Only the Lonely

Here’s a strange contradiction I’ve noticed about myself: I’ll willingly admit I’m yearning for more local close friends, but under no circumstances would I describe myself as lonely.

Loneliness makes me think of those “Depression Hurts” commercials. It is, if only in my head, synonymous with sadness. And I’m not sad or depressed. The opposite is true. I’m so happy in the rest of my life—great marriage, good family, thriving career—that I want the social aspect to match up.

There is—of course there is—a psychological assessment that measures a person’s level of loneliness. (To measure your own loneliness quotient, you can take the 10-question quiz or check out the full 20-question assessment. I recommend the 20-question version—you’ll measure yourself on a 1-4 scale, but take note that for half the questions 1=never,  2=rarely, 3=sometimes and  4=always, while for the other half 1=always, 2=sometimes, 3=rarely and 4=never. This is spelled out on the pdf. A score lower than 28 is low-loneliness; above 44 is high-loneliness; and 33-39 is the middle of the spectrum.) According to this 20-question UCLA Loneliness Scale, I fall in the middle of the loneliness spectrum. I can’t tell you how relieved I was to learn this. While filling out the survey, I was terrified I’d rank as “high in loneliness” and have to admit it on this blog and have my husband and mom and readers hanging their heads in sorrow for me.

But why was I so nervous? What’s so wrong with being lonely? Well, nothing really, but it’s terribly stigmatized. In The Lonely American, Jacqueline Olds and Richard Schwartz explain that while loneliness is increasing in this country, the subject is becoming more and more taboo. “We see ourselves as a self-reliant people who do not whine about neediness,” they write. “If a person is going to complain, far better to complain about what someone has done to him (abuse, coercion, rejection) or what diagnoses and addictions he was saddled with; to wistfully describe how lonely he feels is not socially acceptable.”

And yet, loneliness is incredibly prevalent. According to data from the General Social Survey, individuals without a single confidant made up a quarter of those surveyed in 2004, while the average American only reported having two close friends (down from three in 1985). And let’s go bigger than the U.S. “At any given time, roughly twenty percent of individuals feel sufficiently isolated for it to be a major source of unhappiness in their lives.”

That last quote is from Loneliness, by John T. Cacioppo and William Patrick. What’s especially fascinating in this book is how the authors describe the upside of being lonely. “The sensations associated with loneliness evolved because they contributed to our survival as a species. … Physical pain protects the individual from physical dangers. Social pain, also known as loneliness, evolved for a similar reason: Because it protected the individual from the danger of being isolated. … In the same way that physical pain serves as a prompt to change behavior—the pain of burning skin tells you to pull your finger away from the frying pan—loneliness developed as a stimulus to get humans to pay more attention to their social connections, and to reach out toward others, to renew frayed or broken bonds.” If we go by this definition, then I’m definitely lonely. Or, at least I was. Something must have moved me to refocus on friendship, right?

Do you shudder at the thought of being described as lonely? Or having someone you love think of themselves that way? Why do you think loneliness is so stigmatized—especially in a culture that usually celebrates the individual who stands apart from the crowd? And what do you think of Cacioppo and Patrick’s upside of loneliness?

21 Comments

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21 responses to “Only the Lonely

  1. Lee

    Wow on the stat of only having two close friends. Wonder how much the evolution of digital friendships have changed that? Living far away from at least half a dozen close friends with whom I connect at least weekly changed forever with FB and blogging.

    Maybe the question in the quiz that is most important is whether or not you feel comfortable reaching out to people–this may not change in an online environment, who knows.

    Thanks for your comment on my blog, what a funny coincidence that our titlage was so similar.

    • Digital friendships is interesting.. this data is from 2004 but so much has changed in the last 6 years. I think the two number came from the answers to a question like “when you have a problem, how many people can you talk to about it?” or something of that nature… When people self-report how many close friends they have the number is pretty high (we all want to think we’re surrounded by BFFs), but when researchers ask people more specifically to name the people they’ve talked to about a big problem in the last six months, then the numbers drop signifigantly…

  2. Cindy

    I completely shudder at the thought of being described as lonely — and am equally horrified by the idea of someone I love feeling that way. Part of it is that I honestly don’t feel lonely. It’s more of a gap in both the number of local friends with whom I feel like I can have a heart-to-heart and with whom I/we can have a fun night out. Still, why does loneliness scare me so much? I think a lot of it has to do with my mother, who based her entire existence around her (easy) connections with other people. Facebook doesn’t help, since it perpetuates the idea that “normal” people have not just a circle of friends but thousands of friends.

    I like the theory about the upside of loneliness. Sometimes I think the IDEA of a better social life is more enticing than the reality and maybe I am manufacturing the need for a local BFF rather than truly craving one. This reminds me that we all have a basic need for social connection – and some have a more heightened need than others – and that we need to trust our instincts in this regard.

    • I feel the exact same way! I don’t think of myself as lonely.. rather I’m just experiencing a void in that local friends area. But, still.. maybe that’s a type of loneliness if it urges us to seek out something we’re missing? I don’t know. Like you said, I don’t FEEL lonely.

      And I too wonder sometimes if the idea of a million BFFS is actually better than reality of it.

  3. Very interesting observations and thoughts. I’ve struggled off-and-on with loneliness since my divorce. On one hand, I have so many more close friends since I’ve been single. But I lack that one primary, intimate relationship, and it often leaves me feeling very sad and lonely.

    However, I agree that it’s not something I like to admit. Admitting to anything closely resembling “depressed” makes me feel like a loser in ways. It also isn’t true most of the time. I think we all go through bouts of loneliness, even when we’re happily married or have good friends and plenty of people in our life.

    As you know, I’m discussing The Happiness Project (starting today) on my blog. I’ve only read up to Chapter 4, so I don’t know if Gretchen Rubin discusses loneliness. I think the connected feeling we get from having people in our lives who we love and feel loved by is a big part of happiness. However, even when we have that, we may get lonely and think to ourselves, “What’s wrong with me? I have so many people that I’m so grateful for. Why am I lonely?” Maybe it’s because there is a certain need… a certain type of person (a BFF or a partner) that you once had and are missing at that moment..

    Luckily, I think if we have many people in our lives, our loneliness will just be temporary. But this is an important topic in my quest to understand love that I’ll be exploring more. Thank you!

  4. Yes, I too shudder at the thought. Even though sometimes I am lonely. But the thing is, it’s like you said Rachel – for the most part I have a great relationship, job I love, great family. It’s only in certain instances – when my guy goes out with his friends or I feel like some girl talk, that I feel a sense of loneliness that I don’t have someone to call up. Can you be sometimes lonely??

    XO
    Lenore

    • I think absolutely yes. From what I’ve read in these books–and my experience in my own life and talking to others–we all have bouts of loneliness. Moments when we long for a connection that we’re lacking. I’ve certainly been there. And like the authors say, that can be a good thing because it spurs us to seek out connection. When it becomes debilitating–we don’t get out of bed or want to see people–that’s when we’re in trouble.

  5. gail

    this post makes me think about the difference between being lonely and being lonesome. i guess the stigma is implied in the ongoing nature of “lonely” .

  6. Who would ever characterize people as lonely? I mean, if they know someone well enough to cast such a judgement, than surely they know the person well enough to reach out. Being lonely, feeling lonely are totally normal parts of life. When others are using the label though, I think they are being lazy and simplistic.

  7. Christina

    I think there are also cases of situational loneliness.

    For example, I sometimes have felt lonely when I have attended parties or gatherings where everyone knows everyone, but I don’t know anyone at all except the host or hostess. But yet when I leave the party and go home, I am content and happy now that I am back in the comfort zone of my house.

  8. Ana

    The interesting thing is that “loneliness” and “being alone” do not necessarily equate. I totally agree that loneliness is situational and not necessarily a longstanding feeling. You can feel lonely at a party as Christina said, or on an odd night when you can’t find something on TV and noone answers their phone… Its a lacking of a specific kind of companionship at a specific time; even if you are with a person, if they are not connecting the right way, or offering the support you need, you can still feel that void.
    And I’m sure EVERYONE has a moment like that. Either their spouse is away when they need him, or they are traveling without the kid & are surrounded by the sight of strollers everywhere, or you really really need a pedicure but its so much more fun with company—I’ve had all of those in the past month, though before I thought about it today I never considered myself to be “lonely”.
    So, as common & ordinary as it is, I STILL shudder at the thought. It DOES sound incredibly sad & pathetic to be “lonely”. It conjures up someone with no friends, no loved ones, and not enough self-sufficience to go out and do something about it. It sounds like something you would wallow in, and not just a normal fact of life.
    I love the evolutionary explanation. It makes sense & I so love the scientific and logical explanation for anything!

  9. I do sort of cringe at the thought of someone describing me as lonely, even though it’s a natural feeling to have from time to time. We seem to stigmatize things like loneliness or depression, which is too bad because I think people feel like they need to pretend like they aren’t lonely or aren’t depressed. Which, in my opinion, is more harmful than actually admitting that you are lonely or you are depressed.

    Whenever I talk about my single status, I do often say that even though I am single, I am not lonely, because it is the honest truth. Yes, I have moments of loneliness, but they are usually few and far between. I guess I don’t want people’s pity, so I make sure they don’t jump to the conclusion that just becuase I am alone does not mean I am lonely…

  10. This reminds me of the difference between loneliness and spending time alone. I’ve always been a very social creature. However, as I rounded the corner into my 30s, I found that I really enjoyed spending more time alone. At one point in my life, I had social plans 5 days a week (if not more). These days, I’m lucky if I venture out of the house 1-2 days a week for social engagements. But, just because I enjoy spending time alone doesn’t mean I feel lonely at all. Especially not with the advent of email, text messaging, Facebook, etc. I can be alone and still feel entirely too connected.

  11. Rachel,
    Go get your hands on the newest issue of Marie Claire!! Lori Gottlieb (author of Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough) is sparking an even bigger debate with her latest essay. In her article (on page 85 of the July issue) she argues that female friendships are a sham! The minute I read the headline I immediately thought of you!!

    best,
    Jocelyn

  12. I just discovered your website, and I’m hooked.

    I just recently moved to Portland, Oregon after living in the Midwest my entire life. It’s a truly unique experience for me to make close friendships when my circle of connections out here is starting at level 0. I’m just about ready to cook up some sort of ginormous hat with flashing lights and a big banner that reads, “I want friends! Will you be my friend?” Have you tried that? If so, does it work?😉

    That being said, there’s something really liberating and lovely about being ok with alone time and being my own BFF first and foremost.

    Thanks for this great blog! Cheers!

  13. Megan

    I think loneliness is so stigamtized precisely BECAUSE we have placed such a high value on individualism in this culture. Admitting to loneliness is like admitting failure. that we can’t be everything this culture demands of us when it practically venerates the individual above everything else. Loneliness is seen as a lack of self-sufficiency (which is, apparently a virtue in this context), and a childish thing to be grown out of. I seriously thought for the longest time that “Growing up” meant no longer needing anyone so I was too afraid to admit anything like loneliness…

  14. Cathy

    I feel so much better after reading this post. I have to spend a lot of time alone because of my work, so it’s hard to make friends and very easy to feel lonely. The information you provided was a good reality check that makes me realize that I’m not as alone as I sometimes think. I agree that loneliness is a good warning that we need to reach out to others, but it is not as straightforward as pain is in warning us to avoid physical danger. Protecting ourselves from loneliness involves much more complex behaviors, as well as the cooperation of others. And we can be surrounded by people who care for us and still be lonely. Maybe part of the reason loneliness is stigmatized is because it’s harder to understand than pain.

  15. There is a definite balance between being social and being lonely. I crave both. When I am “lonely”, I find time to reflect and collect my thoughts. Ultimately, I think you should be able to be silent with your own thoughts. In some ways, it helps you determine who you want to be social with. If you are never lonely, how do you learn what you want out of yourself or your friendships?

  16. Eva

    I’ll echo Ana’s comment that loneliness and being alone are not the same. And it’s all very personal – whether you enjoy being alone or not. I really love to be alone. I love the silence, the freedom to decide how I spend my time, the chance to recharge a bit. But then I definitely reach a point where I’ve had enough alone time.

    I worry if I wasn’t married I would feel lonely. I have a very small list of close friends, and I’m not very proactive about finding new friends. I guess this makes me appreciate my husband – my best friend – and my other friends more.

  17. pamela

    Moving across the country from the only environment I ever knew made me cling to the digital friendship. Although it has been a lifeline at times, nothing is more important that having that face-to-face connection with someone.

    I am lonely.

    It’s taken me a long time to admit it. Why? Well, admitting that you’re lonely (as least for me) is like admitting that you’re a social leper.

  18. Pingback: The Hard Facts: Survival of the Friendliest « MWF Seeking BFF

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