Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

It's True! No Man Is An Island

January 27, 1997

How satisfied are you with your friends? With your close friends? Are you disappointed in the frequency or quality of your social contacts? If so, you probably feel lonely.

Loneliness is the psychological experience of being alone. You can be in the middle of a crowd and feel lonely. Loneliness affects people of all ages, social classes and life situations. National surveys on loneliness show that 11 to 26 percent of all people are lonely.

Modern society with its competitiveness, mobility and individualism is blamed for the rise of loneliness. Family, neighbors and community supports aren't as strong as they used to be.

Emotional loneliness. Emotional loneliness is the absence of a strong and enduring intimate relationship. We yearn for the missing relationship.

Traumatic events and dramatic changes or losses - a personal crisis or moving - can trigger loneliness. Loneliness can also be triggered by painful memories that remind us of our loss - or by seeing others in a relationship we would like.

Loneliness also can take the form of emptiness because of the absence of a particular person or desired relationship. Without that relationship, we feel incomplete. There is a loss of purpose. As humans, we need a measure of love and intimacy in our lives. Close relationships provide opportunities for emotional security, nurturing, reassurance of worth, shared interests and concerns, reliable support and trustworthy advice.

Some loneliness is due to a lack of social skills or confidence. Lonely people often think poorly of themselves, expect rejection and fail to capitalize on interpersonal opportunities. The lack of strong attachments in childhood or perceived shortcomings makes people susceptible to loneliness. High self-esteem and extroversion usually mean more friends and support.

Lonely people tend to either reveal too much too soon or, more often, fail to disclose enough in personal relationships to take relationships to a higher level of intimacy.

Social isolation. There is another kind of loneliness - a loneliness that comes with feeling different or disconnected from others. Loneliness is experienced as not fitting in or being out of place. It is a lonely and frustrating feeling to not be understood or have difficulty in understanding others. Others might be physically present but attempts to communicate don't go anywhere.

Lonely people often feel like an outsider who is prevented from belonging or as someone caught on the inside and unable to share their experience with others. They aren't connected with others who share similar concerns.

Feelings of isolation, alienation, estrangement and frustration are common. Lonely people sense that others are ignoring or excluding them and not making attempts to engage them. People can feel alone when they have excessive burdens and feel unsupported in their problems. Another way people feel alone is to feel exposed to danger or negative consequences that are highly visible to others.

Loneliness causes problems. Loneliness can create severe social and personal problems such as stress, alcoholism, drug abuse, anxiety, depression, suicide and poor health. Loneliness can cause intense distress, grief, pain, turmoil and emotional upheaval.

We feel positive emotions when social bonds are formed. We feel negative emotions when relationships are broken, threatened, or refused. Loneliness can be reduced by the amount of caring, intimate or empathic support from others, or by reducing expectations.

How many friends do we need? Psychologists Roy Baumeister from Case Western Reserve University and Mark Leary from Wake Forest University reviewed research findings on the need to belong.

According to Baumeister and Leary, we need frequent, positive interactions with a few other people. These are long term relationships in which there is a mutual and lasting concern for each other's welfare. Social contacts by themselves without intimate bonds are not satisfying.

Having people who care about us is nice but does little good if we seldom have contact with them. It is the combination of frequent interaction plus persistent caring that satisfies this need to belong. Ideally, contacts in close intimate relationships should be positive and pleasant, but more importantly, they need to be free from conflict and negative emotions.

According to Baumeister and Leary, people need only so many close relationships. "Having two as opposed to no close relationships may make a world of difference to the person's health and happiness; having eight as opposed to six may have very little consequence."

Relationships formed beyond the minimal level are subject to diminishing returns. "People who are well enmeshed in social relationships are less inclined to seek and form additional bonds than people who are socially deprived."

Baumeister and Leary believe that the loss of a relationship with one person can, to some extent, be replaced by any other. They observe, "The main obstacle to substitution is that formation of new relationships take time, such as in the gradual accumulation of intimacy and shared experience."

Loneliness is a lack of intimate connections more than a lack of social contacts. Lonely people spend as much time with other people as people who are not lonely. However, they spend less time with family and friends - the kind of relationships that are emotionally fulfilling.