Loneliness Isn’t Just About Being Alone

A small but still significant number of my clients talk to me about their loneliness. It’s an emotion that is highly complex – we are social creatures, and most of us need connection to nourish and sustain us almost as much as we need food. This was demonstrated in one of the classic experiments in psychology (dating from the 1950s). It consisted of separating infant monkeys from their mothers a few hours after birth, then arranging for the young animals to be “raised” by two kinds of surrogate monkey mother machines, both equipped to dispense milk. One “mother” was made out of bare wire mesh. The other was a wire “mother” covered with soft terry cloth. Monkeys who had a choice of “mothers” spent far more time clinging to the terry cloth surrogates. Surprisingly, even when their physical nourishment came only from bottles mounted on the bare wire “mothers,” the monkeys still spent far more time with the cloth-covered “mother.

We also know that the extent of someone’s interpersonal connections has a major influence on longevity – people who are married live longer than singles, as do people who have more rather than fewer friends. Brain imaging demonstrates that sharing with others activates the “reward” areas of the brain, like those areas activated by the satisfaction of hunger. When we confront social rejection, the experience activates the same areas that light up when we are subjected to physical pain. And what is the most severe form of non-physical punishment administered in our society? Solitary confinement.

So there is a strong biological component in our need to connect (a component which, it is important to note, varies widely by individual – extroverts clearly “needing” it more than introverts). But among adults there are also very strong psychological and spiritual components that can buffer the effects of being alone. In that regard, the meaning that we make out of “aloneness” is central to the impact that it has on us. When we decide that being alone means we’re unloved (or, worse, unlovable), we’re inevitably going to be sad puppies. I intentionally used the verb “decide,” because, even though it doesn’t feel like a decision, in that moment we’re making a choice to look at the glass as half empty, and to not take into account all of the people who love us.


Let’s examine the word “alone.” Merriam-Webster lists the first definition as “separated from others; isolated.” That’s the definition that can make us feel bad when we’re by ourselves. But it’s not the only way to think about “alone;” the second definition is a very positive one: “exclusive of anyone or anything else: only” (she alone succeeded). To the degree we focus on definition number one we’re going to feel disconnected. However, focusing on definition number two will allow us to move towards feeling independent. It admittedly takes a lot of practice for us to make a meaning of aloneness that is closer to definition #2 than it is to #1, after all our culture is laden with songs and stories about how incomplete our lives are without others: for my generation the songs “Only the Lonely,” “I’m Mr. Lonely,” and “One” (is the loneliest number…) come to mind; Cher’s “A Song for the Lonely” or “How Soon Is Now” by The Smiths are more contemporary examples.

Next time you’re alone and start to feel unloved, toy with shifting the meaning you’re giving to aloneness. Try to think about the accomplishments you’ve achieved, or strengths you’ve exhibited, all by yourself. Avoid the temptation to compare yourself with others who may appear richly connected with others – we can never know about the mindset below the surface (Princess Diana comes to mind).

That’s a glimpse into my take on the psychology that relates to feeling lonely. What about the spiritual dimension? Belief in God, or a Higher Power, can be a tremendous source of comfort when loneliness begins to creep in. Even greater comfort can come from the schools of spirituality that stress the interconnectedness of all things.

By all means if your life doesn’t have the kind of interpersonal connections you would like, work on creating them. Too many people complain about their loneliness but aren’t taking the steps they could to start to change their situation. Just this past week a client of mine was complaining that, although she’s joined a church social group, when they she attends no one talks to her. I suggested that she initiate conversations rather than waiting for someone else to approach her.

If you’re in a marriage or another significant relationship you may still frequently feel alone; in that case counseling is definitely in order. But also know that you may not have to depend solely on connection with others to make you feel less lonely; your mind and your soul can help.