7 Types of Loneliness (and Why It Matters)

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 common and important obstacle to consider.

To be happy, we need intimate bonds; we need to be able to confide, we need to feel like we belong, we need to be able to get and give support. In fact, strong relationships are key — perhaps the key — to a happy life.

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

It seems to me that there are several types of loneliness. Of course, not everyone experiences loneliness in the situations described — for instance, not everyone wants a romantic partner. But for some people, the lack of certain kinds of relationships brings loneliness.

Once we’ve pinpointed the particular kind of loneliness we’re experiencing, it may be easier to spot ways to address it.

Here are some types I’ve identified — what have I overlooked?

7 Types of Loneliness

1. New-situation loneliness

You’ve moved to a new city where you don’t know anyone, or you’ve started a new job, or you’ve started at a school full of unfamiliar faces. You’re lonely.

2. I’m-different loneliness

You’re in a place that’s not unfamiliar, but you feel different from other people in an important way that makes you feel isolated. Maybe your faith is really important to you, and the people around you don’t share that — or vice versa. Maybe everyone loves doing outdoor activities, but you don’t — or vice versa. It feels hard to connect with others about the things you find important. Or maybe you’re just hit with the loneliness that hits all of us sometimes — the loneliness that’s part of the human condition.

3. No-sweetheart loneliness

Even if you have lots of family and friends, you feel lonely because you don’t have the intimate attachment of a romantic partner. Or maybe you have a partner, but you don’t feel a deep connection to that person.

4. No-animal loneliness

Many people have a deep need to connect with animals. If this describes you, you’re sustained by these relationships in a way that human relationships don’t replace. While I love my dog Barnaby, I don’t feel this myself — but many people feel like something important is missing if they don’t have a dog or cat (or less conveniently, a horse) in their lives.

5. No-time-for-me loneliness

Sometimes you’re surrounded by people who seem friendly enough, but they don’t want to make the jump from friendly to friends. Maybe they’re too busy with their own lives, or they have lots of friends already, so while you’d like a deeper connection, they don’t seem interested. Or maybe your existing friends have entered a new phase that means they no longer have time for the things you all used to do — everyone has started working very long hours, or has started  family, so that your social scene has changed.

6. Untrustworthy-friends loneliness

Sometimes, you get in a situation where you begin to doubt whether your friends are truly well-intentioned, kind, and helpful. You’re “friends” with people but don’t quite trust them. An important element of friendship is the ability to confide and trust, so if that’s missing, you may feel lonely, even if you have fun with your friends.

7. Quiet-presence loneliness

Sometimes, you may feel lonely because you miss having someone else’s quiet presence. You may have an active social circle at work, or have plenty of friends and family, but you miss having someone to hang out with at home — whether that would mean living with a roommate, a family member, or a sweetheart. Just someone who’s fixing a cup of coffee in the next room, or reading on the sofa.

If you read this list, and you’re thinking, “Yes, I do feel lonely — so what the heck do I do about it?” you might find this post useful: Lonely? 5 Habits to Consider to Combat Loneliness. Or this: Feeling Lonely? Consider Trying These 7 Strategies. (These posts are different from each other, even though the titles sound similar.)

It’s important to realize why we feel lonely, because only then can we see how we might address it. If you’re no-time-for-me lonely, for instance, maybe a solution would be to work with people on a project, where you’d be doing an endeavor together, on something you’ve all made time for. My mother once noted — and I think it’s very true — it’s easier to make friends when you’re working on a project together.

Loneliness is a major factor in unhappiness, so it’s an important area to tackle, if you’re working on making yourself happier.

Want to learn more? When I researched loneliness, I was very surprised by what I found, which I wrote about here: Some counter-intuitive facts about loneliness.

If you want to read more deeply on 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 about the author’s own experiences and research into loneliness. Also, in my books The Happiness Project and Happier at Home, I write a lot about how to build and strengthen relationships.

One of the keys — maybe the key — to happiness is strong connections to other people. The lack of these bonds, even temporarily, is a major happiness stumbling block.

Have you found any good ways to understand and deal with loneliness?

  • Maryalene @ The Mighty Widow

    I would add “left behind loneliness” to the list.

  • Mimi Gregor

    I would add an existential type of loneliness that comes from the knowledge that no one else can ever really understand you, because they cannot get inside your head and experience things the way that you do. It’s the knowledge that — even if we are always around other people — we are essentially alone in everything we experience, from birth to death.

    This may sound very like the “I’m different” loneliness that you mention, but I think that existential loneliness is not about feeling lonely because of your differing religiosity or interests, so much as it stems from being a separate being from everyone else, and feeling alone in the universe as a result.

    • gretchenrubin

      Great addition.

      Gretchen Rubin

      Visit my blog

      My podcast, Happier with Gretchen Rubin
      My books:Better Than Before —New York Times bestseller
      The Happiness Project —#1 New York Times bestseller
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    • JoannieO

      Well said, much thanks.

  • Sonia Karen Christie

    Is it possible I wonder to be lonely for yourself? I sometimes find when my life gets frantically busy that I long to sit quietly and be alone and re-tune in to the very essence of me. When life’s activities seem unending I yearn to become reacquainted with myself and it feels like I miss ME.

    • statmam

      Maybe that’s a special case of #5: when YOU have no time for you.

      • Sonia Karen Christie

        Yes I read the title of No 5 and was expecting it to be about what I wrote but it came at it from another perspective. Fascinating and thought provoking.

    • mom2luke

      Yes. You put your finger on it!

      When I started playing tennis recently with my 15 year old special needs son, I was astonished how much like my own teenage self it made me feel again.

      I’d been lonely for my tennis self, the one that had hopes and dreams and all of life ahead of her who used to play tennis with her 50 year old dad.

      Being out on the tennis court with my son and sharing court space with other tennis lovers…it just felt so right to me and full circle. Before I’d felt sad –and yes, lonely, not having a tennis partner or freedom to play — every time I drove or walked past tennis courts I felt sad.

      Now I feel the opposite! Energized and grateful to have my son as my built-in tennis partner. If he didn’t have autism and was a typical teen it’s unlikely he’d be happy to play practically every day with his mom.

      I just hope my body holds up a very long time as now that I’ve discovered this old connection with the “tennis me”–I dread the day I can no longer play with him.

      • Shelley

        He will probably have met more tennis partners by the time you are old, thanks to you taking the time to bring him to the court! Good for you.

  • Cindy

    Thank you for this, Gretchen. This rings so true. My husband and I were just talking about this yesterday and how he always felt the “I’m-different” loneliness growing up. He had such different interests from the rest of his family that he often felt isolated. I’ve identified with this over the years, as well, realizing that for me to feel strong bonds with people I need to be able to talk intimately with them, usually one-on-one or in a small group. I’ve noticed that his family keeps conversations pretty light, and they prefer large groups for socialization. They are loving, wonderful people, and I would like to be closer to them, but I wonder how given that we have such different preferences in relationships. I couldn’t put a name to this, but loneliness does seem to fit.

  • Frances

    this is such a helpful article to read. I have experienced all these types of loneliness. at the moment I am struggling with the “I’m different” loneliness. everyone has motivation to start projects or hobbies to practice and are flying through life and having success after success whereas I feel like I’m falling behind or standing still. I’m focusing on my passions this month as part of my happiness project so hopefully that will help me feel like I am on the same page as others. Because right now I am so involved with work that my life is so uninteresting and uneventful and it’s like I’m wasting time waiting to go back to work on my days off.
    Its terrible! haha! I feel like this needs to change right now so I feel like I am living a happy fulfilling and exciting life.
    Any tips to motivate myself to get out there and just do my hobbies to create my dream life in fashion?

    • mom2luke

      I used to be like that too (let work rule my time) until I had a baby and then I was forced to put limits on the amount of time I spent on/at work.

      It amazed me how I did not actually lose my job by just stating, “I have to go!” at 5:50pm unless I wanted to call daycare and tell them I’d pay $20 extra to reserve the extra 30 minutes time til 6:20pm to pick my daughter up late (at 6:30pm as it was a ten min. walk to daycare). Sometimes I desperately paid the extra $20 (I wasn’t alone among the many late-pickup parents)…but I look back 18 years later and shake my head. I also no longer “had” to travel on business as much as I used to.

      My point is, you’ll make time for yourself and what you really, really know you want when you DECIDE to. Right now you’ve decided your job is more important. Having a baby changed my daily work routine the way I was unable to do by myself.

      The pressure you feel to put your job first has something to do with your good work ethic. So don’t be hard on yourself for your choices, just realize that you DO have a choice. I found in the years before I had my children that taking a class that supported my dreams was helpful … it’s time scheduled on the calendar and that helps you to carve out time for yourself with a simple explanation to whoever wants to schedule your work for that time: “Sorry, I have a class tonight, gotta go! It will have to wait til tomorrow!” (and 90% of the time, it COULD wait!)

    • Gillian

      I can really relate to your dilemma. I am now retired but when I was working that was pretty much all I did and all I focused on. I finally figured out that it is, in my case, simply a personality trait. I don’t multi-task well and I have a lot of difficulty switching between activities. Working until 7:00 pm wasn’t a problem for me but quitting when I was supposed to at 4:30 and going home and doing something else interesting and/or useful was almost impossible. So evening consisted of dinner & TV. Weekends weren’t much better – I was just killing time until I went back to work.

      I had hoped that retirement would create a more interesting and eventful life – but it hasn’t really. I’ve created a different routine, with some new activities, but I still find that I can focus on only one thing at a time and can’t interleave all sorts of different activities into one time period. I can partially blame my husband’s poor health for some of the restrictions but, realistically, I don’t think it would be much different without that.

  • Jamie

    My special kind of lonliness is that I have no best friend. Wonderful husband, children, and many friends in different circles of life. But I don’t have a special female friend that I am very close to, who is like family to me, and it makes me sad.

    • gretchenrubin

      That’s a good addition.

      Gretchen Rubin

      Visit my blog

      My podcast, Happier with Gretchen Rubin
      My books:Better Than Before —New York Times bestseller
      The Happiness Project —#1 New York Times bestseller
      Join the discussion on Facebook @gretchenrubin

      • Jennifer Keuchel Tervort

        I agree. I have colleagues and friends, but no one I would call a 3AM friend, or a best friend, and it makes me sad. I also have a nostalgic loneliness… I am lonely for friends and things from my past.

        • cinthesooner

          This is similar to my loneliness, Jennifer. I know so many women who have close relationships with their mothers as they’ve aged but I lost my mom when I was 29 just when we were getting to that stage of life. Now it is hard to spend time with those ladies without feeling a longing for what might have been if Mom were still here. Not having children of my own, I get nostalgic for those times with Mom before her illness.
          I like your term 3 AM friend– that sums it up nicely

    • Heather JaRuud

      Yes! Exactly this! Is 40 too old to find a lifelong best friend? Because I keep hoping.

      • Jamie

        Do you have a difficult relationship with your mother? I do and I wonder if that is part of why I have a lot of female friends but none that are too close. I can’t fully trust my mom. She was never “on my team” as a child or adult. When someone does seem to really like me I always wonder “why?”. If they knew the real me they wouldn’t feel that way. This is my inner dialogue.

    • Cynthia Sutherlin

      Jamie, I feel the same way.

    • Cynthia Zenti

      Hi Jamie, I am 50 and still find it hard to make friends. I am a single mother (I have been for 16, almost 17 years) with my youngest, 16 being special needs. I know many people from my oldest playing football for many years, people I have met through taking yoga teacher training, relationships never develop beyond being “friendly”. Many times I have hosted parties, etc.. but never have I been invited in return. It is quite sad 🙁 I find dating equally as hard. Interesting that you mention your mother. I do not have a close relationship with my parents, nor do my parents have any friends. Weekends are hard when everyone has plans

  • Stephanie Smythe

    A form I note in my clients (I am a therapist, working primarily with adults with developmental trauma (meaning they had at least one parent who was/is off) is a basic feeling of not belonging, often not being worthy of belonging, which then impacts their interactions in the world. They may be successful in their work, but are quite limited in their ability to connect/trust in relationships (friend or intimate) and hypersensitive to other’s foibles. Becomes a vicious cycle, and so painful.

    • Shari Minton

      Very well said. How do I find out more on this developmental trauma you speak of?

    • Disqus w/me

      I too want to find out more on this developmental trauma you speak of.

  • cara

    I moved to a whole new area to get away from No.6, “untrustworthy friends”, but have ended up with 5, 2 and 1! I think there’s a huge loneliness that comes when you realise you’ve wasted too many years with all the wrong people, but there’s now a huge gap without them. It’s doubly hard because it’s tough to move on to pastures new now, what with Facebook, email, texts etc etc, and starting again, particularly when your old friends made you lose so much confidence in yourself, is so hard as a shy adult. Also its sadly true that people sense loneliness, and it oddly makes it harder to meet new people then, and so the spiral gets worse. Writing this I realise how lonely I actually am!! I want to do something about it but not sure where to start. We need as a society to stop seeing apparent loneliness in other people as a threat, and to be more welcoming I feel.

  • Denise Brick

    What a great article. I would add to this, the “no co-worker” loneliness for those of us who work from home. I spend my days in solitude with no one to share small annoyances or large victories with, and no one decorates my desk on my birthday. 🙂

    • gretchenrubin

      I know what you mean. One huge boost in my happiness has been the podcast, because it means that I collaborate with my sister and have “co-workers” at Panoply. Even though I rarely am in the studio, I love going there and having the office vibe.

      Gretchen Rubin

      Visit my blog

      My podcast, Happier with Gretchen Rubin
      My books:Better Than Before —New York Times bestseller
      The Happiness Project —#1 New York Times bestseller
      Join the discussion on Facebook @gretchenrubin

  • becunning

    I feel like there’s another type of loneliness: Chronic/incurable illness loneliness. Pain and trauma can be incredibly isolating experiences, even when you have friends, significant others, and time for yourself.

    • gretchenrubin

      Chronic pain is SUCH a huge happiness challenge. Insightful point.

      Gretchen Rubin

      Visit my blog

      My podcast, Happier with Gretchen Rubin
      My books:Better Than Before —New York Times bestseller
      The Happiness Project —#1 New York Times bestseller
      Join the discussion on Facebook @gretchenrubin

  • Anna

    I live in the US now but am from overseas & am still very attached to my country. So that’s one loneliness. It helps that I go back every year but it’s not the same as being there all the time. The second, which exacerbates the first loneliness, is that I am the only remaining survivor of my birth family. My brother died in an accident at 23 & my parents both recently died of diseases (mother at 70, dad at 77). It’s lonely holding the memories.

  • disqus_ZBXJDbYJHe

    I would add “left behind loneliness when it comes to your family.” Your brothers, sisters, and your parents never ever treat you as a person with equal rights and you are made to feel that you will never be part of the family and you will not be missed. On Father Day, I was at the end of the table and everyone was having a lively conversation with my parents except myself even though they had many verbal fights with my parents where my verbal fights with my parents and brothers were far and few and was told directly and/or indirectly to keep my mouth shut. If you saw the movie Tunes of Glory, John Mills was at end of one table with one person to keep him company while Alex Guinness had everyone else at the other one of the table. That film hit home with me.

    There is also a loneliness at work because back in the old days you could make friends at work and then have a social life after work; however, nowadays, people don’t have time to have a social life because they live in different parts of town or live in other towns and have to deal with their families.

    There is also loneliness in the neighborhood because people don’t stay in the neighborhood anymore or they die and people don’t want to introduce themselves because they might encounter a bad person(s).

  • Great topic and comments. It seems there are many types of loneliness. One I did not see mentioned was loneliness due to things going great in your life. If most of your good friends are going through rough times and things are not so good in their lives and extended lives, you feel a little guilty about bringing up how great things are currently in your life. Maybe this is a type of situational or different loneliness.

  • disqus_ZBXJDbYJHe

    I would add left “behind loneliness by the family” when your family will never treat you as an person with equal standing and will not missed you if you don’t come to family events and holidays.

  • Linda

    Wow. I imagine that sense of feeling “alone” is so common a human experience, we don’t always see it happening in the lives of others around us. My loneliness is felt much deeper in my season of caregiving my spouse, 90y.o. I’m 69y.o., yet I hold onto the promises of God, that He will never leave us nor forsake us in these lonely times caring for a loved one. Take heart and trust God during each and every lonely experience of your own in this life!

  • I think there is another loneliness which is longing for God or divine union. It is very palpable. Also I think loneliness is a bit of a taboo subject. Good to see your articles on it! I wonder why it is a taboo..?

  • Sekagya Eric

    This is good research Gretchen and I feel you have covered most types of loneliness that I have experienced. May one needs deeper realization of self so as to combat any type of loneliness

  • bgznkitties

    I feel lonely when my child goes away from me.
    Or is that just missing him? I’m lonely for him,
    so is that loneliness or missing? What’s the difference?

  • Raymond Eugene O’Neill

    You miss a very important source of lonliness in your 7. The loss of a spouse after a lengthy relationship. Now you have severe grief thrown in the mix.

  • Shannon M.

    And the worst loneliness of all–the “Please just see me as human” loneliness. It’s tough to go through life never feeling equal to anyone. To go out in society constantly feeling dehumanized, invisible, and an unwanted burden is demoralizing.

  • Carolyn Greenwald

    Gretchen, I am never lonely. I always say I would have to be alone for 3 years before I would feel lonely. I think its because I like to read, but no one reads more than you. So I am wondering, are you ever lonely?

  • CJ

    My biggest issue with loneliness is due to the fact that I am single and in my 30’s. Actually the big problem is not the lack of a boyfriend, at the moment I feel totally comfortable being singel – or at least I would if I had other close relationships around m. But the fact is that it’s hard to maintain close relationships when all your friends are married and/or have kids. Suddenly you are not as important in their lives as they are to you, which creates an awkward imbalance. I spend a lot of my weekends by myself, because that’s “family time”. And I understand. People are busy, work takes up a lot of time. When you finally have the weekend of you just want to hang out with your family. But for us singles it means spending the weekend alone. And that sucks. Any thoughts on how to cope with that?

    • Sumedha Vemuri

      I completely agree with you! Being a single friend when your other friends are all in relationships not only brings about a third-wheel type feeling, but also, the ache of being not as important to your friends as they are to you.

    • Cynthia Zenti

      Hi CJ, I understand, this has been my world for 16 years. And when the kids are home the, “I don’t have anyone to share this with” loneliness kicks in. Then the weekends they are not here can also be sad. I have been trying meet-up groups, etc. Even trying to have somewhat meaningful interactions with people I see throughout the day, i.e., at the gym.

      • gretchenrubin

        Just seeing all the interactions here is making the world feel like a less lonely place. It’s an issue that so many people deal with, in so many forms.

  • Sumedha Vemuri

    There is another type of loneliness, which people probably don’t recognise as much, but I would call it the “Loneliness of independence”. This loneliness is a byproduct of the person becoming so capable/independent , or appearing so capable or strong that people subconsciously assume you’re going to be ok, or not recognise your needs when you need help the most. A fact remains that a large number of our relationships are formed, and human contact is established in need based scenarios.Such as you needing that morning coffee, and you interact with your friend the barista, but you switch to green tea, and the need for coffee, and your relationship with the barista are gone.

    When the needs are eliminated, the relationships it brings go down too. Think of all the supposedly strong people who can take care of anything under the sun , but end up going home lonely, or not getting the basic human company they need for emotional well being, because their independence reduces the relationships/human contact they actually need. As a result they may become unable to form meaningful relationships too.

    • Mon

      Insightful. I wonder if this level of independence can also be driven by an inability to seek help, perhaps due to fear of being vulnerable.

    • cinthesooner

      I identify very strongly with this one, too. I think those who have a ‘need’ for friends are the ones who go out and do the work it takes to make them. Most of my previous ‘close’ friends sort of fell out of the way as I rarely felt a need to spend a lot of time nurturing the relationships– you don’t really miss them until they are gone.

  • yllas

    I feel so sorry for people who feel sooooooooooo lonely. I am an extreme introvert, have a handful of friends, and am totally happy alone in my house. And I have another friend estranged from her family, struggling financially, and though she has a lovely apartment, she doesn’t have a full time job and doesn;t know what to DO with herself. No interests, no hobbies. always weeping about the past, all she does is go to work at her crappy part time job and call people and complain. I really don’t know what to say any more. Just go ‘uh huh uh huh, oh, that’s too bad, uh huh.” I feel like saying 1) go online and find some man to ‘take care of you’ or 2) you are 50, grow the F up.

  • Rebecca Seamon

    Maybe consider no support from family or no family loneliness. My family is very emotionally unstable and I cannot turn to them for any kind of support.

    • Cynthia Zenti

      I have that too! it makes me sad to think about. My parents decide every once in awhile they want nothing to do with me. It’s really kind of messed up. They leave a voicemail stating this.

  • JoannieO

    How about “retirement loneliness?” I’m outgoing and my husband’s an introvert, though we get along great–married for almost 44 years, but recently retired for about 7 months and find I miss the busy-ness of the workplace. It’s something I know I will work through, as I read online articles. I don’t feel depressed, just sort of lonely, though I live with my husband. I do have a best girlfriend from nursing school, fortunately, who has been retired for about 15 years (yes!), and in a different situation, as she is busy with her own family. So there are all different kinds of loneliness, I will agree.

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  • Cris

    Something that feels lonely to me–not being appreciated for the things that I like the best about myself. It’s not that I’m not appreciated at all, but I guess I want the people I love to notice and love the things about me that matter most to me.