Have you ever been surrounded by people and still felt alone?
Loneliness is more common than you may realize, and there are different forms it can take.
Loneliness is complex and widespread
When former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, MD took a listening tour of the United States, he found that loneliness was a common thread, and “at the root of so much emotional and physical pain” (NPR).
Following the tour, Dr. Murthy published his book Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World.
Dr. Murthy explores the research around this phenomenon, identifying three kinds of loneliness one may experience.
Even if you live in a less individualistic society than the United States tends to be, you may still relate to one or more of these:
- Intimate loneliness is the feeling of missing a close friend or intimate partner, a confidant you can trust with matters of your heart and soul.
- Relational loneliness comes from missing the phone calls, coffee dates, visits, and other quality time spent staying in or going out with people whose company you enjoy.
- Collective loneliness arises from wishing you had a group or community with which you share a common purpose or interests.
You may be fulfilled in one of these areas but still feel lonely in others.
For example, you may have a best friend but feel you don’t belong to a group or community that satisfies your interests.
Not having somewhere to anchor yourself can lead to feeling adrift, which can feel lonely.
Or you may have good friends who live far away and feel alone because you don’t get to spend quality time with them on a regular basis.
The following sections explore the three types of loneliness more in depth.
Intimate loneliness: Missing a confidant
If you have friends but feel you have to put up a facade with them, it could feel very lonely.
Your friends don’t need to know all your innermost thoughts, but it can start to feel isolating if you feel that no one really knows you – the parts of you that feel deeply personal and integral.
Feeling truly known is vital. It lets us feel that our loved ones love us, not just their ideas of us.
It takes time and hard-won intimacy to build these kinds of relationships.
I learned this from experience, living in New York City during the COVID-19 pandemic.
It was an often lonely time for me, like it was for many people.
Especially during the fall of 2021, when I’d just moved back from quarantining with my family in Colorado, all my relationships in the city felt distant and fleeting.
I’ll never forget sitting in the back of a half-packed theater in Harlem, crying in the dark, thankful that at least no one could see me.
I had friends. I liked my own company. Still, I felt so alone.
Until later that year:
An old friend called. We’d grown distant due to misunderstandings and missed connections in the past. But because she took the initiative to call me that day, we reconnected and worked through whatever issues we had.
Even though she lived in a different state, New York felt a little less lonely as our friendship became stronger and closer than ever.
Do you have a friend, partner, or family member whom you can confide in?
If so, consider yourself fortunate and nurture those relationships.
If not, try taking your relationships to the next level by practicing vulnerability with people who feel safe and who reciprocate your bids for intimacy and connection.
Talking to a therapist can also help, especially if you need support working through things you feel you can’t discuss with anyone else.
Relational loneliness: Missing companionship
If you have friends who you trust and feel close to, but you don’t get to spend a lot of time with them (e.g. they live far away), you may feel the loss of companionship.
That’s how I felt at times, even after reconnecting with my old friend.
I still longed for friends who lived nearby, to explore the city with when I didn’t feel like going out on my own.
Around that time, I met a friend in graduate school, who I started spending time with outside of class.
The first time we hung out was one of my most memorable nights in New York.
We went to the oldest Italian bakery in the city and tried their cannoli, then we were happily sidetracked on our way through Chinatown by a poet performing on a street corner, then we walked into a random bar because there was a disco ball and we danced and danced.
Our friendship helped me feel more at home in the city and she continues to be one of my best friends, even after I left New York for Ethiopia.
Long-distance relationships seem to be the story of my life and will probably continue to be, as I often find myself moving.
It takes time to make friends and build community in each new place, but I find comfort in the fact that I’ve done it before.
Whenever I feel discouraged, I try to remember that good relationships often take time and it’s always worth the wait.
Collective loneliness: Missing community
Maybe you have friends you can confide in and spend quality time with, but you still feel like something’s missing.
Maybe you feel the need to be part of something bigger than yourself.
For you, this might mean finding a religious or spiritual community, joining a book club, or volunteering for a cause that serves some need in the world.
One thing that helped me connect with a community of sorts while living in New York was forming my own small hiking group with two women I met in a larger group of nature lovers.
This met my need for community and connection on a smaller scale, since we were still in the thick of the pandemic.
Our small group went upstate as much as possible during the spring and fall, when the flowers and foliage were at their gorgeous peak.
Being out in nature and sharing the experience with others felt spiritual. It always put things into perspective and inspired a sense of wonder and awe in me.
Maybe you could also benefit from joining or forming a group of people with common interests.
Even if you don’t feel close to anyone in the group, simply being part of such a group can be a positive experience.
Sometimes it’s the smallest interactions that allow us to feel seen and tethered to something outside of ourselves, which in turn helps us feel more connected and less isolated.
Pursuing connection: Action steps
Dr. Murthy poses loneliness as a serious public health concern – he makes the case for it being a root cause and major contributor in epidemics like heart disease, alcohol and drug addiction, mental illness, and violence (Rush University).
But there are steps we can take to combat loneliness and reap the social and health benefits as a result.
Feeling less lonely isn’t about surrounding yourself with people just for the sake of not being alone.
It’s about pursuing healthy connections and nurturing positive relationships with the people in your life.
Loneliness can strike if you find yourself always waiting for others to make the first move.
If you find yourself passively waiting more often than not, try taking a more active role.
Join a group or form a new one based on one of your interests.
Reach out to a close friend or someone you’d like to be closer to and ask them how they’re really doing.
Initiate plans with someone, anyone, whose company brings you joy.
Volunteer with a group whose cause you support.
If you need a little nudge, remember that loneliness is an experience shared by more people than you might think, and that most will appreciate you reaching out.