How to Overcome Loneliness

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Loneliness is a huge epidemic.

  • In 2022, Pew Research Centre found 30% of US adults are neither married, living with a partner, nor engaged in a committed relationship;
  • Thirty years ago, 55% of people reported having 6 or more close friends, but by 2021, that share had slipped to 27%, and;
  • 15% of men report having no close friendships, a fivefold increase from 1990, according to research by the Survey Centre on American Life.

This article explores what’s happening and what we can do about it. 

😔 What is Loneliness?

In short, loneliness is perceived social isolation.

It’s a feeling we get when our social connections and opportunities don’t meet our need for emotional intimacy. 

This means we can be lonely even when we’re with a group of people, in a large city, or even in a committed relationship. It’s entirely subjective: the size, intimacy, and strength of our social network cannot guarantee how lonely we actually are.

The truth is, loneliness is a complex, universal, and highly-personal emotion. 

🧪 The Science of Loneliness (and Social Bonding)

While loneliness is a personal experience, the neural circuits (i.e. parts of our brain) responsible for social bonding and the feeling of loneliness is the same for everyone.

Not just that, but these neural circuits are the same for all types of social relationship e.g. the bond between parent and child, friends, romantic relationships, and so on. 

And the most important finding of the literature on the science of social bonding is that, just like what happens when we’re hungry or thirsty, we have brain circuits devoted to what’s called ‘social homeostasis’.

Social Homeostasis

Homeostasis is defined as the state of steady internal, physical, chemical, and social conditions maintained by a living system. 

It’s mostly thought about in the context of hunger (and there’s scientific literature demonstrating the crossover of these different homoestatic drives) – if you don’t event for a while, your drive to pursue food goes up. Whereas, when you’re well fed, your desire to seek and eat food goes down. But you could also think about the thermostat in a house as a homeostatic circuit. When the temperature goes up a little, this will be detected and it will cool things down to maintain a certain temperature (and vice versa). 

And every homeostatic circuit has at least three components: 

  1. A detector – a means of detecting a change in the environment e.g. the thermostat must detect a change in temperature.
  2. A control centre – a way to make adjustments e.g. a way to change the temperature of the room.
  3. An effector – an actual change in the environment e.g. adjusting the temperature accordingly. 

For social homeostasis, then, it looks like this:

  1. A detector to detect whether or not we’re interacting with others and whether or not those interactions are going well. The detector that underlies social homeostasis involves two main structures: the ACC (anterior cingulate cortex) and the BLA (basolateral amygdala). 
  2. A control centre that can make adjustments to our behaviour and psychology, motivating us to spend more or less time with people. The brain areas involved here are called the lateral hypothalamus and the periventricular hypothalamus. And these release certain hormones and neuropeptides into our brain and blood depending on the sorts of social interaction that we’re having. 
  3. An effector that drives a behavioural response, like picking up social media, texting a friend, calling someone and making plans, etc. This is driven by the dorsal raphe nucleus (DRN), a small collection of neurons in the midbrain. 

The Dorsal Raphe Nucleus (DRN)

Most of the time when we hear about the DRN, we’re talking about serotonin (the neurotransmitter that’s often associated with feelings of satisfaction, happiness, and optimism). But, within the DRN there’s also a a small subset of nuerons that release dopamine (the neuromodulator that’s most often associated with movement, craving, motivation, and desire). 

And it’s this unique population of dopamine neurone in the DRN that’s responsible for mediating social homeostasis. 

Put simply, when we’re not interacting with people at the frequency or intensity we want, dopamine is released in our brain

We often think dopamines is about reward and feeling good (because, indeed, many enjoyable activities increase dopamine). But, dopamine does not actually make us feel good. It’s a neurochemical that’s responsible for movement towards things that feel good. 

So, when we feel loneliness, dopamine is released in the DRN and that encourages us to go out and seek social interactions. When we’ve had enough social interaction the neurons in this brain area slow down their production of dopamine, and we feel less lonely.

This was confirmed in one paper from 2016 where scientists were able to selectively activate the dopamine neuron’s in the DRN. Doing this induced a loneliness-like state in the participants. And they knew it was a loneliness-like state because it motivated the participants to seek out social connections. But, when the dopamine neurons of the DRN were inhibited/quieted, that suppressed the feeling of loneliness. 

So, what we think of as loneliness as this cloud or fog in our psychological landscape actually boils down to a very small set or neurons releasing a specific neurochemical for motivation.

The takeaway, then, is that if we’re an introvert, then we’re going to get a lot of dopamine from a few or minimal social interactions. But, if we’re an extrovert, social interactions aren’t going to flood our system with dopamine. We’ll actually experience less dopamine, so we’ll need far more social interaction in order to feel happy. 

Pro Social Craving

The consequence of all this, then, is that if we’re someone who’s used to lots of social interaction (and enjoy it), we’ll start craving that social interaction if it’s ever taken away from us. This is known as pro-social craving, which is driven by the DRN.  

For example, if we’re used to doing a regular social activity with a friend and that suddenly stops (i.e. we’re deprived of social interactions on a short-term basis), we’ll begin engaging in pro-social activities like texting people, going on social media, and things of that kind. 

This drive and motivation is driven by the dopamine release from the DRN. 

But, if we’re someone who is chronically isolated (meaning we don’t have social interactions with people for a long time), the opposite happens. We actually become more introverted and anti-social. 

This is a little bit like what we might see from someone who’s fasting. If someone has been fasting for 2-3 days and then they expect to eat a meal, but that meal never arrives, they’re not necessarily going to immediately see out food. This seems counterintuitive, but they’ve become accustomed to fasting so their motivation to seek out food is slightly lowered. 

Social homeostasis works in a similar way. If we don’t have social interaction for some time, we start to lose our craving for social interaction – we have less dopamine to motivate us to interact with others.  

Plus, not only do we have less motivation to seek social interaction, we (counterintuitively) feel more aggressive and irritable after any social interactions we do manage to have too. 

This is because social isolation is stressful. And one of the hallmarks of social isolation is chronically elevated stress hormones, like cortisol, which leads to the release of a chemical (a peptide) called tachykinin that influences our emotional response (not to mention the myriad of other health complications associated with loneliness, too). 

Tachykinin is associated with feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression, which can exacerbate feelings of irritability and aggression when we do interact socially after a period of isolation. Essentially, our social muscles become atrophied, similar to how our physical muscles would if we stopped exercising them. This leads to a decrease in our social skills and an increase in social anxiety, making the prospect of socialising even less appealing.

As a result, loneliness can lead to a spiral of deeper and more intense loneliness over time. 

🪨 The Pillars of Loneliness

We already know there’s no single cause of loneliness – it’s a highly subjective and personal experience. But, are there any common themes underlying all forms of loneliness? And, if so, what can we do about it?

In short, the seem to be 4 fundamental pillars to loneliness:

  1. The Cultural Pillar
  2. The Motivational Pillar
  3. The Proximal Pillar
  4. The Intellectual Pillar

The Cultural Pillar

It remains unhelpfully hard to be able to admit that we’re lonely. 

If we’re lonely, society supposes that something is wrong with us and we’re encouraged to feel a sense of shame for having no close relationships. 

But, this isn’t how things have always been throughout history.

In fact, most eras before ours didn’t see solitude as a sign of wretchedness or deficiency. There were ways for us to be alone that could be filled with honour and a sense of communion with what’s noble and sincere. For example, being alone could be accompanied by a strong sense of connection with a god, a person in a book, a piece of music or a quieter part of one’s mind.

But, in the wake of the Reformation and the rise of Romanticism, solitary piety began to lose its prestige and recede as a practical option.

And, today, things have only got worse.

One reason for this is the advent of the internet and social media. You see, while these platforms are a great tool for connection, they’ve paradoxically fostered a sense of isolation and loneliness. 

Social media platforms often present highly curated versions of other people’s lives leading to unrealistic comparisons and the feeling that everyone else is leading more fulfilling, social lives. Plus, the anonymity and distance provided by the internet often leads to increased hostility and negativity between people, and a gradual retreat to the safety of echo chambers where we only interact with people who share the same views as us. 

So, while the internet and social media have the potential to bring us closer together, they have largely contributed to this sense of isolation and loneliness.

The Motivational Pillar

Our drive to seek meaningful relationships has also been significantly altered in recent years.

The main reason for this is because pseudo-social relationships, provided by social media, offer a semblance of connection without the emotional labour and vulnerability required in real-life friendships and relationships.

These pseudo-social interactions provide us with a quick fix for loneliness without addressing its root cause. As a result, we often prioritise these superficial connections over cultivating deeper, more meaningful relationships. 

The ease of liking a post, sending a brief message, or scrolling through a feed has replaced the efforts to meet a person, engage in lengthy conversation, and build shared experiences that form the foundation of lasting relationships. 

Plus, the transient and often performative nature of online interactions can lead to a cycle of continuous seeking without satisfaction. The illusion of being connected to many can mask the reality of being intimately connect to few. And this dynamic contributes to a sense of loneliness in the midst of seemingly active social lives.

The Proximal Pillar

All of this is made worse by how the stickiness of our social bonds change over time.

When we’re school, making friends is often a little easier due to the regular, enforced contact we have with other people on a daily basis. The close contact with peers, combined with the commonality of undergoing similar challenges and milestones, creates a fertile ground for friendships to blossom.

As we transition into adulthood, the structure that facilitated easy socialisation dissolves. Without the regularity of a school schedule, opportunities for casual interaction diminish, making it more challenging to establish new friendships. The workplace may offer a semblance of this structure, but the diversity in age, life stages, and interests, coupled with professional boundaries, can limit the depth of connections formed in such environments. And this is made even more difficult as we move to a remote-first world. 

Plus, adult life introduces a variety of responsibilities and commitments that can restrict social interaction, such as career demands, familial obligations, and personal pursuits. These factors contribute to a scenario where people are less likely to find themselves in situations that naturally foster the kind of close, repeated contact necessary for friendships to develop. The spontaneity and ease of making friends that characterise the school years become replaced by a scenario where making friends requires deliberate effort and intention.

In fact, psychological research has shown that simply being near others increases the likelihood of forming connections with them, a phenomenon known as the “proximity effect.” The repeated exposure to the same people over time allows individuals to become familiar with one another, share experiences, and gradually build trust and affection. This process is significantly hindered when adults find themselves isolated from consistent social circles or when interactions are sporadic and superficial.

The Intellectual Pillar

But, even if we do find ourselves surrounded by lots of people in real-life, it’s still possible to feel lonely in those circumstances too. 

What makes us feel lonely often isn’t that we have nobody to be with, but that we struggle to find people who understand us. 

This intellectual mismatch can occur in various settings—among friends, family, colleagues, or even within romantic relationships. It’s the feeling of being an outsider in a room full of people, where conversations skim the surface, and deeper, more meaningful exchanges seem out of reach. It’s about sitting through discussions and feeling as though your true self, with all its complexities and idiosyncrasies, remains veiled, leading to a sense of isolation even in the most sociable environments.

The core issue here is not the absence of social contact, but the absence of resonance—a shared frequency that makes intellectual and emotional exchange feel effortless and enriching. When our thoughts and feelings resonate with someone else’s, we experience a profound sense of connection and belonging. Without this resonance, we might find ourselves surrounded by people yet feel profoundly alone.

😊 Solving Loneliness

So, what can we do about our loneliness? 

Let’s look at each of these pillars in turn and establish a game plan to tackle it:

The Cultural Factor: Tolerance

We need to recognise that individuals cannot fix loneliness alone. It requires a common effort from everyone (whether lonely or not).

If we’re not lonely, we need to get better at thinking about other people and going out of our way to engage with people with a broad range of opinions, personalities, and characteristics. We can’t expect lonely people to do all the work when they’re feeling increasingly ostracised by society’s drift towards independence and echo chambers where there’s no need for anyone to interact outside the comfort of their existing communities. 

But, if we are lonely, we need to shift our perspective. Instead of trying to reach out to other people for our sake, we should try to reach out to others for their sake. The idea is that many people have to overcome a certain level of social anxiety when reaching out to someone, so if we try to combat loneliness for our own sake we’re met with a lot of emotional resistance. So, as soon as that social interaction becomes overwhelming, we immediately begin to retreat as we want to avoid the anxiety.

The great thing is we can conquer this feeling by, instead, thinking about trying to alleviate the loneliness of other people and enriching their life.

When we approach social interaction with the aim of improving someone else’s day, we often find that our own sense of isolation begins to diminish. This is because genuine connections are formed on the basis of mutual care and understanding, rather than a self-serving need to fill a void.

The Intellectual Factor: Openness

We need to find those rare individuals that are on the same intellectual and emotional wavelength as us. 

This means venturing into places – both physical and virtual – where our interests, passions, and values are likely to be shared by others. It may require joining special interest groups, attending lectures or workshops, participating in forums dedicated to our hobbies or passions, or even reaching out to individuals whose work or ideas we admire.

But, it also requires a degree of self-reflection.

It requires us to be clear about what we seek in relationships and to communicate our thoughts and feelings authentically. This means not shying away from expressing our true selves, even if it means revealing our vulnerabilities or diverging from the mainstream. It’s about creating spaces in our interactions for deep, meaningful exchanges, encouraging others to share their true selves in return.

The Proximal Factor: Experiences

Again, we must actively pursue environments that facilitate regular interaction. But, in particular, we should focus on shared experiences.

There’s a beautiful study that got a bunch of people to listen to the same story, but at different times and in different locations. And the idea was that our physiology (e.g. heart rate, breathing rate, body temperature amount of sweat, etc.) can be synchronised between people who share a common experience.

What the study found was that when people listen to the same story, even at different times, their physiology does in fact synchronise. 

We also know that the quality and perceived depth of a social bond correlates very strongly with how much physiological synchronisation there is between individuals. In other words, when your bodies feel the same, you tend to feel more bonded to somebody else.

This is what I call the ‘concert phenomenon’ because when you see your favourite band where everyone’s enjoying the music, there’s a shared physiological response to that experience. And the same thing can happen just between two individuals too. 

To leverage this, then, we need to find common and shared experiences with other people. 

The Motivational Factor: Prioritisation

Finally, we need to recognise the value of and prioritise genuine, face-to-face interactions. 

We need to make a conscious effort to invest time and emotional energy in relationships, embracing vulnerability, and stepping outside of our digital comfort zones.

Ultimately, building friendships takes time and effort, much like nurturing a garden; it requires patience, care, and sometimes a bit of weathering through tough times. And studies show that friendship has a snowball effect – the first 10 friends are going to be hard to make, but once those connections are established, making the next 10 becomes easier. 

As you expand your social circle, each new friend introduces you to their friends, and your network grows exponentially. This not only increases the number of potential friends but also the diversity of those connections, enriching your life with a wide range of perspectives and experiences.

The key to unlocking this snowball effect is to actively nurture the relationships you start. Quality, in this context, is just as important as quantity. Deep, meaningful connections provide a stronger foundation for your social network than superficial ones. They require a mutual exchange of trust, support, and understanding. By investing in these quality relationships, you create a solid base that naturally attracts more connections over time.