The loneliness paradox

In her early 30s, Julia Bainbridge, a magazine food editor, often dined out with colleagues and threw parties. She enjoyed cooking for her guests, introducing them to one another, and getting to know interesting people. From an outsider’s perspective, she looked anything but lonely.

Yet, she was. Around the same time, she also started noticing all the ways technology was distancing people from one another and the fact that more people were freelancing or otherwise working alone. All of this together compelled Bainbridge to create The Lonely Hour, a podcast that explores how universal this emotion is.

“Loneliness is a self perception that can exist even if you’re surrounded by people,” explains Jacqueline Olds, MD, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “It’s a discrepancy between someone’s desired levels of connection and their actual levels of connection.”

No matter how wide your social network, only strong, satisfying relationships can bridge that gap. Bainbridge had a robust social life, but it wasn't giving her the interactions she was looking for. “I was a single woman living in New York, looking for partnership, and not finding it,” she says.

She isn’t the only young person feeling this strain. Research suggests that more than one-third of adults in the US feel lonely, and that it’s twice as prevalent in adults between 21 and 30 than it is for those in middle age. It’s also more detrimental to them, possibly because older people expect to be lonely while young adults don’t, says Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Ph.D., a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University.

Loneliness is not just a fleeting feeling: Research shows that people with strong social relationships have a 50 percent higher chance of survival compared to lonely people, making loneliness just as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes per day. It also causes physiological issues like tissue inflammation, weakened immune response, high blood pressure, and worse neuronal functioning, says Timothy Smith, Ph.D., a professor of counseling at Brigham Young University.

“We have to recognize that loneliness is a problem,” Holt-Lunstad says. Building strong, long-lasting bonds (rather than fleeting friendships) is just as important as staying physically active and eating healthy, she says.

The good news: Loneliness isn’t a permanent state of being. Below, three ways to combat it in a world full of people.

Become part of a tribe.

Finding groups of people with similar interests as you (like running clubs or recreational sports teams) is a great way to build community, says Matt Berenc, the director of education at the Equinox Fitness Training Institute. “Commitment is key,” he says “In order to be part of the tribe, people need to know you’re committed and that their investment in you as a potential friend won’t be wasted.” Make the effort to consistently run with the club or play with the team.

Think of friendships as fuel.

Quality relationships are just as important as quality fuel when it comes to your health, Holt-Lunstad says. You wouldn’t fill your body with empty calories that fail to energize you, so don’t invest time in empty interactions. Regularly take stock of your social network and focus your efforts on the people who deserve your time.

Make the first move.

Berenc notes that gym-goers are creatures of habit who work out at the same time every day: “Our clubs are full of people who likely feel alone at times and would love to have someone to connect with.” Look around, notice who is always there when you are, and start a conversation. “You can build a community with as little as one other person,” he says.