The first time I remember feeling lonely — really lonely — was when I moved out from home.
I was 18 and felt like the whole world was at my feet. My grand vision was to become an engineer, earn lots of money, and travel the world. And while two of these things happened (not the money), I was lacking the most important element in life:
Deep, meaningful connections.
As I became an adult and explored the deepest caverns of loneliness, I realized I knew nothing about this condition. So I devoured books, podcasts, and articles — I got my hands on everything that would help me understand the terror of isolation. And I started bringing up the topic in conversations.
At this point, I had two shocking revelations:
- Talking about loneliness is an enormous relief for everyone. I could sense an invisible weight being lifted off people’s shoulders whenever I shared my experiences of loneliness. As it turns out, it’s an inherent human condition. Everyone has experienced it.
- 95% of people are tapping in the dark when feeling lonely. So many of us lack the most basic tools and knowledge — including me: I’m only scratching on the surface of understanding loneliness.
In other words, loneliness is a common enemy we all have to fight in our lives. No amount of money or Instagram followers protects us from it. And yet we’ve never learned how to cope with it. As far as I can remember, loneliness wasn’t ever a topic of discussion in my life — not in pop culture, not in school, and definitely not in college.
This is cockeyed optimism in a nutshell. We might as well embark on a space mission without ever having read about the most basic laws of physics.
So, here’s the first of many attempts to set the record straight. These are three fundamental things most people get wrong about loneliness. Because understanding loneliness is the first step in fighting it.
Misconception #1: Feeling Lonely Means You’re Doing Something Wrong
It’s scary to admit loneliness in our society. Even shameful. It’s like taping a big sign on your forehead stating, “There’s something wrong with me.”
This is because we naively assume that lonely people are weirdos. That they aren’t worth our company. That they aren’t interesting enough to “deserve” connections. But that’s not true. In fact, studies have shown that lonely people have superior social skills to non-lonely people.
Or consider this: In the US, 61% of the population feels lonely. This number was raised before the pandemic. That’s nuts. More than half of the people you know feel lonely. But it’s also soothing. When you feel lonely, you’re — ironically — in great company.
Besides, loneliness is a healthy indication you’re a human being. It’s a signal. Just like hunger nudges you to stock up on food, loneliness encourages you to reconnect with your peers. I’ve never seen someone stigmatize feeling hungry. Why would we feel so ashamed to be lonely?
Because here’s the thing: We won’t always have perfectly filled tummies. And likewise, we won’t always have the social connections we need at this point in time. That’s life. We can’t feel satisfied all the time.
So, don’t let the stigmas of loneliness drive you into shame, despair, or unhappiness. Feeling lonely prepares you to feel connected once again.
Misconception #2: Lonely People Don’t Have Friends
And so, we tell ourselves that lonely people must be miserable, anti-social, and unpopular. But making this assumption is like describing an iceberg by showing a close-up shot of its tip.
The best definition I’ve found to describe loneliness comes from Swedish researcher Lars Andersson:
“[Loneliness is an enduring condition of emotional distress that arises when a person feels estranged from, misunderstood, or rejected by others and/or lacks appropriate social partners for desired activities, particularly activities that provide a sense of social integration and opportunities for emotional intimacy.”
In short: Loneliness is the gap between desired and perceived social connections. That’s why I felt so lonely during my engineering degree. I found a lot of friends — good friends I still talk to until this day. But I didn’t feel like I belonged. I didn’t feel integrated. I didn’t feel connected.
And this tells us something else…
Misconception #3: Loneliness Equals Aloneness
I think about these lines from Mac Miller’s song Surf often when it comes to loneliness:
Sometimes I get lonely
Not when I’m alone
But it’s more when I’m standin’ in the crowds
That I’m feeling the most on my own
Many people assume we only get lonely when we’re alone. But if that was true, we wouldn’t be confronted with a loneliness epidemic.
It’s funny when you think about it. Never in the history of humanity we’ve been so connected. As of January 2021, 4.66 billion people had access to the internet. We live in ever-growing, hyper-dense cities. You can choose to spend your entire day around people.
The result? Being alone is a concern of the past.
So what’s the problem here? Why did Mac feel lonely in crowds? Why did I feel lonely among friends? Andersson’s definition can help us understand.
Loneliness is the feeling of lacking connection. Two people could be in a room with five friends, and one person would have the time of their life while the other feels depressingly lonely. It’s the quality — not the quantity — of relationships that matters.
Being alone, on the other hand, isn’t a feeling; it’s measurable. And you can easily evoke it. Lock yourself in the bathroom, and you’re alone. Run away from your friends, and you’re alone. Drive far into the desert, and you’re as alone as you’ve ever been.
As a result, you can be happy when you’re alone and feel miserable in the company of others. Both are plausible scenarios.
It’s the choice to be alone that leaves us at peace in our own company.
A Way Out
In the Art of War, Sun Tzu gives a timeless piece of advice that applies to many areas in life — and particularly to loneliness:
“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.
If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat.
If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”
This is why so many people, myself included, still struggle with loneliness. We say things like, “I know myself in and out.” But that’s as useful as a dull knife in the battle with loneliness. We need to know — and understand — our enemy.
It’s only then that we can identify the symptoms. We can stop panicking — and instead observe our reaction. We can be at peace with ourselves.
Loneliness is nothing but an old companion that will revisit us over and over as we go through life. We might as well make friends with it.