Loneliness is very much not simply being alone. It is a sense of being unwanted and unloved by the world and by those around us. It is often associated with being alone. However, many people are very happy to be alone, and do not find this lonely at all—so being by yourself is not the only factor.
This is complicated because everyone experiences loneliness in different ways.
Loneliness is often exacerbated by other mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, and by issues such as social anxiety. It can also lead to those conditions developing. It is, therefore, helpful to find ways to manage loneliness.
This page provides more information about loneliness, and suggests some ways that you may be able to avoid or overcome it.
What is Loneliness?
lonely adj. unaccompanied, isolated, uncomfortably conscious of being alone—n. loneliness
Chambers English Dictionary, 1989 edition
lonely sad from being alone, producing a feeling of bleakness or desolation.
Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition.
These definitions show that loneliness comes from being alone—but the two are not exactly the same.
As many mental health charities are quick to highlight, it is possible to be entirely comfortable with your own company and happy on your own. It is also possible to be surrounded by other people and feel lonely.
Loneliness is therefore a state of mind rather than defined by your physical surroundings.
It is effectively a sense of being unhappy about being alone, or feeling alone and isolated from those around you.
What causes loneliness?
Many people find that they become lonely after a big life change, such as the death of a partner, a relationship break-up or a diagnosis of a serious illness. These events tend to make us feel different from those around us, and therefore contribute to a sense of isolation.
Another common cause of loneliness is social anxiety, also known as social phobia. This condition means that you find it hard to engage with other people or in activities involving contact with others. Lack of engagement, in turn, means that you feel less connected to others, and may therefore become lonely.
People with low self-confidence can also find it difficult to engage with others, and may therefore withdraw and become lonely. Find out more about how to improve your self-confidence in our page on the subject.
Loneliness is not in itself defined as a mental health problem.
However, it can be associated with much more serious mental health problems, so it is worth making an effort to address it.
The first step in overcoming loneliness is to recognise that it is a sign that something needs to change in your life.
You are not magically going to become less lonely just like that. Instead, you have to make positive changes in your life, whether that is asking for help, taking up a hobby, or reaching out to others to build stronger relationships. The following are generally agreed to be good starting points for overcoming loneliness.
1. Develop new interests
One way to make yourself feel less lonely is to develop new interests.
This helps because it distracts you from your loneliness and gives you something else to think about. However, it can also help you to meet new people, and therefore develop new friendships and relationships.
2. Consider volunteering and other forms of community service
Volunteering for a cause that you value, or helping others in some way are very good ways to meet people with similar interests and values.
Community service will therefore help you to build up networks of friends and develop strong relationships with other people. However, research also suggests that we generally feel better about ourselves when we are giving something back, or making a contribution to our world. Volunteering therefore helps us to feel more positive about ourselves—and that, in itself, can make you feel less lonely.
3. Focus on relationships
We often tell children that “to have a friend, you have to be a friend”
This is also true in adulthood.
If you want to develop strong relationships with others, you have to reach out to them, and not always expect them to make the first move. Focus on building strong relationships with people who share your attitudes, interests and values. Enjoy doing things together with others, and take time to develop your relationships with them.
See our page Friendliness for more about this.
4. Talk to someone
It is a good idea to tell someone if you are feeling lonely.
Remember, those around you will not necessarily know how you feel unless you tell them.
Talking to friends or family is perhaps the most obvious option. However, if you don’t want to do that, consider finding a counsellor or therapist, perhaps via your family doctor. These options may also help you work through any underlying problems that are causing you to feel lonely, such as an emotional trauma that means you find it harder to build close relationships with others.
5. Remember to look after yourself
Feeling lonely can be very stressful. As with any other stressful situation, this can affect how we feel about ourselves, and in turn how we look after ourselves.
Take time to look after yourself properly. Make sure that you get enough sleep, eat well and healthily, and that you take regular exercise.
All these will help you to feel better in yourself—and that will enable you to make other changes in your life if necessary.
There is more about this in our pages on Sleep, Exercise, and Food, Diet and Nutrition.
6. Think positively
When you are feeling lonely, it is easy to fall into the trap of expecting rejection.
Instead, try to turn your thoughts around. Focus on the positive.
For example, it is unlikely that your friends do not want to talk to you. It is far more likely that they are busy, or even that they too fear rejection. Take time to reach out to people with a positive attitude, and you are likely to find that they respond with pleasure.
It is also true that positive people are nicer to be around than those who are always feeling sorry for themselves, or expecting to be offended or rejected. Developing a more positive mindset can be a very good start to building better relationships.
Finally, there is considerable evidence that thinking positively can help you to change your life for the better.
There is more about this in our page on Positive Thinking.
7. Consider contacting a peer support service
Peer support groups are simply groups of people who have been through similar experiences, who come together to provide support for each other.
Perhaps the most famous are groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, but there are many others such as Cruse Bereavement Care, Carers UK, and Gingerbread, a group for single-parent families.
These groups may be especially helpful if your loneliness is the result of a change in your life such as a bereavement, or a diagnosis of an illness. However, more generally, you may find it helpful to get in touch with a ‘befriender’ service, where you can make contact with a volunteer ‘befriender’ if you are feeling lonely. In the UK, you can find these via befriending.co.uk.
8. Try to avoid comparing yourself to others
Social media can be a great boon for reaching out to other people and making contact, especially if you are housebound for some reason.
However, it also has its downsides.
People are very unlikely to present their lives ‘warts and all’ on social media. Indeed, there is considerable evidence that we all tend to show a very curated version of our lives: the bit that conveys the ‘right’ impression about us.
This means that using social media can be a shortcut to developing serious anxiety that you are missing out and doing worse than everyone else.
Try to avoid comparing your life to others via social media. Instead, focus on what you are doing, and the connections you are building with others.
There is more about this in our pages on Managing Status Anxiety and Problematic Smartphone Use.
There’s no rush…
When you have been feeling lonely for a while, it can start to feel that you have to make big changes right now.
That is not the case.
Even a very small change can be very positive—and is much less daunting. Take things slowly and build up your stamina for change over time. For example, if you are interested in joining a new class, ask if you can try it out before you sign up. Alternatively, do an online class first, where there will be less social interaction, but you will still be with others.
Take your time. There’s no rush. Above all, remember to be kind to yourself.