Why Do The Lonely Stay Lonely?

alone-beach-girl-hey-ocean-Favim.com-90080All the lonely people.  Where do they all come from? All the lonely people.  Where do they all belong?   – Eleanor Rigby

What causes some people to be chronically lonely?  And why do lonely people often have difficulty in social situations?

The need to belong is a fundamental need for all human beings and feeling connected can be an important predictor of emotional health.  Loneliness, on the other hand, stems from the perceived difference between the social lives we actually have and the kind ofsocial life we often feel we should have.  More often than not, we feel especially lonely when we compared our current lives against some ideal that we’ve set for ourselves.  This ideal can involve comparing ourselves to people we know or to the kind of social ideal that can come from the fictional people we see in movies or television. We all feel lonely at some point in our lives though the feelings are usually temporary.

Not surprisingly, chronic loneliness can be linked to a wide range of emotional problems such as low self-esteem, depression, and an increased risk for suicide. For people who have a long history of loneliness and who don’t have the sort of social support that comes from the friends and family accumulated over a lifetime, the long-term consequences can be even more severe.  Survival studies even suggest that chronic loneliness can lead to increased risk of dying from a wide range of different causes.

All of which leads to the fundamental question of why loneliness can persist over time in some individuals.  Many researchers suggest that people who feel lonely tend to respond to those feelings in different ways depending on the social opportunities open to them and their own social skills.  These different kinds of responding can be classified as:

  • Loneliness reduction –  feeling lonely can motivate people to “fix things” by engaging in different activities to reconnect with people in their lives or to form new connections.  Whether it involves joining a new social club, meeting new people in different social settings, or just “hanging” out more in places where greater social interaction can occur, lonely people often experience a boost in positive emotion due to being with other people and regaining a sense of belonging.  Even online social interactions can reduce loneliness by giving people the sense that they are part of a greater community.
  • Loneliness perpetuation– Chronically lonely people often become accustomed doing things on their own and being less dependent on other people for help or support. One research study showed that people who are frequently frustrated in their need to belong become more desensitized to socially rewarding experiences. Conversely, lonely individuals also become hypersensitive to any perceived social slights or negative comments which makes them more uncomfortable in social settings.  The feeling of being constantly judged or criticized often leads to lonely people deliberately isolating themselves to avoid this kind of social anxiety.    Adolescents who are “loners” can become especially sensitive to any attempt to exclude them from social activities, which can reinforce their need to isolate themselves.

For most people feelings of loneliness typically lead to healthy attempts to reduce that loneliness by becoming more social.  With chronic loneliness however, attempts at loneliness reduction are often sabotaged by fear of rejection or social anxiety that leads to loneliness perpetuation instead.   While this clash between loneliness reduction and loneliness perpetuation can occur at any age, it is especially crucial during late adolescence since that is the time of life when we are especially vulnerable to changing social roles.

As adolescents, we often find ourselves in an awkward stage of our development when we are especially fearful of rejection and trying to belong any way we can.  Lonely children are particularly vulnerable since they can develop self-defeating attitudes in which they attribute social success to factors beyond their control (such as being wealthy or attractive) while viewing social rejection as being due to internalized factors that are hard to change (obesity, being too unattractive, etc.).  This kind of self-defeating attitude can prevent the kind of social development adolescents need to enter healthy adulthood.  And thus, lonely adolescents become lonely adults.

A new research study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology takes a closer look at chronic loneliness in adolescents and how they respond to being socially included or excluded.   A team of Belgian and American researchers led by Janne Vanhalst of the University of Leuven in Belgium focused specifically on late adolescence since this is a particularly important developmental period in which to study loneliness.

Research has already shown that chronically lonely adolescents are at a high risk for a variety of emotional and physical health problems, not to mention being more prone to suicide.  In the current study, the researchers specifically looked for evidence of loneliness reduction and loneliness perpetuation at work in comparing chronically lonely and non-lonely adolescents. They also looked for evidence of self-defeating attitudes that reinforced chronic loneliness and how this affected their ability to socialize over time.

The study was set up in four annual measurement waves using students recruited from three secondary schools in Belgium. During each wave, students completed the same questionnaires to measure changes over time.  Adolescents who had graduated before the study was complete were mailed questionnaires to complete at home.  Seven hundred and thirty adolescents completed the fourth wave of questionnaires with three hundred and ninety-seven completing all four waves.  Seventy-two percent of all participants were female and the average age during the fourth wave was nineteen.

During each wave, participants completed a Dutch version of a psychometric measure of loneliness with items such as “I feel isolated from other people” and “I feel left out by my friends.”   They also completed ten hypothetical scenarios describing social inclusion  or social exclusion presented randomly.  These scenarios had been developed during a previous study using undergraduates and included vignettes such as “A new lunch place opened in town, and they are giving away
free sandwiches today. Some of your classmates are going there for lunch and they ask you if you want to join them.”

After each vignette, participants were asked to rate different attributions for why they were either included or excluded.  These could include self-stable attributions (being included or excluded because of innate qualities that were relatively stable), self-variable attributions (being included or excluded because of something they said or did), other-stable attributions (being included or excluded because of innate qualities in the other people involved),  other-variable attributions (being excluded or included because of the mood that the others were in at the time), or attribution to coincidence (included or excluded simply due to coincidence).  They were also asked to rate different emotions they would experience following each vignette.

Based on the study results, the researchers identified five different loneliness trajectories (whether or not loneliness rose or fell over time).  Only three percent of the sample stayed chronically lonely over the four years of the study while most adolescents reported low levels of loneliness over time.  As expected based on previous research, chronically lonely adolescents reported consistently higher negative emotions when faced with being excluded from social situations.  Even when they are included in social activities with other people, they tend to enjoy themselves less than more social adolescents do.

There were also important differences in terms of basic attitudes about being included or excluded socially.   While most adolescents tended to attribute being included in social events to their own likability and being excluded to coincidence,  chronically lonely adolescents don’t seen to bother.  Instead, they are far more likely to blame themselves for being excluded and less likely to take any kind of personal credit for being included.

As well, these results indicate that chronically lonely adolescents are much more vigilant in social situations due to their fear of being rejected and are less likely to respond in a positive way to being included in social events.  By following these adolescents over time, the researchers were also able to get a sense of how stable these self-defeating patterns are as well as getting a sense of whether they would carry over into adulthood.

While there are limits to how this study can be used to explain loneliness in general, Janne Vanhalst and her co-researchers do suggest that their research has important implications for dealing with chronically lonely people. Many of us, whether as treatment professionals or just concerned friends or family members. often try to help the chronically lonely people in our lives. That usually involves providing them with different social opportunities or else helping them to develop their social skills.   Instead, it is likely more effective to focus on the kind of maladaptive social cognitions that can reinforce loneliness.

Even though there is no magic bullet for overcoming chronic loneliness at any age,  recognizing that how lonely people respond to fear of rejection often leads to them becoming even more isolated in future can be an important part of learning to be more social.  This is a lesson that everyone needs to learn and remember as we live our lives as social beings.