One major challenge within happiness is loneliness. The more I’ve learned about happiness, the more I’ve come to believe that loneliness is a terrible, common, and important obstacle to consider.
According to Elizabeth Bernstein’s recent Wall Street Journal piece, “Alone or Lonely,” the rate of loneliness in the U.S. has doubled over the past thirty years. About 40% of Americans report being lonely; in the 1980s, it was 20%. One reason: more people live alone (27% in 2012; 17% in 1970). But being alone and being lonely aren’t the same.
A while back, after reading John Cacioppo’s fascinating book Loneliness, I posted some counter-intuitive facts about loneliness, and several people responded by asking, “Okay, but what do I do about it? What steps can I take to feel less lonely?”
I then read another fascinating book, Lonely—a memoir by Emily White about her own experiences and research into loneliness. White doesn’t attempt to give specific advice about how to combat loneliness, and I don’t want to put words in her mouth, but from her book, I gleaned these strategies:
1. Remember that although the distinction can be difficult to draw, loneliness and solitude are different. White observes, “It’s entirely reasonable to feel lonely yet still feel as though you need some time to yourself.” Loneliness feels draining, distracting, and upsetting; desired solitude feels peaceful, creative, restorative.
2. Nurturing others—raising children, teaching, caring for animals—helps to alleviate loneliness.
3. Keep in mind that to avoid loneliness, many people need both a social circle and an intimate attachment. Having just one of two may still leave you feeling lonely.
4. Work hard to get your sleep. One of the most common indicators of loneliness is broken sleep—taking a long time to fall asleep, waking frequently, and feeling sleepy during the day. Sleep deprivation, under any circumstance, brings down people’s moods, makes them more likely to get sick, and dampens their energy, so it’s important to tackle this issue. (Here are some tips on getting good sleep.)
5. Try to figure out what’s missing from your life. White observes that making lots of plans with friends didn’t alleviate her loneliness. “What I wanted,” she writes, “was the quiet presence of another person.” She longed to have someone else just hanging around the house with her. The more clearly you see what’s lacking, the more clearly you’ll see possible solutions.
6. Take steps to connect with other people (to state the obvious). Show up, make plans, sign up for a class, take a minute to chat.
7. Stay open. Negative emotions like loneliness, envy, and guilt have an important role to play in a happy life; they’re big, flashing signs that something needs to change. The pain of loneliness can prod you to connect with other people. Unfortunately—and this may seem counter-intuitive—loneliness itself can make people feel more negative, critical, and judgmental. If you recognize that your loneliness may be affecting you in that way, you can take steps to counter it.
Most people have suffered from loneliness at some point. Have you found any good strategies for making yourself less lonely? What worked or didn’t work?
For more along these lines, check out Happier at Home, chapter on “Neighborhood.”
- I was very excited to see that Happier at Home was named one of the “Top 5 Books for Homebodies” by the great site, Apartment Therapy: “If you read Rubin’s first book, The Happiness Project, you’ll have an idea of what her new book has in store. Rubin puts forth an array of exercises (for herself and others) for finding a balanced happiness at home. It’s a great read for anyone who’s looking to increase or obtain solace in their own home.”
Gretchen Rubin is the author of the #1 New York Times Bestseller The Happiness Project—an account of the year she spent test-driving the wisdom of the ages, current scientific studies, and lessons from popular culture about how to be happier—and the recently released Happier at Home. On her popular blog, The Happiness Project, she reports on her daily adventures in the pursuit of happiness. For more doses of happiness and other happenings, follow Gretchen on Facebook and Twitter.
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*Image courtesy of hippydream [is busy].