take some small steps and get back into the groove of things. Often, action precedes feeling, and trying to sit around feeling grateful probably won’t work. I think Gretchen is right that there is nothing wrong focusing on your own happiness, and often, depressed people truly need nurturing –sleep, baths, pleasant and healthy indulgences (reading novels, walking through fall leaves, whatever little indulgences you love) to get them into a better frame of mind. (I also don’t think that going to a cemetery or hospice or doing stuff to remind yourself that you are better off and should be grateful will work. Again, depression is tricky and plays with our minds. Your problems are legitimate even if others have worse ones.) Take care of yourself, don’t beat up on yourself, do pleasant things for yourself…what else? :)

      One more thing, Sonja Lyubomirsky is a psychologist who writes about happiness, and I really like her books, as well as Gretchen’s. Her latest book ‘Myths of Happiness’ might be helpful to you.

    • HEHink

      Is there an area of your life that is particularly frustrating for you? I was in a similar funk over the summer months, after my family got a puppy. I may be the only woman in the world who doesn’t like puppies, but my opinion was overruled by that of my family. (Oh, they’re cute and all, but after 9 months of teaching 2nd graders, I really needed my summer to recharge and not have to summon the patience and energy to train a small furry creature.) The puppy made my husband (who has gone through many of his own issues recently) and my children very happy, so I accepted it. However, I had wanted to work on several projects in my house over the summer. Puppy made this nearly impossible. I would start something, then be interrupted to let the puppy out, or let the puppy in, or to take something away from the puppy, or to respond to a child crying because the puppy had nipped an ankle…you get the idea.

      To get myself through this frustrating time, I gave myself permission to give up on all but the very basic things I had to do to keep my home functioning, like laundry, cooking, and doing the dishes. Cleaning and any larger scale projects seemed pointless. Instead, I read. I love to read, and don’t have a lot of time for it during the school year, so I just checked out and read books I enjoyed. This didn’t get rid of the depression – but I think it stopped it from getting worse, and it got me through that time. I stopped doing things that were only going to frustrate me, because that was what was pushing me closer to the edge. And when I started back to work, getting ready for the new school year, I was able to feel a sense of accomplishment again, which was what finally helped me feel better.

      I don’t know if there’s anything about my story that you’ll find helpful, but I wanted to share that it is possible to get through a time like this, and I hope you’ll find your way soon!

      Oh, and maybe don’t get a puppy in an attempt to cheer yourself up.

    • Denise

      Hi e – Your note certainly touched me as it has several other women who read this blog. You do sound a bit unhappy and it isn’t just another bad hair day for you. Personally, I kind of think that if mothers don’t get depressed occasionally then something is wrong. There is just so much “noisy confusion” in a woman’s life that it can be hard to hear yourself think.

      You’re smart – you have weighed and measured each area of your life that might be troublesome. You don’t always listen to your mother (don’t laugh, mothers only come with a 83% guarantee of being right). You look for answers – you know to come to helpful blogs to get information about things that are important to you. I’m figuring that you are quite capable of finding the answers to what’s really bothering you. Perhaps you are having a temporary crisis of confidence. When I am depressed what is most distressing for me was that I might not be able to solve my own problems.

      On a medical note – you mentioned lack of sleep. Not that unusual for women with children but it can become serious and interfere with focus and mood and such. It might be a good idea to check with your family doctor to rule that out. My sister had a bit of trouble with sleep – nothing too dreadful but a visit to the doctor eased her mind and she took corrective action.

      I wish you luck working your way through your troubles. Keep listening to yourself as you have been doing. Try hard not to beat yourself up as Molly suggests. Reread the kind and generous words from the commentators on this blog. It’s a good start.

  • Jon

    I feel that loneliness is just a state of mind- a paradigm that you hold to. A lot of the time, people focus on including others in their life instead of focusing on creating their story. Life is you’re story- you have to live it for yourself; no waiting for other people. If someone wants to join your adventures, they are more than welcome. If not, peace!

    http://www.workoutprogramsformen.org

    • Molly

      I agree to some extent. I notice that people who have an interest or hobby and pursue that hobby enjoy themselves with or without others more than those people whose entire focus is finding someone else to spend time with. I do think that it’s important to pursue that hobby or interest socially rather than exclusively in solitude, but it does seem to be a nice way to connect with others.

      I find that when my social circle gets bigger and entangled, the comparisons start and everyone is one-upping others. I tend to withdraw after a while b/c I need time to regain my sense of self. The problem is that I think others perceive my actions as confusing, and my need for solitude becomes a feeling of isolation. (It can be difficult to reach out once you feel isolated, and thus the vicious cycle.)

      Having said all that, it truly is important to have family and friends in your life, regardless of whether you have a lot of hobbies or interests in common. One must continually regroup, find the energy and courage, and make those connections.

      • Molly

        By the way, one tip I learned for the one-upping, competitiveness, and frustrations that inevitably come with being around people much of the time is empathy. As I’ve become more empathetic towards others, I’ve realized that when they seem like they are trying to beat me to the punch, so to speak, they are really filling a need in themselves and it isn’t about me. Also, if the person is basically mentally healthy (none of this goes for sociopaths, narcissists, and extreme social climbers from whom you should run!), I’ve learned that it’s helpful to remind yourself of others’ good qualities after you think about their faults. So, if I’m tempted to criticize a friend for bragging, or really, even if I’m just jealous of something she has and I am tempted to avoid her because of it, I’ll say, “Lisa can be a bragger, but she does have a big heart and seems to like my company.” For jealousy, I remind myself that if this person had everything she wanted and her life was complete just because of her house, children, etc. she wouldn’t be seeking friendship with me. At bottom, we really do need each other, and our annoying tendencies are misguided attempts to reach out. (When someone is bragging about their accomplishments or something else annoying, supply their statements, with, “love me, love me.”

      • Iris Tink Gudger

        I think if you have a relationship with God then your desires to have a relationship with others increase. Not saying its easy to make relationships but the love of God makes it easier.

  • Wihmunga Li

    I personally like point 5. Loneliness has nothing to do with how many people accompany, it is how we manage our life. To live with passion and meaningful is always the best solution. Quote from Jon on last reply.. “Life is you’re story- you have to live it for yourself” ^_^

  • Christy King

    Related to number 6, I’d add: reach out to new people – whether recently moved to your area or new to an organization you’re part of. They’re often looking to meet new people as well.

  • HEHink

    From #’s 1 & 5, I would guess that Ms. White is something of an introvert. As one of these myself, I have often felt that I would be much less lonely by myself at home than in a room full of people with whom I have no connection. While many extroverts thrive on the small-talk and mingling that goes with large parties, introverts find it difficult to make connections in that kind of environment, and prefer to have deeper conversations within a small group of friends – or, lacking that alternative, to be alone. So here again, self-knowledge is important. We need to think about what kind of social situations we need, and seek those out, rather than push ourselves into any old kind of social interaction.

  • http://rallyyourgoals.com/ r/ally

    Part of the problem is that as we grow up, our entire educational process focuses on telling people to work hard. Working hard often requires solitude and leads to neglect of the soft skills involved in relationship building. While you say that #6 should be obvious, it isn’t, because often we expect people just to come to us with out making the effort to go to them.

  • http://www.urbanmommies.com/ Jill Amery

    The sleep tip is amazing. My loneliness always increases when I have not been taking care of my needs as a mom and human being.

  • 7CupsOfTea

    Wish we had reached out sooner! One of the biggest draws to seek someone to talk to is loneliness. Would love to connect about ways we can help more people feel like they are not alone.

  • Vero Salisbury

    During the holiday season this becomes particularly poignant. Some of us just aren’t looking forward to the holidays that much, and it can be a very lonely time of the year. This isn’t acknowledged much in the press and social media–too embarassing or maybe doesn’t sell papers? You have to be pretty brave to make your facebook status “lonely.” So loneliness is compounded by the feeling that everyone else is out there having a great time.

  • Dana Claire Novak

    I always loved my alone time, but this is.. different. I don’t currently have a social circle or physical intimate attachment (long distance relationship). This article helped me realize that I am not a weak person. I am not crazy. Most people need those two things in #3. It’s not going to be this way forever, but all of a sudden, I was without everything I knew and doesn’t seem to get easier.

    I used to rely heavily on spending time with others.. one of the reasons was that I was in a very bad living situation and looking for distractions. I’m growing stronger being lonely. Of course, I have my wonderful, supportive family. It’s nice to be back with them, but I need my own outside activities. Companionable silence doesn’t always cut it. Before I lost my job, I loved going to work because I got to interact with people. Not giving up on finding another.. on to the next one!

    The good thing about having so much alone time is that I hold myself accountable for everything that I used to blame on others. Now I have no one toxic in my life.. I can “do me”, so to speak! I tell myself this is a transition.. I am not going to stop even though I have my rough days.

    The description of broken sleep is spot on, too. I didn’t really equate this to loneliness specifically, but it’s just another indicator that this is textbook loneliness and I am not the only one who has ever gone through it. Not that I wish it on anyone, but it is comforting in a weird way.

    I am an anxious person, but this was a needed reminder that being critical is somewhat a symptom of my loneliness. It does amplify the negative thoughts.. I am too hard on myself. I am not the “situation” I’m in. This is a speed bump (okay, more like a mountain) but I will continue to reflect on the beauty of loneliness and also seek the light. I kissed two of my dogs on their foreheads immediately after reading!