The 3 Types of Loneliness: A Simple Model for Deeper Connections

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One of the most frustrating things about loneliness? It’s complex.

Everyone experiences different kinds of loneliness in different stages of their lives. Loneliness is not a lightbulb we can turn on and off; it’s a vast spectrum of brightness, colors, and temperatures.

But that doesn’t mean we’re powerless.

Quite the opposite: With just a few models in mind, we can start observing loneliness like a scientist. Then, we can identify the causes, experiment with potential solutions, and analyze the findings.

So, here’s one simple model that was an absolute game-changer for me: The three types of loneliness. It transformed the way I think about my relationships forever.

Why So Many People Feel Lonely

Before we can understand the three types of loneliness, we need to ask a crucial question: Why is modern life so lonely?

Some context: The way we interact with others has solidified over 200,000 years of human evolution. It was merely in the last 200 years that — thanks to the industrial revolution — careers and individualism started pulling us away from our home community.

We’ve embraced atomized lifestyles.

The problem? Our brain is still wired to live in a connected tribe where we rely on each other for survival. Feeling connected has always been the norm.

But now, it’s possible to go through adult life without forming any deep relationships. And it’s becoming a reality. We can order everything we need to survive from the comfort of our couch. What’s more, the number of one-person households has skyrocketed over the past decades.

Note: Living alone doesn’t mean you don’t have any deep relationships in your life. But it means you see fewer people and don’t depend on others as much. Studies have repeatedly shown that people living alone are more likely to develop mental illnesses — especially loneliness. (Image source)

As a result, loneliness is becoming the norm.

In other words, the world around us has radically changed, but our brains are stuck in the stone age. And that means we still need the same types of relationships our ancestors cultivated thousands of years ago.

So, what types of relationships are these?

The 3 Social Spaces You Need for Connection

Researchers grouped the relationships we need into three major groups. They call them the three social spaces:

  1. Inner core — This is your smallest, most intimate circle, and it can include up to five people (e.g., your partner, best friends, or close family members). These are your loved ones who would drop everything when your world falls apart.
  2. Sympathy group — These are your quality friendships and family connections. You keep regular face-to-face contact, help each other with personal projects, and provide emotional support. This circle can range from 15 to 50 people (including the inner core). But it’s important to remember that the quality — not the quantity — of relationships makes us feel connected.
  3. Active network — This outermost circle ranges from 150 to 1500 people. They’re acquaintances you know from work, school, associations, etc. You wouldn’t necessarily label them as friends, but you know their names and share common interests, values, or goals. Other helpful terms for this circle are “community” or “tribe.”

Here’s this model visualized.

The three social spaces you need in your life. (Graphic by the author, adapted from The Atlantic.)

Remember, the number and depth of relationships you need in these circles vary depending on your personality. Extroverts, for instance, tend to have more people in each layer than introverts.

But the takeaway remains the same: We need to fill all three circles to feel connected.

Now, how do these social spaces relate to loneliness?

The 3 Types of Loneliness

Here’s how Dr. Vivek Murthy describes the importance of social spaces in his book Together:

“These three dimensions together reflect the full range of high-quality social connections that humans need in order to thrive. The lack of relationships in any of these dimensions can make us feel lonely…”

And that’s why we can experience three different types of loneliness:

  1. Lacking an inner core → intimate loneliness: You feel lonely because you long for close confidants in your life (even if you have a supportive network or meaningful friendships).
  2. Lacking a sympathy group → relational loneliness: You feel lonely because you hunger for high-quality friendships (even if you’re in a supportive partnership or stable community).
  3. Lacking an active network → collective loneliness: You feel lonely because you yearn for a sense of community (even if you experience intimacy and friendship).

Understanding this concept is crucial to building a meaningful social life. It truly changed the way I cope with loneliness. It also showed me the power of human connection.

When I look back at my life, I was the happiest when all of these social circles were satisfied.

I particularly think back to a uni semester I spent in Poland. Seems counterintuitive, right? Going away from home usually leads to loneliness and disconnection. Not in this case. And here’s why:

  • I lived with a roommate, and we clicked instantly. I also formed close connections with a few selected people. (Intimate loneliness solved.)
  • I quickly found many friends I could talk to face-to-face whenever I wanted because we all lived on campus. (Relational loneliness solved.)
  • I experienced a deep sense of community with the other exchange students. I wasn’t friends with all of them but met someone whenever I walked to class. We smiled, waved at each other, or said hi. There was this sense of “we’re all in this together.” (Collective loneliness solved.)

I felt deeply connected. But here comes the most interesting part.

When I returned home, I experienced one of the loneliest periods of my life. Suddenly, all the people I had enclosed in my heart were scattered across the globe. And staying in touch through texts and phone calls didn’t help. The community of exchange students now felt like a dream from another life.

Had I known about the three types of loneliness back then, I wouldn’t have instantly solved the problem. But it would have helped me (a) understand the causes of my loneliness and (b) develop potential solutions.

So, drawing from that and many other experiences, here’s how you can use this model to overcome loneliness.

How to Use This Model to Overcome Loneliness

The first thing I’d tell my past lonely self is this: Don’t panic.

Experiencing all three types of loneliness is incredibly painful, no doubt. But it’s important to remember that, sometimes, you’ll find yourself in that situation. And that’s okay.

Scientific models show that we don’t get lonely by choice. Instead, a series of biases toward our social environment triggers a chain reaction of feeling isolated.

In other words, we can’t always control why we feel lonely. But we can control how we react to it.

Secondly, take a step back. Assess the situation and find out which type(s) of loneliness you’re experiencing. You can even categorize the people in your life in the three social spaces — inner circle, sympathy group, and active network.

Then, reflect on that list and examine your relationships:

  • How deeply connected do you feel to the people in each category?
  • Is it easy or difficult for you to see each other in person?
  • How can your existing relationships help you fill your empty spaces?

Thirdly, if you don’t know where to begin, start with tackling collective loneliness. One study has found that the more voluntary groups adults were involved in, the less collective loneliness they experienced. Plus, the connections you find in a community will act as a springboard to building a solid sympathy group and, eventually, an inner core.

What does that imply? Volunteer. Check out classes for learning a new skill. Find a club or sports team. Harness the power of the internet to connect with like-minded people.

The main goal is to bond with others over shared interests, values, or goals. So it’s worth defining what these attributes mean to you.

Connecting with yourself is the first step in connecting with others.

Listen to Your Gut

These are just starting points you can use to find out where you can begin to reconnect. But you needn’t overanalyze the situation. After all, your inner intelligence has known how to (re-)connect to people for millennia.

So, follow your gut instinct and do what feels right.

Maybe it’s just a little text message.
Maybe it’s signing up for that volunteer program in your neighborhood.
Maybe it’s being honest when someone asks you, “How are you?” and answering, “Actually, not so good. I’ve been feeling lonely lately.”
Or maybe it’s seeking out professional help and talking to a therapist.

Admitting your loneliness is never a weakness.

It’s always a strength.