Loneliness: how can we overcome it?

By Cara Waudby Tolley | May 5, 2022

Jenny Rowe explores how we can overcome loneliness by nurturing the connections we already have.

A lone man sits on a bench
Loneliness can really impact our mental health

Loneliness can roam through our homes with more audacity than ever these days. It sits with us, on the empty chair, while we drink our first cup of tea of the day. And, though the sun may warm our faces, we watch its shadow lengthen as the day ends in the same company as it began: our own. So how do we take control and show loneliness the door for good?

Even before the pandemic led many of us to leave the office behind for home working, loneliness had found its way in. In January 2020, a study in the US found that loneliness was up seven per cent on the previous year, affecting 79 per cent of Gen Z’ers, 71 per cent of millennials and 50 per cent of baby boomers.

This is problematic physically, because scientists have shown the repercussions of chronic loneliness to be comparable to that of smoking or obesity, and mentally, because psychologists have long understood that human connection is essential to achieving self-fulfilment in life.

Why loneliness is bad for our health

In 1943, Abraham Maslow first proposed his ‘hierarchy of human needs’, with food, water, warmth and rest providing a foundation for our psychological needs, namely belonging and love. It is only when these secondary needs are met through genuine, intimate relationships and friendships that we can reach the next level of the pyramid: self-esteem and accomplishment, which finally leads to self-actualisation.

Connection is integral to a happy life, but even when we have it at our fingertips – on Facebook, Instagram, FaceTime, Zoom and Skype – we still experience the dark pull of loneliness, which is particularly strong when we find ourselves physically alone for long periods of time.

As American-German philosopher Paul Tillich said in 1956: ‘Our language has wisely sensed the two sides of being alone. It has created the word loneliness to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word solitude to express the glory of being alone.’

Loneliness: a modern concept

A child looks out of a window
Modern life often sees us spending more time at home, which can lead to loneliness

Interestingly, once upon a time this sentiment would have been inexpressible. The word ‘loneliness’ only came into common usage in about 1800. William Wordsworth, who famously penned the poem I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud (1804), may have been one of its most famous early adopters.

A new century, it seems, had brought with it a new word, perhaps as a result of burgeoning competition and alienation in an increasingly modern world. Solitude and loneliness became two sides of the same coin, but though the line had been drawn, it was a fine one, distinguished by emotion rather than fact.

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Indeed it is often the case that loneliness and solitude are emotional rather than rational states, and so they are transient. When Wordsworth said he wandered lonely as a cloud, I imagine that cloud soon moved into different skies.

This is to say that feeling lonely is fleeting, and to overcome it you don’t need to socialise and make new friends.

Meaningful connections

This is where Dunbar’s ‘magic number’ comes in. An anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist, Professor Robin Dunbar studied societies scattered through time and space and concluded that one individual can only sustain about 150 meaningful relationships at any one time.

His research informs how institutions operate around the world. Copenhagen International School in Denmark built its entire site based on this cognitive limit, using buildings to encourage communities of 150 or less.

But Dunbar’s number crunching did not stop there. According to his theory, our tightest circle of relationships can only fit about five people – loved ones. That’s followed by successive layers of about 15 (good friends), 50 (friends), 150 (meaningful contacts), 500 (acquaintances) and 1,500 people you can recognise.

Of course, in reality each number represents a range and people can migrate between boundaries, but the idea is that any new entrants depose older ones to make room.

If you’ve ever culled your Facebook friends or Instagram following list, you’ll have experience of this, though it more often will happen organically, as you move through jobs and life events, and those around you, such as friends and connections, do the same.

The key with Dunbar’s number, though, is to recognise the faces behind the numbers. Fulfilling our psychological need for belonging is ultimately about quality, not quantity.

Your tightest circle is your most important to you, and you shouldn’t feel pressure to maintain the same level of intimacy that you enjoy with them with too many others. Interactions with one of your 500 acquaintances can be heart-warming, but they can also be disappointing, and that’s normal.

Embracing solitude

An illustrated woman embraces another
Time alone is sometimes beneficial for processing our thoughts and emotions

In Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love, the protagonist says determinedly: “When I get lonely these days, I think: So be lonely, Liz. Learn your way around loneliness. Make a map of it. Sit with it, for once in your life. Welcome to the human experience.”

It’s good advice. When you next feel lonely, try drawing a map of your social network as a series of concentric circles, extending away from you at its centre. Fill them in with friendly names and faces according to Dunbar’s theory and create a literal representation of who you already have around you, who know, care for and love you. Perhaps then you’ll pass through the pain into ‘glorious’ solitude.

As the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer once said: “He [or she] who does not enjoy solitude, will not enjoy freedom.” Cultivating our connections – tending to new buds and pruning the old – is about building the foundation from which we will flourish.

Discover more

This article first appeared in issue 12 of Planet Mindful magazine. Discover more ways to look after your mental health.