The Opposite of Happiness
First, thank you all for the positive response for my first blog, "Feel Lost? Start Where You Are." I'm so pleased to know you found it helpful and relevant. Please continue sharing, and consider leaving a comment.
I recently read an empirical study regarding loneliness. It presented substantial evidence regarding the significant health risks of loneliness. Specifically, it asserted that being socially connected significantly reduces the risk of premature death (Holt-Lunstad, 2017). In contrast, loneliness increases the risk even more considerably than obesity, physical inactivity, or—prepare to be triggered—climate change (air quality, water quality, etc.)! To make matters worse, the World Health Organization stated that we are facing a "loneliness epidemic" with more and more people feeling lonely despite an increasing population. So naturally, I started digging deeper: doing more research, reading more peer-reviewed articles, and self-help blogs.
(Yep. Just some casual Thursday night reading for me.)
How can this be? In a world filled with people, how can so many of us feel so incredibly alone? More on that later.
Please note: we will be discussing loneliness, depression, and anxiety. Please read only if and when ready. Or, skip to the final page break where we talk about (possible) solutions to help.
Growing up, I had a good life. Good in the sense that nothing terrible happened (except for that time my pants fell down while on stage performing in a musical—I kept singing, to my credit). I had quite a strong circle of friends—thanks to being in a choir. I remember having a school assembly one day as a high school freshman. It was not the typical assembly with cheerleaders, singing, music, and school spirit confetti. Instead, it was quiet, and there were two potted plants on either end of the stage with two chairs and a podium. We all knew something was serious, and I recall a janitor saying upon his entrance into the assembly hall, "Who died?" Fortunately, no one died. But, the school wanted to address something: loneliness. And they were tackling it head-on. They brought in a school psychologist to talk about loneliness and depression, and anxiety. At the tender age of 14, all of these mentioned terms were brand new to me. I had never heard of the word "depression" until that assembly. At the time, I told myself, "it must be like sadness, but longer." After the meeting, the principal told students, "if you feel lonely, please ask for help." Cue the lunch bell. Talk about a somber procession to get my sodium-fortified burrito from the cafeteria. I remember mulling over two distinct things from that assembly: 1) loneliness is a thing (I didn't have an experience or concept for it until then—I now realize how fortunate I was growing up); and 2) I remembered looking around the assembly area filled with nearly one thousand students and thinking to myself, "How can anyone feel lonely when surrounded by this many people all day?"
"The opposite of happiness is not sadness; it is loneliness."
For years, I continued to be puzzled as to how someone can experience loneliness or how it can be a thing… until I experienced it first hand. It hit me hard, and it was debilitating. At first, I kept thinking, "this must be depression," but the more I reflected, the more I realized it was loneliness. The longer I felt lonely, the harder it was for me to climb back up and build a connection. It wasn't a single isolated incident of not getting the invite to a party with a group of friends; it was a long and sustained period of loneliness, and it was rough. As an introvert, building lasting and meaningful connections is stressful enough. It's still a challenge for me today, but I get better and better at it, mostly because I worked on my maladaptive thinking (more on that later). I've now come to learn that most people do indeed experience loneliness at some point in their life—often multiple times in their life. Some researchers, such as Asghar & Iqbal (2019), go so far as to state that loneliness is "an obligatory experience" for human beings (pg. 42). To date, there is no empirically-sound global study examining the prevalence of loneliness. However, there are hundreds of studies investigating loneliness in specific demographics (age, region, etc.). Take a moment to process some of these numbers: AARP estimates that over eight million older adults feel lonely. Another study by Wilson & Moulton (2010) found that 42 million adults over age 45 reported that they were lonely. Keep in mind this is just one study focusing on one specific demographic range (US adults over 45). Imagine if there were a global study. My guess is it would be closer to one or two billion people. Other data points that do not precisely cause loneliness but provide strong correlation:
Over a quarter of the US population lives alone (yours truly).
More than half of the US adult population is unmarried (yours truly).
40% of first marriages end in divorce; 70% of remarriages end in divorce.
For young adults—particularly college students—the numbers are complicated due to the frequent use of social media. The super-synthesized version: 18-24-year-olds using at least two or more social media platforms feel a short-term connection but have underlying long-term loneliness. The numbers are staggering: upwards of 80% of 18-24-year-olds are lonely (Odaci & Kalkan, 2010; Skues, Williams, Oldmeadow & Wise, 2015). This sense of "screen connection" despite being lonely deep down inside has caused some researchers to question Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) criteria. The argument is that loneliness (which is not a disorder in DSM) is mistakenly diagnosed as depression or anxiety for many young adults. Despite social media connectivity, people desperately need real, face-to-face interaction. In other words, social media should enhance face-to-face relations, not replace them.
Are you feeling alone? The greatest irony is that by feeling alone, you are not alone. Literally millions of people also feel lonely.
… my guess is that if you are suffering from loneliness right now, this is not helping you at all, so let's try to discuss some solutions.
Disclaimer: This blog does not constitute individual medical advice for any reader. If you are feeling lonely and need immediate help, please reach out to a trusted professional. During the occasional "Come to Jesus" talks with my students, I often remind them: The opposite of happiness is not sadness; it is loneliness. Up until the writing of this blog, I used to say that based on my life experience. Now, I have ample—literally, sufficient—research to back this. So much so that I'm not going to cite it because 1) this isn't an assignment, and 2) this is not meant to be scholarly. But, trust me when I say this: overwhelming empirical research demonstrates that the "secret" to happiness is a meaningful and sustaining connection with others. Before we go any further, I do want to clarify one thing: being alone is not always a bad thing. "Me time" can be healthy, restorative, and essential for our creative development. But if "Me time" is all the time, then loneliness will present itself. It's a balance. So, for those reading this and wondering how they get started in building (or rebuilding) meaningful connection, let's dive in and see if something sticks. Identify the Problem
While I do have some reservations regarding the popular self-help author Gretchen Rubin, I do really appreciate how she identifies seven types of loneliness. Her reason for naming different types of loneliness is that if you know what kind of loneliness you are facing, it just might help you take the necessary steps to combat loneliness head-on. Her seven types along with my distilled commentary for each:
New-situation loneliness. This is when you start at a new school, move, etc. If one really struggles with this, the clinical term is adjustment disorder.
I'm-different loneliness. You feel different from the people around you, and you feel isolated.
No-sweetheart loneliness. You may have a healthy social circle but are missing a deeper, more intimate relationship.
No-animal loneliness. Some people need to connect with animals even if they have solid human bonds.
No-time-for-me loneliness. You have friends, but they never seem to make time for you (e.g., used to hang out often, but then that changes in an instant when your friend gets a new job or gets married).
Untrustworthy-friends loneliness. You regularly question the intention, honesty, or trustworthiness of your social circle.
Quiet-presence loneliness. Just knowing someone is there—physically present—makes you feel better. The best way to think of this is when you're in a home by yourself vs. when someone else is in the house with you. There's an incredible difference one feels.
While this list is helpful, it is not all-inclusive. Other types of loneliness come to mind, such as recent break-up loneliness, lack of family connection loneliness, LGBTQIA+ loneliness, etc. So, spend some time to lean into yourself and reflect: what type of loneliness are you experiencing? I love what my therapist from years ago used to tell me, "If you can name the problem, chances are you can fix the problem."
Identify the Solution
Your solution may vary based on the problem you have discovered within your circumstance, but here are some possible options:
Reach out for help. Directly speaking the words out loud—"I feel lonely"—to someone you trust (e.g., therapist, doctor, friend, professor, mentor, parent, etc.) can be a substantial first step in overcoming your loneliness. By the way, your mentor/professor can be your friend and a significant part of your support system!
Get out there and start small. Focus on building a meaningful relationship with just a few trusted people. Keep an open mind. Research shows that we are happier when we have a few significant and robust bonds rather than casual or "social circle" bonds with multiple people. Look up group activities, local meetups, or join a choir (it would be shameful if I didn't plug that at least once!). You can always expand if and when you are ready.
Project-based activities are proven to accelerate bonding, especially for those that are shy or introverted. Rather than "hanging out," work on a project with some people that share the same passion or interest as you.
Here's the most important one—and it's backed by tons of research— you must confront your negative association thinking (the fancy term is "maladaptive thinking" or "negative attribution processing"). The research is specific: if you are feeling lonely, chances are quite high that you also have negative attributions in social interaction.
Our negative attributions get worse the longer we feel lonely, and it becomes more challenging—though not impossible—to overcome. Mostly, those that are lonely often tune in more to the few instances of negative social feedback (e.g., criticism, eye roll, body language, etc.) rather than the overwhelming majority of positive social feedback (e.g., smile, laughter, eye contact, tone of voice, facial expressions, etc.). The most common example: Person A walks towards Person B. Person B walks right past Person A. Maladaptive-thinking-Person A would assume that they did something to offend Person B. Self-regulated and non-maladaptive-Person A would attribute Person B's behavior by assuming Person B must be in a rush to get somewhere. Zen-Person A would simply acknowledge to herself, "Person B just walked right past me" without any qualifier or interpretation and move on to the next moment. You get the idea. While a therapist can be helpful, you probably can start increasing awareness now about your maladaptive thinking. When you are in a social situation that initially causes you to want to retreat, STOP. Then, ask yourself: "What is my maladaptive thinking right now?" (Maybe don't sound that clinical, but do challenge your thinking). While the research on the prevalence of loneliness is discouraging, the research on the treatment of loneliness is empowering and completely within reach. You can all get through this. So, what are you waiting for? Get out there and start small. Don't know where to start? Start where you are. If you firmly believe you have nowhere to turn, join me for coffee at any time--just shoot me a message. Let's figure it out together. And, if you're one of those lucky people that doesn't experience loneliness, that is wonderful! Use that gift to reach out to others who might be lonely. Most importantly, if someone is making the effort to reach out to you, give them a few minutes of your day. Our world is filled with so many human beings for any one person to feel lonely.