loneliness title photo: man sitting on rock looking at misty water

Let’s talk about loneliness: the three dimensions, why you should see your friends in person, and more

Loneliness should be at the forefront of health and self-care conversations. This is because:

Loneliness is everywhere. According to a 2018 study, 43% of Americans sometimes or always feel that they are isolated from others, and 1 in 4 Americans feel like they can rarely or never find companionship when they want it (source).

Loneliness is unhealthy. Loneliness corresponds to a 26% increased likelihood of mortality (source), the same impact as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. In terms of mortality, it’s more dangerous than obesity. In addition, adults with a mental health condition (1 in 6 adults in the U.S.) consistently also suffer from loneliness (source).

Social interaction is a basic human need, just like eating or sleeping. While individual people may need different amounts of social interaction (for example, an introvert may need less than an extrovert), the fact remains: we are all hardwired to be social.

Let’s start with a quick refresher on loneliness before diving into the three dimensions, why you should see your friends in person, and more.

What is loneliness? It’s not the same as being alone

Loneliness is a feeling of being alone, but it’s not the same as being physically alone. And being physically alone is not the same thing as feeling lonely. For example:

  • One might feel lonely while physically alone
  • One might feel engaged in a solitary hobby while physically alone
  • One might feel lonely in the presence of others
  • One might feel engaged with others around them

I imagine most of us are familiar with the “lonely in a crowded room” situation, but I think the “engaged in a solitary hobby and not lonely” situation is a less well-known one. We often think that physical aloneness corresponds to loneliness, but that’s not always the case. Instead, comfort with solitude can make physical aloneness not feel lonely. 

When we look at loneliness this way, we see two ways to reduce it. One is the classic way of decreasing physical aloneness by calling a friend or dropping by their house. The other is increasing comfort with solitude by picking up meditation or working on a hobby.

But that doesn’t tell us all we need to know about loneliness. Next up, we’ll learn about its three dimensions.

The three dimensions of loneliness

Research shows that there are three dimensions of loneliness: intimate, social, and affiliate.

Intimate relationships are relationships we have with close confidants like significant others or best friends. Social relationships are those with regular friends outside of our intimate relationships. And affiliate relationships are what we have when we belong to a community, such as an interest group, church, or sports team.

We need relationships along each dimension to ward off loneliness, which is why a person with a perfect best friend but no community, or someone with lots of friends but no close confidants, might still feel lonely.

Loneliness in younger generations: are we missing community?

When I first read about the three dimensions of loneliness in Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World, the community belonging dimension really hit me. I looked around and noticed that I and lots of people around me – including coworkers, neighbors, and friends from college – don’t really belong to communities. I grew up belonging to a few communities but somehow had moved on in life without preserving them or finding new ones. I suddenly realized a big hole in my life.

One of the communities I grew up with but no longer participate in is a religious community. This appears to be a generational pattern: as many as 9 in 10 Americans identified with a religion up to 1990, but in 2016, only two-thirds of young adults (age 18-24) did. Older generations are also more likely to regularly attend religious services than younger generations (source). The pros and cons of religion aside, there’s no question that religion is a source for community for many people, and with the decline of religion, there is also a decline in a source for community.

Is participation in other such communities declining as well? Maybe. That’s what I think I see around me, but I need to see some more data to be sure. What we do know, though, is that younger generations are lonelier than older generations (source). Is it because younger people are lacking intimate relationships, social relationships, affiliate/community relationships, or perhaps some of each?

Hey, wait! Aren’t younger people the most connected of all due to technology? Shouldn’t they have all of these relationships, and shouldn’t they be more convenient, with social media, instant communication, and more?

The impact of in-person interactions on loneliness

As it turns out, people who have daily in-person interactions are the least lonely, while people who have the least in-person interactions are the most lonely (source). In addition, in-person social interaction is linked to more happiness in teens, while texting and social networking websites are linked to more unhappiness (source).

This means that greater reliance on virtual communication, especially among younger generations, does not seem to make us happier or less lonely.

But do in-person interactions cause decreased loneliness, or does decreased loneliness cause increased in-person interactions? While I haven’t seen a study specific to loneliness, studies have shown that increased social media use causes unhappiness (source), not the other way around. Since loneliness is an unhappy feeling, I think it’s fair to conjecture that increased social media use can cause loneliness.

TL;DR? See people in person when you can. Instead of texting your friends, go get a coffee together. Or play tennis together. Or go to the grocery store together. Or swing by their house with some cookies.

What you can do about loneliness, and further reading

In summary, loneliness is super prevalent, partially because it’s not widely recognized as a basic human need. There are three dimensions to satisfy to ward off loneliness: intimate or close confidants, social, and affiliate/communal. In-person interactions, when they’re possible, are much better for health and happiness than virtual ones.

Given all of the above, you probably already have a bunch of ideas about what you can do about loneliness, but just in case it’s helpful, here are a few more:

  1. Loneliness is a basic human need, so treat it like one! If you’re thirsty, you get a drink of water. If you’re feeling lonely, do something about it! Also recognize that when a friend wants to talk to you, they may not have anything to say but may be feeling the need for companionship.
  2. Have a hobby. This helps in two ways: it can reduce the amount that you feel alone while you’re working on your hobby because you become more comfortable with solitude. And, it can be a way to connect to a community of people with similar hobbies.
  3. Join or start a community, ideally one that has a regular in-person component. This can take many forms: befriending your neighbors, volunteering somewhere regularly, taking an art class, or going on group bike rides organized by a bike shop. If you don’t know where to start, just start somewhere
  4. See your friends in person. And, when you do, be fully present; put your phone away and enjoy every moment. And don’t feel pressured to come up with a perfect activity to do together, a simple walk in the park is just fine!

Further reading:

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