Loneliness is increasingly recognised as an important issue of many developed countries but the issue is often conflated with social isolation and therefore associated with misconceptions. Loneliness is the subjective and aversive feeling of social isolation (‘I do not feel in tune with others’) as opposed to objective social isolation (i.e., how many people you know). While loneliness and social isolation are often used together and interchangeably, the concepts are only partially related. Understanding the distinction and relatedness of these concepts is crucial if we were to work towards implementing effective solutions to resolve distressing levels of loneliness. This article outlines five common misconceptions that require rectifying before we can work towards developing and implementing effective solutions.
Misconception 1: I will be less lonely if I knew more people
Social needs are highly complex and nuanced – many people who live alone do not feel lonely, and many who live with others report feeling lonely. People who are well connected within a social network may also report conflict and stress with others and holding social ties that are ambivalent or neutral may do little to alleviate the distress of loneliness. Furthermore, for some individuals, they may value informally-forged relationships (i.e., those developed within their own communities) as opposed to to the social connection they made while receiving care.
Loneliness is more related to the quality of relationships and less about quantity. A parallel drawn is the way we consider access to food to satisfy hunger. Having access to food does not mean you know how to select food that is nutritious for your needs. In the same vein, having access to social connections does not mean that having social relationships would satisfy your social needs. More recently, the term ‘Loneliness Paradox’ has been used to describe how we are more socially connected than ever, especially online, but continue to feel disconnected from others. This is an example of how the number of people you know may not adequately meet your social needs.
Misconception 2: Feeling lonely means something is wrong with me
Loneliness is an innate human signal to connect, similar to a signal to eat when one is hungry. The desire to connect is normal because humans have evolved and thrived within social groups since the beginning of time. Functioning in social groups and maintaining meaningful connections are therefore part and parcel of being human. Feeling like ‘someone has your back’ can alter your physiological responses to stressors. Indeed there is a growing robust evidence that loneliness can significantly increase your risk of having more health problems and an earlier mortality. Most of us would experience transient periods of loneliness and often find ways of resolving it ourselves. Loneliness becomes a distressing experience for many when these feelings are persistent and, or distressing to the individual. In these cases, individuals who faced multiple barriers (e.g., those who have impoverished social environments, and or have difficulty interacting with others due to a variety of circumstances) may find it more difficult to resolve loneliness.
Misconception 3: Loneliness only affects older people
In more recent years, study findings have consistently indicated that loneliness does not affect only one particular age group. Indeed, all of us are vulnerable to experiencing loneliness.
One in four Australians are experiencing problematic levels of loneliness and one vulnerable group includes young people aged 18 to 25, a group that at a glance seem to be so well-connected through school and technology. In many studies, loneliness affects age groups undergoing social vulnerability, with both younger and older people more likely to be vulnerable. For young people, undergoing significant life transitions, such as moving out of home, or commencing new work or school, increases their vulnerability. For older people, it may relate to bereavement, the onset of illness, and a move out of their community.
Misconception 4: I will never be lonely
Those outside the young and older age groups may consider themselves ‘safe’ from distressing levels of loneliness. However, life events such as losing your job, divorce, the onset of health issues, financial problems, moving to a new community, are all factors that could increase one’s vulnerability to feeling lonely. Unforunately, feeling lonely remains a stigmatised topic. Even if one was lonely, it would be hard to admit due to longstanding societal connotations of vulnerability and fragility. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, one in two Australians reported feeling more lonely as they adhere to physical distancing guidelines. But it remains unclear if this will improve the community’s empathy for people who experience enduring loneliness.
Misconception 5: Making new friends should always be easy
One plausible driver of this misconception could be that many of us forged friendships early on within structured social environments (e.g., school). In these settings, many of us may interact with the same group of people everyday and through these repeated interactions over time, strong friendships are forged. However, as we progressed to less structured social environment or environments that require socialising with people less similar to us, it is crucial to put in the effort to forge these new social connections as well as maintain existing networks. For some, directing efforts into forging new relationships can be an overwhelmingly effort and not yield immediate rewards.
Loneliness is also largely driven by biased thinking and misconceptions about others and our ability to develop and, or maintain social relationships. If a person holds more biased negative thinking such as a mistrust of others, fear of negative evaluation, fear of judgement, they are less likely to engage with others in a way that is conducive to the relationship. This could include more reluctant social participation, for example, one can attend social gatherings without ever sharing personal stories, attending a group without making the effort to get to know others. In fact, research from neuroimaging studies indicate that people who were lonelier were more likely to be less cooperative, less engaging, and more rejecting of others, than their less lonely counterparts.
Loneliness was identified as a growing problem before the onset of COVID-19 pandemic but has been highlighted as an important issue since the implementation of public health social restriction practices. While this topic is of interest to many, loneliness remains an issue rife with misconceptions, many of which may be perpetuated by longstanding societal perceptions. In order to effectively combat loneliness, we need to rectify these misconceptions so that we can also adopt more innovative approaches that can take into account the complexity of this important health, social, and community issue.
About the author:
Dr Michelle H. Lim is Scientific Chair of Ending Loneliness Together and a Research Fellow and Clinical Psychologist at Iverson Health Innovation Research Institute and Centre for Mental Health at Swinburne University of Technology.
Dr Lim leads the Social Health and Wellbeing Laboratory which aims to generate rigorous research related to loneliness across the lifespan, specifically to develop and design evidence-based and consumer relevant interventions that can effectively target loneliness. She is a full member of the Australian Psychological Society and has practised clinical for 16 years. She received her PhD at the University of Melbourne and did postdoctoral training at the Anxiety and Psychotherapy Laboratory at Washington University in St Louis, USA. Ending Loneliness Together is a national network of 10 universities and 20 industry partners. She is the leading Australian expert in loneliness and is part of the iCare research team which focuses on promoting social health and wellbeing in workers at risk of psychological injury. She is conducting a randomised controlled trial of a smartphone app designed to target loneliness in lonely young people. A comprehensive list of her writing is available here.
- Lim, M.H., Eres. R., & Vasan, S (2020). Loneliness in the 21st century: an update on correlates, risk factors, and potential solutions. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology. 55:793-810 doi: 10.1007/s00127-020-01889-7
- Lim, M.H. & Badcock, J. (2020, March 17). Social distancing can make you lonely. Here’s how to stay connected when you’re in lockdown. The Conversation. Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/social-distancing-can-make-you-lonely-heres-how-to-stay-connected-when-youre-in-lockdown-133693
- Lim, M.H. (2015, November 9). The deadly truth about loneliness. The Conversation. Retrieved from theconversation.com/the-deadly-truth-about-loneliness-43785