Lonely? 5 Habits to Consider to Combat Loneliness.

One major challenge within happiness is loneliness.  The more I’ve learned about happiness, the more I’ve come to believe that loneliness is a terrible, common, and important obstacle to consider.

Of course, being alone and being lonely aren’t the same. Loneliness feels draining, distracting, and upsetting; desired solitude feels peaceful, creative, restorative.

According to Elizabeth Bernstein’s Wall Street Journal piece, Alone or Lonely, the rate of loneliness in the U.S. has doubled over the past thirty years. About 40% of Americans report being lonely; in the 1980s, it was 20%. (One reason: more people live alone: 27% in 2012; 17% in 1970).

Loneliness is a serious issue, Sometimes people ask me, “If you had to pick just one thing, what would be the one secret to a happy life?” If I had to pick one thing, I’d say: strong bonds with other people.  The wisdom of the ages and the current scientific studies agree on this point. When we don’t have that, we feel lonely.

I wrote a book about habits, Better Than Before, and I continue to be obsessed with the subject. Whenever I think about a happiness challenge, I ask myself, “How could habits help address this problem?”

Here are some habits to consider:

1. Make a habit of nurturing others.

Offer to take care of the neighbor’s children once a week; teach a class, volunteer, get a dog. Giving support to others helps create a feeling of connection. For happiness generally, it’s just as important to give support as to get support. Along those lines…

2. Make a habit of connecting with other people (to state the obvious).

Show up at the weekly office coffee hour, join a book group, sign up for an exercise session, take a minute each morning to chat to a co-worker.

3. Make a habit of getting better sleep.

One of the most common indicators of loneliness is broken sleep — taking a long time to fall asleep, waking frequently, and feeling sleepy during the day. Sleep deprivation, under any circumstances, brings down people’s moods, makes them more likely to get sick, and dampens their energy, so it’s important to tackle this issue. (Here are some tips on getting good sleep.)

4. Make a habit of staying open.

Unfortunately–and this may seem counter-intuitive--loneliness itself can make people feel more negative, critical, and judgmental.  Lonely people, it turns out, are far less accepting of potential new friends than people who aren’t lonely.If you recognize that your loneliness may be affecting you in that way, you can take steps to counter it.

5. Making a habit of asking yourself, “What’s missing in my life?”

If you’re feeling lonely, is it because you miss having a best friend, or you miss being part of a group, or you miss having a place to go where everyone is familiar, or you miss having a romantic partner, or you miss having the quiet presence of someone else hanging around the house with you? There are many kinds of loneliness. It may be painful to think about, but once you understand what you’re missing, it’s easier to see how to address it. Through habits or otherwise.

If you find it tough to stick to a habit like “attending the weekly office coffee hour,” my book Better Than Before can help (I hope). There, I explain all the strategies we can use to make or break a habit. It’s not that hard to master a habit, when you know what to do.

For instance, you might use the Strategy of Scheduling, the Strategy of Monitoring, the Strategy of Convenience — and you should definitely use the Strategy of Treats — which is the most fun strategy.

If you want to read more about the subject of loneliness, I highly recommend two books: John Cacioppo and William Patrick, Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection, and Emily White, Lonely (a memoir). Also, in my books The Happiness Project and Happier at Home, I write a lot about how to build and strengthen relationships.

Most people have suffered from loneliness at some point. Have you found any good habits for making yourself less lonely? What worked — or didn’t work?

  • Despite being married, having a toddler, and a dog I feel crippling loneliness often. I’m 43 and have three good friends all of which live in other provinces. Keeping in touch via the phone, Skype etc is just not the same. Being an introvert and better one-on-one, I feel anxious in groups. I appreciate this article so much as it couldn’t have come at a better time for me. I want to reach out, but first need to spend some time especially on #3, #4, and #5.

    I know I also have fear of rejection and am scared of being friends with someone only to have them hurt me. Like auditions (I used to act) I know I need to “put myself out there” just not sure how to get rid of the anxiety of saying something silly, not having something to talk about, etc. I believe I write better than I talk!

    Anyhow been following your work since around the time of your first book and appreciate all that you do. Thanks again!

    • artie

      I think having young kids in the Western world is very isolating. I don’t think it used to be like this and don’t see why it has to be now, but children have been so cut out of adult culture that you can to kind of create an alternative community around yourself in order to have friends, and for introverts like me that’s a huge task! It’s especially hard because people are so much more likely to move away from their networks these days.
      Anyway, I definitely sympathize and I think it’s very common in people like us (introverted moms of toddlers). I have had success in pursuing a hobby that needs a partner (for me, rock climbing) and seeking out friends on a one-on-one basis that way – like at the gym people are always posting their numbers on the bulletin board to find a partner and I just looked for women who climb after work. Now I have a regular climbing day, which kind of forces me to socialize because I really want to climb! And the structure of a regular day and time each week is important for coordination with my husband. But I think this would work for other things as well. People always want workout buddies, etc. You know what would be cool? Match.com for friends! Good luck on this habit change. It can be daunting, but it’s surmountable.

      • Chava1997

        I strive to be like my mother, someday. When my father died 25 years ago, she made a point of accepting all invitations even though she really didn’t want to go out. She takes enormous pleasure in the fleeting interactions she has volunteering as a tour guide. She’s a member of three book groups. She plays scrabble with a group once a week. And at age 89, she joined a new synaggue because it is closer to home and immediately got deeply involved by volunteering. I don’t know that she is unusually extroverted, because at the same time, she is a very private person. I think she just decided at some point in widowhood to treat these activities like her job.

        • Victoria

          That is brilliant, what a great example your mother is to us all! I also hope to be that active and involved in the world into my old age.

    • Mimi Gregor

      Although I am married, I have no children. On paper, it seems that I should have the freedom to go out and make friends. As an introvert, however, I find the prospect daunting. It seems difficult to find people who have the same interests. It’s not like when I was a child and could just walk up to someone and say, “Wanna play Barbies?” That would get me some odd looks today. I did have a lot of online friends, but as we all drifted from the interest that initially brought us together, the friendships fell apart. Then there is the matter of finding time — it’s not the nine-to-five world that it used to be. People work varying hours and varying days. It can be a chore to find a time that works for both parties. And when they do get home, they tend to want to just kick back and unwind. I think that television and the internet have filled the gap that used to be filled with friendships. Then there’s mobility. In my mother’s day, the neighbors were all friendly with one another and used to visit each other. Today, I only know the three neighbors that border me. Everyone else moves in and moves out with such rapidity that it’s useless to even catch their names.

      I know that these all sound a lot like excuses, but I find that introverts are good at finding reasons why we can’t do something, when the truth is — we’re just scared to take that leap.

      • gretchenrubin

        It’s tough. Making friends as an adult is a real challenge.

      • Sarah Tonra

        I actually think that childless people are way more lonely because we don’t have that built in play date that moms have. I’m unable to have children and once all my friends procreated they completely disappeared. Everyone I know is having kids at this age so it’s not like “Just find other people in the same situation” is an easy thing. Plus, just because we have the childless thing in common doesn’t mean they’re good friend potential. It’s really sad.

        • Mimi Gregor

          Exactly. I think that a lot of the people with kids, who do the whole play date thing, don’t necessarily have anything else in common, but it is easy to fall back on the one thing you do have in common: kids. A similar situation happened with me and the internet. I found Harry Potter and started writing fanfic and drawing pictures. I found kindred spirits. But after my initial burst of enthusiasm waned, I found that I had nothing in common with these women other than that. I think that once these women with kids expand beyond the playdate mentality, they will find that they, too, have nothing in common with these other women that they used to hang out with.

          Also, if two people pal around and share the same opinions on everything, isn’t one of them redundant?

        • Jay Alexander

          having children in common is as much as having no children in common! Just to quote you “just because we have the childless thing in common doesn’t mean they’re good friend potential.” I can say that just because you have a child thing in common it doesn’t mean you are a good friend potential.
          I did not make a first “child related” friendship until my child was 9 (years not months)!!!!!!! most of the time these are loose acquaintances that you have nothing in common with and just bare with them for the sake of the children!!! Children is not an interest that you share. I have never been as lonely as after I had children.
          I craved childless people because I thought I might have more in common with them (since most of my life I was childless!).
          Saying it only so that you can feel somewhat better hopefully – having kids does not solve the problem of loneliness whatsoever.

          • Sarah Tonra

            Unfortunately, most of my “good friends” have dropped me as soon as they have kids, for people WITH kids, citing that they now have more in common with them. Maybe it’s different for women but being a mother is so much of your identity that if you’re not, you just don’t fit in with the majority of society.

    • gretchenrubin

      Hang in there. It can be tough, but so worth the effort.

  • Liesha Haas

    I’m an Introvert and always feel the need to balance my “alone time” with my “connecting” time. I’ve found MeetUp.com very helpful in finding people who enjoy the same activities you do (cuts way down on the awkwardness of getting to know someone new, when you already have a common interest). I even started my own group, for people who play Cribbage, and it’s been a huge success. 🙂 P.S. Good luck in Seattle tonight, Gretchen, we love you out here!

    • gretchenrubin

      Great suggestion!

  • Kylie

    I find that staying busy is the most important thing. Even if I am doing something alone, completing a task or getting some work done gets my mind off the feelings of loneliness. In regards to feeling lonely by not having a relationship, I try to remember to take things one day at a time. I will end up going into the tailspin of “I’m going to be alone forever,” “I never get to meet anyone I actually like,” or my favorite “maybe I’m just unloveable.” Luckily, only focusing on the needs of the current moment help. I am trying to focus instead on getting my own life together in a way that if I meet someone I don’t have things holding me back or causing stress. I also am working toward building a life that if I never do meet someone, I still feel content and happy. While I still struggle with feelings of loneliness (especially during the holidays since I don’t have any family near by and my father passed away), I have started to create my own traditions and follow my own passions which keeps me happy and distracted.

  • Louisa

    I think accepting that loneliness is part of life is the solution. To me, you can make more of a problem running away from loneliness than loneliness itself. I come from a happy, loving family, and am very happily married– and STILL feel lonely from time to time. Just because you’re partnered does not make you immune from it. To me, loneliness is like the flu– it comes up from time to time, and is not something to be scared of or necessarily to try to “fix.”

  • Rachael Simpson

    I have faced feelings of loneliness my whole life, even though I’ve developed an amazing network of supportive friends and community. Something I’ve come to understand about my loneliness is that it seems to be a habit of feeling. I think it stems from a variety of things (our culture and my own upbringing to name two things). What has occurred to me recently is that I am lonely because I don’t always “show up” for myself. I use outside distractions to avoid activities that actually feed my feelings of well-being. For instance, if I engage in a creative activity that takes focus I start to feel more “myself” and less lonely. Conversely, if I use television and escapist fiction to avoid actual engagement in the world I begin to feel uneasy and lonely.
    Also, active (rather than passive) forms of entertainment with people always seems to satisfy my need for connection. I prefer meeting for game and craft nights, long walks, helping one another with home projects and more. It just seems like communication changes (and deepens) when people are working on something together. We seem to need this deeper connection to dispel loneliness.

  • Jade Spilka

    I loved how you said strong bonds with other people is a key element to happiness. That is something I have been focusing on this semester in college. I definitely see a growing sense of loneliness around me and within me even though I live in a large city with a lot of people. I had never thought of the difference between being alone and being lonely. This was a very interesting blog post, as all your posts are.

  • gretchenrubin

    Great idea!

  • Kathyn

    I tend to feel lonely in the evenings after the work of the day is done and I’m settling in to relax a bit. Getting out one night during the work week is all I seem to be able to handle energy wise. I’ve found reading works well on the other nights. It takes me out of myself and immerses me in another world.

  • Jay Alexander

    this! exactly this! it is the DEPTH OF HUMAN CONNECTION that defeats loneliness! no matter how many people you know or hang out with, no matter how much effort you make to show up to social or common interests events to interact without the depth of human connection the loneliness is just there

  • Jay Alexander

    totally agree again 🙂 I am a questioner and I think I make a great and loyal friend! “We live to talk and discuss” – love that. It is great to hear it from a fellow questioner :-). I didn’t think about putting it this way and it’s so true.
    Sadly for me I moved far far away so loneliness has been my constant companion for many years now.

  • Regina Robbins

    I completely upended my life when I was 39. I left an unhappy marriage of 21 years, and I left a religion I had been in my entire life. I thought life would be this magic carpet ride of friends & parties & doing all the things I was forbidden to do in my “other life.” The reality has been much more stark. Because of my experiences in what I now know was a cult I’m basically a teenager in a 46-year-old body. I still haven’t figured out how to “adult” when I meet people. I’m like this oversized puppy who is out of control. I laugh loud, give my whole life story (it ain’t pretty), and generally alienate people. I was lonely in the religion and I am lonely now. Sometimes, even though I have so much freedom now to do what I want, I am lonelier because at least I had a church family and activities to participate in. I no longer can even attend church as I have crippling fear as soon as I step foot through the doors of a church. I am also disabled and work from home. Right now my daughter and granddaughter are my only avenues of human contact. We all live together and unfortunately I am also their only avenues of contact. I truly now believe that some experiences leave a person scarred and cannot be overcome, despite our best efforts.

  • I think sharing my work, whether art or creative writing, really helps me. I’m not the most out-going person, so I found this to be a easy way to connect with more people. Thanks.