Look at all the lonely people. This may be a refrain from an old Beatles’ song, but increasing numbers of people complain of experiencing loneliness. Everyone has had brief experiences of loneliness at one time or another. Loneliness is a subjective and emotional experience, unique to every person. Loneliness is not the same as being alone. It is a feeling of being disconnected from social relationships and longing for more contact. It can cause a deep examination of the meaning of life and God for some or just the feeling of aloneness from having few friends and companions for others. Chronic and long-term loneliness takes a toll. It can be every bit as painful as the actual pain from an injury and can even cause real physical symptoms. When people are lonely it means that there is a gap between their actual social connectedness and that which is wanted and needed.

Who are the lonely people? Certainly single people may report feeling lonely because they are not in a relationship or miss a previous relationship. But even people who are married or in relationships can feel emotionally lonely when the intimate connection with their partner is missing. This kind of lonely could be worse since there are expectations of feeling loved, supported, understood, and valued. But just because you are alone doesn’t mean that you have to feel lonely. Some people have learned to feel very content primarily with their own company. The demographics suggest that loneliness seems to be especially true for middle-aged single men. One-third of the people over 35 report chronic loneliness. In case you think that some Darwinian type principle of “survival of the prettiest or smartest” is at work, lonely people are often attractive, well dressed, employed, intelligent and educated.

There are likely some sociological trends at play in the last few decades that have contributed to the problem. The number of people living as singles is increasing. At one time there was a greater sense of community and support. Now if you live in a large city or even a small town there is less connectedness. Most people don’t know their neighbors very well. People travel in cars, pull into garages, the garage door goes up and the garage door goes down … without ever seeing your neighbor. There are very few front porches with people sitting on them exchanging greetings as other neighbors walk down the street. People seem to have fewer real friends with whom they spend time talking and listening. Neighbors do not help watch out for each other’s children as they once did. Children are not playing hide and seek and bonding with each other in the neighborhoods. Instead they are inside their houses playing video games and posting on social internet sites. Nobody seems to be raising a barn or helping a neighbor with a home project as they might have in the past. People move more often than they used to and must start over with new jobs, schools, neighbors and friendships. People at work are often associates rather than friends due to having different interests and possibly living long distances from each other. Of course personality factors such as extreme shyness, low self-esteem or avoidance of others due lack of self-confidence play a part in loneliness. Loneliness may be sometimes result from self-fulfilling behavior since people who feel different, rejected and unacceptable are more likely to increase their isolation.

Social connectedness seems to be in the nature of the human species. There are likely some biological, sociological, and psychological imperatives in humans to seek out connections to others for survival of the species. The neurochemistry of humans may dictate a need for “tribal” practices. Strength in numbers has an evolutionary advantage in allowing humans to organize, survive and prosper. Today some people have large families as their tribe for social and emotional support but others come from smaller families without this extended network of family support.

Chronic loneliness can be dangerous to your health. It can contribute to common illnesses such as diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, high blood pressure, increased stress levels, heart disease and dangerous levels of depression and anxiety. People who are lonely tend to get sicker than those who don’t possibly due to compromised immune systems and less self-care. The older people who have limited contact and visits from family and friends tend to be lonelier and sicker.

Overcoming loneliness requires a decision to take some action to change your situation. Some people may need the help of a psychologist to overcome some of the personality characteristics, such as shyness or lack of self-confidence, that prevent them from making necessary social connections. For some a solution could be as simple as joining a club or team, taking a class at a local college or adult education classes, or going to the class at your church. It may mean reaching out to talk to people at the local grocery store, restaurant or gym. Maybe it means pursuing a hobby or interest that involves meeting or working with others. How about helping yourself and someone else by volunteering to visit with people in a nursing home who are lonely. Reducing your loneliness may require getting out of your comfort zone at first. If you are emotionally lonely in a relationship it may mean sitting down with your loved one and learning how to reconnect as you did when you first met. In any case it will require reaching out to others and perhaps, when you do, you will find a hand reaching back.

David Gannon, Ph.D., Psychological and Family Consultants, Canton, Ohio.