Loneliness is a complex, confusing, and diverse sensation. Chances are, we’ll never be able to express it fully.
But we can try.
In fact, we should try because most people still have misconceptions about loneliness. We’ve all experienced this painful feeling but often struggle to put it into words. What’s worse, loneliness has become stigmatized in today’s society. To feel lonely means to feel ashamed.
And yet, there’s hope.
After countless hours of research, numerous experiences, and deep conversations about loneliness, I’m confident that loneliness is easy to understand. (Which will help us overcome it!) Once you slash through the jungle of scientific jargon and emotionally-charged biases, loneliness boils down to very basic elements.
The “loneliness formula” proves that. Here it is:
Loneliness = desired connections − perceived connections
Now, before we get into the nuts and bolts: I’m not claiming this is the ultimate encapsulation of loneliness. Rather it’s an attempt to understand — and communicate — why we feel lonely, to what extent we feel lonely, and what we can do about it.
I desperately wish I’d known this formula during all the bitter times I experienced loneliness.
Let’s dive deep.
The 2 Critical Causes of Loneliness
A significant source of inspiration for this formula comes from the best definition of loneliness I’ve ever found. The psychological scientist Karen S. Rook first mentions it in a 1984 study. Ever since, it has become one of the most acknowledged definitions of loneliness.
Here’s what it says:
“Loneliness is an enduring condition of emotional distress that arises when a person feels estranged from, misunderstood, or rejected by others…”
Now, the first fascinating feature here is that loneliness is a feeling. Put differently — how and when the emotion arises differs from person to person. The factual number of your friends also doesn’t matter — if you don’t feel connected to them, loneliness will hit.
Rook continues to explain that loneliness also occurs when:
“… [a person] lacks appropriate social partners for desired activities, particularly activities that provide a sense of social integration and opportunities for emotional intimacy.”
Desire is the central player here. It’s not necessarily the lonely experience itself that’s so painful. Rather it’s the itch that your relationships aren’t as fulfilling as they could be.
To sum up, these are the two leading causes of loneliness:
- High levels of desired connection. The more you expect from your relationships, the more disappointed you’ll be if people don’t meet those standards. And thus, you’re more likely to feel lonely.
- Low levels of perceived connection. Not feeling a link between you and the people and the world around you is, by definition, disconnection. Which is a synonym for loneliness.
And so, the ultimate case of loneliness emerges when we desperately crave more meaningful social bonds, while our relationships don’t actually provide those feelings of love, friendship, or community. Put simply:
High hopes + low payoffs = severe loneliness.
Conversely, the best-case scenario is feeling satisfied with your current relationships AND not wishing them to be different. In this case, the loneliness formula spits out “negative loneliness.” That’s what we call connection.
How to Work with the Loneliness Formula
To give you a better grip on this formula, I’m willing to play the guinea pig and endure a bit of self-humiliation. Here’s a brief description of arguably the loneliest period of my life.
A small case study of loneliness
I’d just returned from studying abroad for four months. During that challenging yet beautiful time, my sense of connection was as strong as never before in my life. My roommate had become my closest friend — we could confide everything to each other. I also had several social circles with varying interests, origins, and closeness. The whole network of exchange students felt like one close-knit tribe.
But then, suddenly, I was back home. The closest people in my life were now far, far away. And I’d practically become a different person.
It’s not that I didn’t have friends at home — they even threw me a welcome-back party (no one had ever done that for me). But the real problem was that I wasn’t experiencing the friendship I needed. I missed the people who knew the new person I’d become. Video calls and chat messages couldn’t fill the void.
On top of it all, my grandfather passed away.
Eventually, I struggled to get out of bed. I felt like I was emotionally starving, but nothing could still my hunger. I had a hard time asking for help.
In a nutshell, I felt terribly lonely.
Applying the loneliness formula
To work with the formula, let’s assume a scale from 0–10 (whereas “0” means very low levels of loneliness, desired connections, or perceived connections).
Let’s look at the values of this scenario:
- Desired connection = 9/10. Usually, I can spend lots of time alone — happily. But in this case, I was still used to being surrounded by people who “get” me and reciprocate my love. And so, when we suddenly had to split, my desire for connection was still immensely strong. I also needed emotional support to grieve but couldn’t find it. I had forgotten how to be alone.
- Perceived connection = 2/10. I still had people around me and knew they cared about me. I also kept in touch with my friends abroad. But it just wasn’t the same. Digital connection sapped away the meaning of our conversations. I couldn’t communicate my inner world. As a result, I felt disconnected like a cut wire.
In the formula, this results in:
9 (desired connection) − 2 (perceived connection) = 7 (loneliness)
Sure, this formula is just a rule of thumb. But it can still give a reasonable estimate of loneliness. Now, 7 points of loneliness are pretty extreme, considering that the maximum level is 10 and the minimum −10. But it’s also important to realize that loneliness comes and goes. And that’s okay.
My loneliness maintained such high levels for two painful months. But eventually, the pandemic hit, and I moved in with my parents. While I spent less time with fewer people, I was able to process my thoughts and emotions. I could reconnect with myself. My perceived connection increased, and my desired connection dropped significantly.
And so, the real power of this formula is that it helps you monitor your levels of connection. If your loneliness remains at staggering heights for several months with no change in sight, seeking help is indispensable.
Severe loneliness can, if sustained over long periods of time, become chronic. That’s when your body goes into full survival mode. You’ll enter “hyper-vigilance,” a state of always feeling defensive and on guard. The result? Higher risk of heart disease. Insufficient sleep. Highly impaired self-control.
Chronic loneliness is among the most unhealthy things humans can experience.
But enough theory — let’s focus on practical ways to use this formula to better deal with loneliness.
How to Overcome Loneliness Using this Formula
What I love about this formula is that you can actively influence — and observe — how your actions change your feelings of loneliness. This can happen in three ways:
- Lower your desired level of connection.
- Increase your perceived level of connection.
- Understand how the two interact.
If you do either of these things (or ideally all three), your loneliness will — by definition — improve. This isn’t always easy. But researchers and philosophers have made terrific progress in showing that it’s possible.
I’ll go into great depth about this in future articles. For now, though, these three starting points can massively impact your sense of connection.
1. How to lower desired connections
Modern society has painted an unrealistic picture of what it means to have a good social life. We tend to measure ourselves by sheer, hollow numbers. Likes. Professional connections. Or, my absolute favorite: the follower-to-following ratio.
The problem is, of course, that not even 10,000 Facebook friends can stop you from feeling lonely. It’s like the rockstar Janis Joplin famously said:
“On stage, I make love to 25,000 different people, then I go home alone.”
So what we’re really trying to do is set realistic metrics for our relationships. We should aim for depth. Having meaningful conversations. Making a difference in an engaged community. Supporting loved ones.
But there’s another, far more actionable way to decrease your desire for connections. And that’s learning to spend time alone. Why? Because when you can spend time by yourself, you’ll be able to (a) understand loneliness better and (b) appreciate the time you spend with others more deeply.
Now again, our culture generally disapproves of this. But what I can highly recommend is to go on solo trips and artist dates. Once you label your pursuit to be alone as an adventure, people will declare you interesting rather than insane.
Plus, everyone knows how to travel.
It could even be as simple as walking to a nearby neighborhood. You just have to add the “alone” bit. And yes, it might feel even more lonely at first. But the wonderful lesson of solo adventures is that you’ll learn to face loneliness. You’ll find strength within yourself. You’ll grow.
The philosopher Henry David Thoreau said, “I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.” Thoreau must’ve known — he lived alone in the woods for two years.
After all, how can you possibly feel lonely when you’ve internalized that you’re already enough?
2. How to increase perceived connections
I know I’ve said this many times before, but I can’t stress it enough: loneliness is a subjective feeling. You can feel lonely in a marriage, family, or crowd.
And that’s not all.
In his book Loneliness, John Cacioppo points out that, on average, lonely people are just as attractive, intelligent, and socially adept as anyone else. “Feeling lonely does not mean that we have deficient social skills,” Cacioppo writes.
The real problem is that the lonely person feels disconnected from the world around them. They’re negatively biased. Thus, they’re simply less likely to apply their social skills.
What does this mean?
First of all, it helps to acknowledge that there’s nothing — absolutely nothing — wrong with you if you feel lonely. It’s one of our most inherent emotions and part of the human condition. So ironically, you’re in great company if you feel lonely.
Second, working on your narrative can work wonders. A 2011 study invited several upper-year students to talk to first-year students about the challenging bits of college life. The older students’ message was that everyone struggles with adjusting to college at first — but also that it’s possible to succeed and find belonging.
The first-year students’ well-being and grades improved throughout their college years. Additional experiments have since confirmed this finding. So, knowing you’re not alone and trusting in the future — these small mental shifts can make all the difference.
Lastly, remember that loneliness can occur in three types — intimate, relational, and collective loneliness. And based on what type you’re experiencing, you need different kinds of social prescribing: closer confidants, deeper friendships, and/or a stronger community. I dedicated an extensive article to this, which you can check out here.
3. How to understand your personal history of loneliness
Since we humans are social creatures, our levels of desired connection always have a certain baseline. We need a tribe. A sense of community. There’s no way around it.
But our baseline level (or “thermostat,” as John Cacioppo calls it) can vary hugely. Research has found it depends on your upbringing, genetics, and personality. So one person might — by nature — only crave a few intimate encounters while someone else needs constant social exposure.
It takes a lot of self-observation to figure out your thermostat setting, but it’ll pay off. The more you know your social needs, the better you can respond to loneliness.
Here are some prompts to get you started:
- Are you a generally introverted or extroverted person? (Here’s a personality test to find out.) This helps you determine if you need a large active network of friends or just a few close companions to meet your needs.
- Did you grow up in a tightly-knit family? If you spent your childhood closely surrounded by people, there’s a good chance you’ve carried that need for connection into adulthood.
- In what precise settings do you feel lonely? If you often feel lonely in crowds and among people, you probably prefer a few deep connections over many surface encounters.
However, remember that your genes aren’t the ultimate factor for loneliness. Your environment plays an equally big (if not bigger) role. In other words, genetics determine the course, but your environment — and you — influence the final destination.
A Quick Summary (And One Icy Truth)
Alrighty — we’ve covered a lot here. To sum up:
- Loneliness is the discrepancy between desired and perceived connections. The formula is: Loneliness = desired connections − perceived connections.
- The higher your desired connections and the lower your perceived connections, the more lonely you’ll feel. Thus, low desired and high perceived connections make you feel less lonely.
- One of the best ways to lower your desired connections is learning to spend time in solitude — by going on a solo adventure, for example.
- A great way to increase your perceived connection is to accept loneliness as a shared experience and internalize that feeling lonely doesn’t make you any less worthy than anyone else.
Lastly, I want to leave you with a harsh yet optimistic truth.
In the long run, we’ll never be able to close the gap of connection. The thing about the human condition is that we simply cannot read each other’s thoughts or feelings. Every attempt to share our inner world must pass through an extremely limiting filter: language.
And that’s okay.
To put it in the poignant words of Pema Chödrön:
“We are fundamentally alone, and there is nothing anywhere to hold on to. Moreover, this is not a problem. In fact, it allows us to finally discover a completely unfabricated state of being.”
So, let’s not mourn the inevitability of loneliness — and instead, appreciate the rare moments of genuine connection.