Indeed, the world has plenty of lonely people.
About 20% to 50% of us feel lonely at least some of the time, and 5% to 10% feel lonely frequently, says University of Chicago Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience Director John Cacioppo, citing a pattern from studies of industrialized nations around the globe.
Feelings of isolation can be distressing, distracting and potentially deadly. Studies show that loneliness and social isolation raise the risk for high blood pressure, coronary heart disease, cognitive decline and a host of other health issues.
Loneliness is also incredibly tough to shake. It comes from our own perceptions and desires, so objective numbers and logic don’t always help us feel better.
“No matter how many friends one has or how close we are with our families, we all go through periods of intense isolation during which even the supporting words of those well-meaning friends and family aren’t enough to lift us up from the mire,” pro basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote earlier this month in a column for The Hollywood Reporter.
Be cognizant of your mindset
Lonely people can automatically put up their guard, which can make it hard to establish those longed-for connections, says Cacioppo. “When you feel isolated, you feel as if there is no one who you can trust,” he says. When seeking new relationships, do some introspection to see if “you are simply being overly protective and overly focused on yourself” instead of being open to connecting with new people, he says. While making new relationships, try to be as positive as possible and “expect the best” of others, Cacioppo says.
Seek out like-minded people
It’s often easier to establish a relationship with those who have things in common with you, says Cacioppo, so reach out to individuals and groups with similar “attitudes, interests, activities and values.” Finding subjects you can align on will “increase the likelihood that you’ll find someone who you can relate to in a positive fashion,” he says.
Fortify existing bonds
“Nurture and strengthen existing relationships,” advises the AARP Foundation on its Connect2Affect site, which addresses social isolation. “Ask people over for coffee, or invite them to join you for a trip to a museum or a movie.” The site says to “schedule a time each day to call a friend or visit someone.”
Mind your health
“Take small steps to eat well, take gentle exercise and keep active, all of these things can help you to relax more fully in your own company,” advises the United Kingdom’s Campaign to End Loneliness. Connect2Affect also suggests that people get involved with group exercise classes and walking clubs.
“For me, the path out of loneliness is to remind myself of my place within my community and to be inspired to do something to have a positive effect on that community,” Abdul-Jabbar said in his column. The Campaign to End Loneliness suggests that people offer time or the use of their skill sets to others. The AARP Foundation has a searchable database that provides volunteer opportunities.
Put down your phone
“It’s not that social media and electronics are bad — they are fantastic tools,” says Jennifer Caudle, an osteopathic family physician and assistant professor at Rowan University School of Osteopathic Medicine. “Sometimes we think we can get by with just our phone and computers, but that’s not all we need. We are humans, we need human interaction.” For those who can’t resist the urge to check their smartphones while with others, Caudle suggests deleting any potentially addictive apps and setting technology-free times, such as dinnertime or bedtime.
Adopt technology when it’s beneficial
Communicating digitally can be “very helpful, very useful,” for some, such as those who are housebound, says AARP’s Yeh. “It doesn’t fully replace touch and face-to-face, but it can certainly help.” AARP offers online tutorials for those who want to learn more about using social media to connect with others.
Seek out community resources
“Find out what local activities are being planned and book them up: walks, singing groups, book clubs and bridge,” advises the Campaign to End Loneliness. Older people can find resources in their community via the www.n4a.org site from the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging, which is an umbrella organization that works as an advocate for older Americans.
Consider professional help
Doctors, psychologists and other professionals can provide assistance. “If you are worried about how you feel and you can’t conquer this on your own, that’s your signal to reach out for help. Sources; AARP Rowan University, Campaign to End Loneliness, , National Association On aging. The Hollywood Reporter, 2018.