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Having friends and a family means you can’t feel alone, and four other myths about loneliness

Different from solitude, loneliness can strike us at any stage of life. There should be no stigma about it for we are social creatures

There is no question about how highly we value our social ties. The last few years have heightened our awareness of those connections and the importance of maintaining important relationships in our lives.

And yet, the idea of loneliness remains somewhat misunderstood. Loneliness is complicated and conflicting. It’s why we can feel incredibly lonely in a crowded room, feel lost celebrating milestones with family, and struggle to reach out when we feel so fundamentally misunderstood.

“Loneliness is something I see a lot of in my work,” says Dr Andrew Magee, a psychotherapist in south Dublin. “We know that at least 10 per cent of the population feels lonely, but that figure is likely to be much higher. We have evolved as social creatures, but our living arrangements have changed and become more isolated in the last three generations.”

While loneliness is distinctly unique to everyone and has no common cause, Dr Magee helps us debunk some of the most common assumptions that can reinforce the shame and stigma surrounding loneliness and improve our understanding of what it means to feel lonely.

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1) Myth - Having friends, a spouse and family means you can’t be lonely

“This isn’t only a myth, it’s a dangerous myth,” says Magee. “It is very common for people to be surrounded by people who love them but still feel lonely. Loneliness isn’t a result of being on one’s own. It stems from not having the kind of relationships within which you feel able to communicate one’s needs, beliefs or feelings. This myth is dangerous because it can make a person feel ungrateful or like there is something wrong with them if they are surrounded by people but still feel lonely.”

Loneliness is often caused by situational variables that are different for everyone. It can be further compounded by physical, social and economic factors. A child starting a new school may feel lonely because they have yet to make friends. Sitting in a classroom full of other students does not mean they are not lonely. The same can be said for someone who may feel lonely when a partner or close friend dies, despite having other family members surrounding them.

Our connections will fluctuate throughout our lives, meaning loneliness may occur at varying stages of our relationships. We may be looking for a deeper connection, a greater involvement and purpose within our community, or stronger social connections.

2) Myth - Loneliness and isolation are the same thing

Loneliness and isolation are often interchangeable, with a keen misunderstanding of what they mean. Associating these terms as the same thing confuses the issue leading many people to avoid reaching out. Loneliness is often described as solitude or being alone when it is actually a state of mind whereby we want to feel connected with others but ultimately feel alone.

“Loneliness and isolation are very different things,” says Magee. “While they do frequently overlap, they’re very different constructs. Isolation arises from physical or psychological separation from others, whereas loneliness is a sense that one doesn’t have the quality of relationships to communicate openly within. Isolation is not necessarily a bad thing. Many people are content keeping to themselves, without experiencing loneliness as a result.”

When we consider ourselves lonely, we feel invisible, forgotten, unwanted and as though no one truly understands us. Our emotional and mental connection with friends and family can dissipate loneliness. These connections motivate us to enjoy time by ourselves, knowing we can easily integrate back into the fold when and if we choose. But when those connections begin to break, loneliness can creep in. The same can be said for loose and superficial interactions with little to no meaningful interaction. It is not the number of acquaintances we have but rather the quality of the deep connections we maintain.

3) Myth - Loneliness does not affect our health

“Loneliness has a profound effect on a person’s physical and psychological health,” says Magee. “It has been linked to a poorer immune system, high blood pressure, heart disease and a greater risk of dementia.”

Loneliness is not only upsetting, but it has serious implications for our health. Likened to smoking 15 cigarettes a day, loneliness can reduce life expectancy by 26 per cent. Loneliness is also linked to depression, and the resulting implications can include poor appetite, sleep disturbances and a lack of physical activity, greatly impacting a person’s physical health.

While loneliness can have a distinctive impact on our health, it can also be considered our brain’s way of warning us that we are not getting the positive interactions and connections we need. Loneliness can be a message to check in with ourselves and prioritise those social connections that can help us thrive.

4) Myth – Loneliness is an older person’s problem

This damaging myth perpetuates two falsehoods, first, the idea that loneliness is inevitable as we get older, and second, that we are unlikely to feel lonely at other stages of our lives. Despite the advances in technology keeping us all connected, loneliness is a matter of human nature. Technology can easily keep us connected in a somewhat artificial and superficial form. There is more to connection than simply plugging in. Strong relationships are based on familiarity, respect, understanding and compassion. Losing connection can happen at any age and stage of life.

5) Myth – Loneliness doesn’t matter

Perhaps the worst myth about loneliness is that it’s not a big deal and doesn’t matter. There continues to be a shame and stigma surrounding loneliness despite it having a significant impact on our mental wellbeing and our physical health. Feeling disconnected from those around us should not be ignored, but many of us will try to deny those feelings and carry on, thereby invalidating our experiences. We all deserve to live a meaningful and connected life, and for this reason, loneliness most certainly matters.

Myths Series

Geraldine Walsh

Geraldine Walsh

Geraldine Walsh, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about health and family