3 Things You Need To Know About Loneliness — And How To Get Out Of It
You can be lonely even when you are surrounded by other people
One of my all-time favorite movies is Cast Away. Remember that movie? Tom Hanks plays the DHL employee Chuck Noland who is on a cargo flight that crashes into the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
Miraculously, Chuck survives and washes up on an uninhabited island and, like Robinson Crusoe, lives there alone for four years before he finally manages to build a raft strong enough to sail off so that he can be rescued by a ship.
If you saw the movie, you’ll remember that during part of the film, there is no dialogue. Chuck is all alone and he has no one to talk to. As the audience, we witness the excruciating pain of separation in his eyes. When Chuck realizes that no one is going to find him and save him, he attempts to commit suicide.
But he can’t go through with it. What saves him is Wilson, the volleyball that was in one of the DHL packages that washed up on the same beach as Chuck. Wilson becomes the replacement for human connection. Chuck talks to Wilson, confides in Wilson, argues with Wilson. Wilson is his friend.
I was never stranded on a deserted island, but I know that pain of loneliness I saw in Chuck Noland’s eyes. Since I was young, I’ve been searching for belonging and connection. My family moved around a lot when I was a child, and most of the time, I felt like I didn’t fit in. I spoke the wrong dialect, my clothes were wrong, and — unlike the other kids — I never had any relatives in the same town. I felt rootless.
So, I hid behind facades, and I pretended to be more like the other kids who seemed to belong. I tried to fit in. As I as grew older and started studying, I left Norway in search of happiness abroad.
No matter where I lived, I still felt empty inside. I tried to fill this emptiness with degrees and jobs, with friends and parties, and eventually with a husband and kids. Don’t get me wrong, I love my family more than anything. But even though I had managed to get everything I thought would make me whole, I still felt this emptiness inside and I still craved connection.
That’s when I became curious as to what loneliness really is and how to fill that desolate hole. After years of researching, here’s what I found:
1. You can be lonely even when you are surrounded by other people
The difference between Chuck Noland and me is that I was never physically isolated from other people. Yet, I recognized his pain as if it were my own.
In fact, the times when I felt most alone were when I was in a group of people and didn’t feel like I fit in. This is the pain we feel when we don’t have anything in common with the others, or when we feel rejected.
As a side note: Being alone doesn’t necessarily mean you are lonely. Spending alone-time can actually be nourishing — especially if you’re an introvert like me — when it’s a choice and it doesn’t last too long.
Here’s what you can do:
Let go of old friends and people who do not support you. Make an effort to make new friends and create your own tribe.
2. There are 3 dimensions of connection that all need to be filled
According to the former US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy, we need:
· Intimate or emotional connection. Loneliness in this area is the longing for a close confidant or intimate partner, someone with whom you share a deep mutual bond of affection and trust. Typically, a spouse or a best friend.
· Relational or social connection. Loneliness in this area is the yearning for quality friendships and social companionship and support.
· Collective connection. Loneliness here looks like the hunger for a network or community of people who share your sense of purpose and interest.
Together, these three dimensions reflect the full range of high-quality social connections that humans need in order to thrive. It also explains why I could still feel lonely even when I had a loving spouse and children. We need all three!
Here’s what you can do:
Reflect on your relationships in connection with these three categories. Identify where you lack connection. This way, you’ll know where you need to make an effort. You’ll also feel less crazy for feeling lonely even if you have one or two of the categories fulfilled!
3. Loneliness is costing us
Most of us are not stranded on an island like Tom Hanks in Cast-Away. We have family, friends, and colleagues. Also, we have never been more connected via technology and social media than we are today. Yet, we, as a society, have never been lonelier.
In fact, loneliness has been called the fastest growing epidemic in our society.
In the United Kingdom, more than nine million British citizens suffer from loneliness, according to the Jo Cox Commission. Former Prime Minster Theresa May even appointed a Loneliness Minister to deal with the problem there.
In the United States, more than 40 percent of American adults report that they often or always feel lonely, according to a recent survey by health insurer Cigna. This survey also showed that younger Americans — the so-called generation Z (those born in the mid-1990ies and early 2000s) — are hit harder by loneliness than any other group.
In my home country of Norway, 20 percent of all kids in junior high school suffer from loneliness. The same goes for three out of ten university students.
Here’s why you should care about loneliness:
First, loneliness kills. According to Dr. Murthy, loneliness is more dangerous to our health than smoking fifteen cigarettes per day. It increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, depression, and mental illness.
Second, loneliness is costly. In the UK, recent research shows that loneliness is costing employers nearly US$ 4 billion every year, due to reduced productivity.
Third, loneliness makes us dangerous. When I researched mass killers for my book The Mystery of the Lone Wolf Killer, I found that loneliness was the main driver behind all these killers’ motivations. So painful was their loneliness that they would rather turn to extremism and murder than face their pain.
Here’s what you can do:
Pay attention to the people in your surroundings. Reach out. Include someone new into your circle of friends. Show that you care. Listen. It doesn’t take much. You can make a huge impact on someone’s life — and prevent them from turning to extremism.
If you’re suffering from loneliness and you feel rejected by society: Remember, there are many of us out there and there is nothing wrong with you. Consider doing something constructive with your anger. Start giving of yourself without expecting anything in return. Reach out to someone you can help lift up. Widen your circle. Help out at a soup kitchen or become a mentor for immigrants in your country. Contribution is one of our basic human needs. It gives us a sense of purpose and also immense pleasure.
Who knows, you might even make some new friends in the process.