Maggie: I would like to spend some time talking about loneliness.
John: I think this is a good topic, and fits perfectly into our discussion of happiness. But why do you want to discuss it?
Maggie: I heard a girl at school telling a teacher that she was so lonely she was thinking about dropping out of school. I can’t figure it out, because she is one of the most popular girls in the tenth grade. I thought everyone liked her.
John: I think we would be surprised if we knew how many people are actually lonely, even seemingly popular and out-going people.
Maggie: How do we fix it?
John: That is a very good question, but we are getting a bit ahead of ourselves. Let’s first talk about the different types of loneliness. Then we can discuss the effects of loneliness, followed by strategies to overcome loneliness. And why don’t we do this in two or three different blog posts?
Maggie: That sounds good to me. But I didn’t know there were different types of loneliness.
John: I think the different types are simply ways of helping us break down the concept of loneliness to better understand it. We could also call these different categories of loneliness.
To get started, why don’t you tell me whether you have ever felt lonely?
Maggie: Yes, of course. I have gone to several different schools and I always feel lonely for the first few months. Sometimes very lonely.
John: Why do you think that is?
Maggie: Because I am new, so most kids don’t talk to me. And I don’t really fit in that well because I don’t understand how things work in the new place. I end up doing most things by myself, which makes me feel alone.
John: What a wonderful answer. You have hit upon two of the most common types of loneliness.
Loneliness of New People: People who start at a new school or job, or move to a new neighborhood, often feel extremely lonely. They haven’t yet made friends and other people tend not to include them in social gatherings as a result. This feeling of being isolated can continue for months or years until the person finds his or her social footing.
Loneliness that Arises from Being Different: When a person is different from those around her, she often feels lonely. For example, as you pointed out, when a person moves to a new job or school or neighborhood or country, she often doesn’t understand the customs or the culture of the place. Feelings of difference or separation from others lead to feelings of loneliness. This type of loneliness can also arise when a person is surrounded by others with different political opinions, different religious beliefs, or even people who simply love different activities. For example, can you imagine how different you would feel if you were surrounded by people who loved to hunt and you couldn’t stand the thought of touching a dead animal? That is probably an extreme example, but you get the point. And again, these differences can lead to feelings of separation, which, in turn, lead to feelings of loneliness.
Maggie: I think there is also a type of loneliness that happens when your family and friends are not around.
John: Yes, good for you, another astute observation.
Loneliness that Arises from Separation: People often feel lonely when they are separated from their family and friends. This happens in many different ways, such as when a husband passes away, when a wife travels for work, when a military spouse is stationed overseas, when a daughter goes off to college, or when a best friend moves to a new state. Depending on how this arises, the feelings can persist for days or months or years.
Maggie: I don’t know for sure, but I don’t think any of these categories fit the girl I was talking about. Is there a category that might fit her situation?
John: Her situation as we know it, correct?
Maggie: Right. I don’t really have all the facts.
John: There is a type of loneliness in group membership. Have you ever been in a group, but felt so alone you wish you could just leave.
Maggie: Yes. That sometimes happens when one or two people in the group dominate the entire group. When these kids control the group activities and dominate the discussion I sometimes feel left out.
John: Exactly. Let me see if I can further explain this.
Loneliness in Group Membership: People can feel lonely even when they are surrounded by a group of other people. This often happens to introverts who are ignored by the extroverts in a group or are left out of a group conversation. It happens when a small inner group dominates others in the larger group, including the conversation and activities. It also happens when a person is part of a group, but her friendships with others in the group are not built on trust. These situations can lead to feelings of separateness and loneliness.
Maggie: Maybe that is it. Maybe the girl I mentioned doesn’t really have close friends in her group, so she is lonely.
John: That could be.
Maggie: Are there any other types of loneliness.
John: I am sure that college academics somewhere could come up with hundreds of categories, and they probably have done so. But for our purposes, I think there are four more important categories.
Social Media Loneliness: Social media and electronic communication help us stay connected with family and friends with whom we wouldn’t otherwise talk to on a regular basis. But it can also be a cause of great loneliness, especially when it is our primary means of friendship. No matter how many e-friends we have, we still need to talk to real people occasionally, feel their touch, see their facial expressions, hear their voices and their laughter, and participate in activities with them. When we replace direct communication with electronic communication we lose out on these things, which can lead to feelings of loneliness.
The Loneliness of Utility and Pleasure Friendships: As we discussed in an earlier blog, most of us have utility friends (those who help us accomplish tasks and succeed in work and school) and pleasure friends (those with whom we socialize and recreate). We may have regular contact with these friends and even hang out with them for fun, but we usually don’t have close relationships with them. We don’t talk about our personal lives with them and we may not even trust them. Because these types of friends are usually kept at an arms distance, we can feel lonely even in their presence.
Loneliness from Abusive Relationships: When a person is in an abusive relationship, feelings of loneliness frequently arise. This is especially true in intimate relationships, like marital relationships and dating relationships. But it is also true in parental relationships, sibling relationships, friendships, and work relationships.
Loneliness from Lack of Intimate Relationships: As people grow older, they often begin to look for a romantic partner with whom to share their lives. The lack of such a partner can occasionally cause feelings of loneliness. But, these feelings can also happen when you are in a relationship, if the person’s partner is distant or abusive.
Do these categories make sense?
Maggie: Yes, they do. But I feel kind of sad talking so much about loneliness.
John: Me too. We need to do something to cheer us up for a while. How about watching a Paul Newman movie with me.
Maggie: I’d rather think about how to help people who are lonely.
John: You are a good person.
Maggie: Not really. I just don’t want to watch a black-and-white movie starring the salad-dressing guy.
John: You know, he was an actor before he sold salad dressing.
Maggie: Yeah yeah yeah, so you say.