Do you ever feel lonely even when you're surrounded by people? Loneliness affects us all at times. It’s more common for some, such as those who live alone or have limited mobility, but we all face it to some extent. Loneliness can be hard to identify, and it’s often mistaken for feeling tired, sad, or simply “off.” It can also be confusing. Even if we realize we’re lonely, we may not know why, especially if we’re in a fulfilling marriage or have a lot of friends.
There are actually three dimensions of loneliness, outlined below, which all need to be filled. First, however, it’s important to recognize what we’re feeling as loneliness. Otherwise, we risk it getting worse and leading to further problems in our lives.
Unchecked loneliness leads to poor health. In fact, loneliness can shorten a life span up to 15 years. It’s been shown to have the same negative health impacts as smoking 15 cigarettes a day or being obese. It can lead to mental health conditions like depression, aggressive behavior, and social anxiety. Loneliness can also lead to physical health conditions like recurrent stroke, cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s Disease, high blood pressure, lowered immunity, and even cancer.
It can hurt our relationships, too. If we feel lonely without knowing why or how to fix it, our loved ones may feel like they aren’t enough. We ourselves might not know why our loved ones don’t seem like enough, and assume our marriages or friendships aren’t as healthy as we thought they were. We may make decisions we otherwise wouldn’t make if we better understood what we were feeling.
Three Dimensions of Loneliness
Below are the three dimensions of loneliness. If you’re lonely, consider each of these dimensions and determine which may be lacking in your life.
This dimension involves the space closest to us. People within this space are those with whom we’re most vulnerable; who know our deepest hopes and fears. These are the people we depend on for daily emotional support and for comfort and practical help during crises. They validate us as people and affirm our value.
Most commonly, these are intimate partners. They could also be best friends or close family members. If you have at least one person who you can cry with or pick up the phone at any point to vent to about a bad day, your intimate/personal space need for connection is filled. People generally have up to five people in their intimate/personal space.
Our relational space comprises our friends and family with whom we’re close, but don’t necessarily share our secrets. There are generally between 15 and 50 people in our relational space, though it’s the quality of these relationships which matters more than quantity. We should feel like the friends we hang out with, co-workers we share our days with, etc. understand us for who we are. Essentially, they shouldn’t feel “fake” or forced.
These relationships are just as important in terms of avoiding loneliness as intimate relationships. You can have a strong marriage but still feel lonely if you don’t have a core group of friends. This is especially true for middle-aged and older adults.
The outermost circle of connection, collective space, refers to people with whom we identify, regardless of distance. These could be schools, sports teams, national identity, fan groups, etc. There are usually at least 150 all the way to thousands of people in our collective social spaces.
These aren’t necessarily people we talk to, or even see on a regular basis. They’re considered anonymous and part of the public. However, we feel we share some commonalities with them. If there’s a crisis—a disaster or war, for example—or a victory, we can depend on them for low-cost support or validation. This may have evolved from humans needing to protect themselves as villages and armies from enemies.
Remember These When it Comes to Loneliness
Understanding these dimensions is important, but there are a few extra points to keep in mind before you start working on becoming more connected:
- You must have a relationship with yourself before you can have meaningful relationships with others. If you don’t know yourself—your values, priorities, and what you’re worth—you can’t know what to look for in a friend or significant other. You risk forming relationships that don’t feel real, and you may even become unhappier than you were before.
- Social media doesn’t necessarily fill any of these dimensions. In order to feel connected, you must have an already-existing relationship with the people you talk to on social media. Collecting followers, likes, and shares doesn’t fill the space caused by loneliness.
- Remember it isn’t always easy to build new relationships. Research shows that the harder one tries to put themselves out there and make friends, the more sensitive they become to social threats. This means you’re more likely to draw irrational conclusions about who does or does not like you, want to talk to you, etc. Too much of this results in loss of hope and withdrawal. That’s not to say don’t try hard, but closely monitor your thoughts and challenge them if you start to feel discouraged.
Perhaps most importantly, remember you’re not alone in feeling alone. There are many resources out there to help you meet new people, no matter which of the three dimensions you’re looking to invest in. Local meet-ups, recreation centers, gyms, churches, schools—all offer many opportunities to meet people, often while learning something or developing a new hobby. Find what interests you most and get out there!
Visit chihealth.com/behavioral to connect with a CHI Health mental health provider. We offer in-person and virtual therapy sessions with our team of licensed mental health therapists.