In the summer of 2017, I got lonely without knowing it.
I remember feeling uneasy at the time. Anxious, restless, constantly craving distractions. But loneliness? I didn’t even consider it.
A few weeks earlier, I had moved away from home and into a one-bedroom apartment. It was my first time living all alone. And I’d wanted it this way. Moving there, I hadn’t just craved a fresh start but had also yearned to be far, far away from my old life — friends, family, familiarity. And so, at the time, I simply denied the possibility of loneliness. It wasn’t even on my radar.
And yet, loneliness snuck up on me — gradually, sneakily.
Throughout my days, I woke up groggy, gulped down instant coffee, and rushed to my job as an engineering trainee. I worked with many people my age. And yet, as much as I craved connection, I didn’t really click with anyone. One of the worst moments was walking into the cafeteria, shyly carrying my lunch tray, and not seeing anyone I could imagine having lunch with. Or, other times, it was feeling left out by the people I wanted to have lunch with.
In the afternoons, I returned home, not knowing what to do with myself. I drank beer, played video games, watched TV, and bought useless stuff on the Internet. My fridge was usually empty. I didn’t eat regularly — but when I did, I devoured microwaved food until my stomach hurt. I just didn’t know any better. It was the first time in my life with a proper job and away from my parents, so I simply assumed: Well, this is what it’s like to be an adult.
It would take years to grasp the immense health risks I underwent by being lonely without knowing it. Studies have consistently shown that chronic loneliness is linked to increased stress, depression, inflammation, and sleep disruptions. It can also lead to heart disease, dementia, and even premature mortality.
Undoubtedly, we must find ways to know if we’re lonely.
The question is, how?
The easiest way to know you’re lonely
The easiest way to know you’re lonely is that you feel lonely.
This may sound tautological — but it’s crucial to understand. Loneliness is a subjective feeling. Now, this doesn’t mean that when you don’t feel lonely, you’re protected from loneliness — as we’ve seen, it’s possible to get lonely without knowing. Rather, it means that when you do feel lonely, you are quite certainly lonely.
To feel lonely is to be lonely.
Loneliness differs from being alone — the objective state of having no company — because we can feel lonely in any imaginable situation. In other words, loneliness describes how we feel about our social connections on the inside rather than what they look like from the outside.
I remember many times when I was surrounded by a whirlwind of friends, family, or peers. I remember student parties, Christmas dinners, university lectures, cafeterias. And yet, because I didn’t feel connected to these people, myself, or my surroundings at the time, I felt deeply lonely. As if I was walled in by a thorny barrier of seclusion. Conversely, I experienced countless blissful moments in solitude — sipping filter coffee in a cafe in Malmö, hiking through the Bavarian Alps, writing these lines.
In one way, this is great news because it means we’re not so much at the mercy of our external environment. But in another, it makes the whole shebang a lot more tricky. If loneliness can erupt in any situation, and if it can feel like anything, what are the markers of loneliness?
What it means to feel lonely
The next step in deciphering our loneliness seems to be obvious: Just look at the symptoms. And yet, the symptoms are myriad. Loneliness often feels like social hunger, coldness, emptiness, and pain. Sometimes, all of these at once. When we’re lonely, we might also feel more restless and alert (especially in social settings) and lose self-control. As a result, we might tend to binge TV shows, wolf down fast food, buy stuff we don’t need, and pursue unwise sexual encounters.
In the summer of 2017, many of these symptoms were present. The restlessness. The social hunger. The unhinged binges of entertainment, food, and online shopping. But looking back, there are so many other instances of feeling lonely (without knowing it at the time) where my behavior was completely different. Even today, having researched and experienced loneliness for years, I find it hard to pinpoint loneliness.
I’m no exception. Many people, including loneliness experts, have also struggled with identifying their feelings of loneliness. For instance, here’s how Dr. Vivek Murthy, the US Surgeon General and author of Together, says it in an interview with The Atlantic:
“I think I was lonely at many points in my life without really knowing it. As a child, I certainly didn’t quite know how to think about it … But as adult … I don’t think I really fully understood that at times — like the moments where I felt withdrawn or my mood felt off, almost like I was depressed, or when I was just feeling unsettled and unhappy that what I was craving was human connection.”
In other words, loneliness is a masquerader.
Unlike other survival mechanisms — hunger, thirst, or physical pain — loneliness doesn’t manifest in clear-cut ways and surefire signs. Instead, it reveals itself in infinitely varying, surprising costumes. For me, it’s often a slowly tightening loop of withdrawal, shriveling self-worth, bottling up emotions, and feeling meaningless. For others, though, it might be aggressive socializing, irrational anger, or wearing a mask of happiness.
Could there be a more universal trademark of loneliness?
A formula to evaluate loneliness
If we look at some of the most acknowledged definitions of loneliness, we’ll inevitably stumble upon something like this:
“[loneliness is a] distressing experience that occurs when a person’s social relationships are perceived by that person to be less in quantity, and especially in quality, than desired.”
I’ve always found this definition a bit bulky, so I tried to simplify it as much as possible. The result was what I came to call the loneliness formula. Not only can this formula put our feelings of loneliness into words, but it can also help us find out how strongly we’re experiencing it. It goes like this:
Loneliness = desired connections − perceived connections
Loneliness, then, is the gap between desired and perceived connections. The higher our desire — our expectations — to change our social connections, the lonelier we’ll feel. The lower our perception — our experience — of feeling connected, the lonelier we’ll feel.
So, instead of asking, “Do I feel lonely?” a more accurate way of asking might be, “Am I perceiving fewer connections than I actually need right now?” While I wouldn’t affirm the first question in my loneliest times, I would almost always answer the second one with a conceding Yes.
And yet, even the loneliness formula and its accompanying questions won’t always work. The issue goes deeper. Loneliness can trick us into believing we’re the happiest person alive.
The iceberg of loneliness
In his book Loneliness, the renowned loneliness researcher Prof. John Cacioppo tells the story of a man named Mr. Diamantides — an older man from Chicago, who’s well-dressed, canny, cheerful.
If you asked this kind gentleman how he was doing, he would reply with a warm “wonderful!” — and then quickly turn the spotlight on you. “How are you?” Mr. Diamantides makes people feel special, appreciated, loved. That’s his thing. He also describes himself as “lucky” and “blessed,” since he has suffered no childhood traumas, is weaved into a supportive family network, and enjoys spending time alone.
Sounds like the least lonely person on planet Earth, right?
Cacioppo and his team ran some tests. They gave Mr. Diamantides psychological questionnaires and measured his sleep quality, stress levels, blood pressure, and other physiological factors. The result was shocking to all parties involved. As Cacioppo puts it in Loneliness:
“What the psychological test showed, and what the physiological data confirmed, was that Mr. Diamantides had one of the highest loneliness scores of all the people we had ever studied.”
Why is that? How can it be that we get deeply lonely without even realizing it? Here are some of the factors that keep us from realizing the true extent of our loneliness:
- Loneliness is deeply stigmatized. The lonely stereotype is a sad, mad, and bad loser sitting in their room all day with no friends. Admitting to loneliness, we tend to reason, would automatically turn us into this “loser.” And sure, this retreat can be one characteristic of loneliness. But the reality is multi-faceted: we can feel lonely in marriages, friend groups, communities. Loneliness isn’t picky. It doesn’t have preferences.
- We have learned to be lonely. For millennia of human evolution, not being lonely was the default mode of our existence. We lived in tightly-knit tribes, hunted and gathered in teams, and cooperated to fend off wild predators. Our survival relied on relationships. In an increasingly alienated, modern world, however, loneliness might have replaced connection and community as the default mode. Especially since the COVID-19 pandemic, we simply got used to living in isolation. “Instead of coming together,” Arthur Brooks writes in The Atlantic, “emerging evidence suggests that we are in the midst of a long-term crisis of habitual loneliness, in which relationships were severed and never reestablished.”
- We forgot about the value of human connection. When you think of successful people, who comes to mind? When evaluating your life goals, what do you want? My first intuition — and I know this may sound shallow and embarrassing — is to be rich and famous. After all, these are the maxims I’ve always seen on TV and billboards. But clearly, many people who’ve attained traditional success metrics still feel deeply miserable. We rarely preach what studies have identified as the real cause for a healthy, happy life: meaningful relationships.
What the story of Mr. Diamantides, Dr. Vivek Murthy, and my personal life all show is that the heaviest mass of loneliness hides from plain sight. In this sense, loneliness is like an iceberg. Above water, we only see a shallow manifestation of loneliness. It’s tricky to spot. Meanwhile, the real danger — the massive, bulky burden — hides underneath.
If you can spot the tip of the loneliness iceberg early enough, that’s great news. You can steer around it, take countermeasures.
But the biggest mistake we can make is to pretend we’re an emotional fleet of icebreakers, blindly crashing into floes. Because the reality is, we’re more like the Titanic. If we don’t notice the iceberg of loneliness early enough and don’t take countermeasures, we’ll end up as a wreck. The wear and tear of chronic loneliness will take its toll on the body and mind.
What’s there left to do to find out we’re lonely? Sure, we could try to measure the physiological factors of loneliness: stress levels, sleep quality, blood pressure, etc. But for most of us, that’s a little too laborious and inaccessible. So, here’s a comparably solid method we can easily do on our own.
A test to find out how lonely you feel
Once researchers noticed that loneliness is immensely tricky to spot, they devised psychological questionnaires to ask people about their loneliness. One of the most established outcomes is the UCLA loneliness scale. It’s the test you’ll see in most modern studies on loneliness. It’s also the test Mr. Diamantides took to evaluate his unsuspectingly high levels of loneliness.
If you want to take the test for yourself, just answer the questions below, using a four-point scale for each question (1 = never; 2 = rarely; 3 = sometimes; 4 = always). Once you’ve written down your answers, you can evaluate them with this footnote.¹
1. How often do you feel that you are “in tune” with the people around you?
2. How often do you feel that you lack companionship?
3. How often do you feel that there is no one you can turn to?
4. How often do you feel alone?
5. How often do you feel part of a group of friends?
6. How often do you feel that you have a lot in common with the people around you?
7. How often do you feel that you are no longer close to anyone?
8. How often do you feel that your interests and ideas are not shared by those around you?
9. How often do you feel outgoing and friendly?
10. How often do you feel close to people?
11. How often do you feel left out?
12. How often do you feel that your relationships with others are not meaningful?
13.How often do you feel that no one really knows you well?
14. How often do you feel isolated from others?
15. How often do you feel that you can find companionship when you want it?
16. How often do you feel that there are people who really understand you?
17. How often do you feel shy?
18. How often do you feel that people are around you but not with you?
19. How often do you feel that there are people you can talk to?
20. How often do you feel that there are people you can turn to?
When I first took this test two years ago, I was dumbfounded at the result. I scored high levels of loneliness. At the time, I had already started exploring my loneliness. I knew I was feeling lonely. I was aware of the risks. But the thing that absolutely thunderstruck me was the actual depth of my inner iceberg, was just how lonely I actually felt.
And so, I panicked.
If I underestimated my loneliness despite researching it, I ruminated, I must’ve felt even lonelier when I didn’t have all this knowledge. For how long have I felt lonely? How bad is it? Has my loneliness turned chronic?
Of course, these concerns were valid. But it’s important to remember that feeling lonely, to some extent, is a perfectly normal part of the human experience. As hyper-social creatures, we’ve evolved to be hard-wired for finding and keeping relationships. It’s not surprising then that we’re also highly sensitive to the absence of meaningful connection.
Occasionally feeling lonely may even be beneficial as it reminds us of the importance of social relationships — and what happens when we neglect them. The real problem arises when we don’t notice that loneliness remains at high levels for several months or even years. Because again, that’s when loneliness turns into a chronic state, transforming our mind into a self-preservation machine that overprotects itself from social bonds, thus worsening our loneliness.
We’ll further and further isolate ourselves without ever realizing why.
A boring antidote to loneliness
Last month, I got lonely without knowing it.
My body felt like an empty shell, and my mind became totally isolated from myself, others, and the world. It felt like I was watching the movie of my life on TV — I became a powerless observer from the outside.
But you know what’s funny? Once I understood what was happening to me, once I understood I had gotten lost in the arctic sea of loneliness, I started feeling better. Oh, loneliness, I thought, of course! This realization alone helped me stop feeding into further isolation. It helped me verbalize it, stop overly identifying with it, and start taking steps toward reconnection.
If loneliness is an iceberg, one of the most powerful antidotes must be to recognize the full depth and extent of that iceberg. If I had to narrow it down to one word, it would be awareness. I know it sounds overly simple and boring, and — believe me — I hate simple and boring solutions. But just by getting to know loneliness, by scanning the iceberg as if with radar, to see the invisible parts, the sneaky experience of feeling lonely is robbed of its mass and loses its power.
The Titanic would’ve never sunk if it had been equipped with the proper vigilance and radar tools. And so, knowing what loneliness feels like, working with the loneliness formula, and taking the loneliness scale — these tools are powerful antidotes to avoid blindly crashing into icebergs of loneliness.
They’re navigators that can guide us to the safe waters of connection.
¹ Take your scores from questions 1, 5, 6, 9, 10, 15, 16, 19, 20 and reverse them so that a four turns into a one, a three into a two, a two into a three, and a one into a four. Finally, add these new numbers up. Then, evaluate the sum as follows. High loneliness: 44 or higher. Low loneliness: 28 or lower. A result of 33 to 39 implies moderate levels of loneliness.