What is loneliness?
First we have to get rid of the biggest misunderstanding about loneliness, which is that people equate loneliness with being alone. Loneliness is not the same as being alone, those are two different things.
Being alone simply means there are no people around you. It is an actual condition, which you can determine simply by looking around you. If there are no people around you, you are alone. If there are people around you, you are not alone.
Lonely, on the other hand, is not a fact, nor can it be determined by counting the number of people around you. Loneliness is an emotion, independent of whether you are alone or not.
You can be alone without feeling lonely (if you value this positively, it’s called solitude) and you can feel lonely while you are not alone. Being alone is something you are, lonely is something you feel.
You would think that people who are alone more often also feel more lonely, but that is not necessarily the case. According to Norwegian philosopher Lars Svendsen, there is “no correlation at all between the degree of physical isolation and the intensity of the loneliness felt.”
People who feel lonely spend as much time around other people as non-lonely people. That’s why the much-heard, and no doubt well-meant advice to “just go out and meet people” is not the solution to loneliness. Or at least not the whole solution.
“What matters,” Svendsen says, “is not the extent to which an individual is surrounded by other people, but rather how that individual experiences his relationship to others.” So it’s not about surrounding yourself with other people, but about how you connect with those people – or even better: how you experience your connections with those people.
In the words of loneliness expert Olivia Laing: “Loneliness does not necessarily require physical solitude, but rather an absence of connection, closeness, kinship: an inability, for one reason or another, to find as much intimacy as is desired.”
We humans are social beings. The need to live in community with other people is programmed into our DNA. We all need friendship and love in our lives. Meaningful relationships with other people is one of the most important contributors to a happy life.
But the fact that we are a social being and therefore need connections with others does not mean that that need is met. Meaningful and satisfying relationships are not guaranteed. Loneliness is the emotional pain you experience when those meaningful social connections are missing. An important need is not being met.
Feeling lonely doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you, is it simply means that you have, as the American social neuroscientist John Cacioppo puts it, “a normal human need for social connection, as well as a very normal adverse reaction to disconnection, real or perceived.”
So loneliness is a subjective feeling based on how you personally experience your relationships with others – not a description of the actual situation. You may experience your relationships as insufficiently satisfying, while someone else might judge them as satisfactory.
If you feel lonely, there is a mismatch between need and satisfaction, between your personal need for connection and the degree to which that need is fulfilled. And this is about quality, not quantity: A close relationship with a limited number of people is a stronger buffer against feelings of loneliness than a loose relationship with a large number of others.
“What determines our loneliness,” American psychologist Guy Winch says, “is not the quantity of our relationships but rather their subjective quality, the extent to which we perceive ourselves to be socially or emotionally isolated.” It’s about how meaningful (or meaningless) you rate your relations with other people.