Feeling Lonely: A 21st Century Epidemic

We are an increasingly connected society, and yet we feel more alone than ever. Why is this? In fact, why is loneliness becoming a real epidemic, regardless of whether we're children, adults or the elderly?
Feeling Lonely: A 21st Century Epidemic
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 21 December, 2022

“I feel so lonely”. How many times have you said this to yourself throughout your life? Probably more than once, because this feeling can arise at any time, whether it be in childhood, adolescence, or maturity. Indeed, feeling lonely from time to time is normal. However, experiencing it for months or years isn’t.

According to UN data, there are around 7.5 billion people in the world. Furthermore, thanks, to new technologies, we’re more connected than ever before. Nevertheless, we also tend to feel more alone than ever. In addition, it seems that loneliness hurts more than it ever hurt before.

Loneliness isn’t only suffered on an emotional level, with emotions like sadness, despair, or anguish. Loneliness also has a serious impact on health and is a real epidemic with high costs. As a matter of fact, loneliness kills and it does so in many different ways.

The psychology department of the University of Chicago conducted a study in which they claimed that loneliness increases the risk of premature death. This is due to myocardial infarctions, obesity, addictions, and, sadly, suicides. Indeed, it seems that feeling lonely gradually shatters people’s lives, until they become completely defenseless.

As human beings, we need quality social connections, where feelings of security and trust prevail. In fact, a constant stimulus where affection, reciprocity, and support flow. The absence of this vital right can be devastating.

“Solitude is a beautiful thing when you have someone to talk about it with.”

-Gustavo Adolfo Becquer-

Alone man looking at the sea symbolizing the fact that I feel alone

Why do you feel lonely?

An article in the journal, Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology introduced a decisive aspect to the topic of loneliness. One that we should all reflect on. This study claimed that, until not long ago, we understood this term in a unidimensional way. In other words, you feel lonely when you’re isolated and you don’t have a social network to support you. However, taking this approach is a mistake.

Firstly, loneliness isn’t always synonymous with isolation. Being alone isn’t the same as feeling alone. In other words, many people have partners, family, and friends yet still experience profound and devastating loneliness.

Why does this happen? Why do you often feel lonely even though you have a network of figures in your immediate environment?

Let’s take a look at the reasons.

Personal stagnation

There are moments in your life when you become literally stuck. Nothing advances, nothing that surrounds you means anything to you and, what’s worse, you see no future joy on the horizon.

In the midst of this stagnation and suffocation, your mind frequently falls into a state of introspection and continuous reflection. In this situation, loneliness tends to germinate.

When your life stops having meaning, you start to create a layer around yourself. It’s as if, gradually, all your relationships lose their value and significance.

Your relationships with family and friends aren’t meaningful

One of the reasons you feel lonely is because the people around you aren’t accessible. This might mean that:

  • You don’t trust your family. Nor do you feel supported by them.
  • The friends you have are only good for socializing with. You can’t share your concerns with them. In fact, your relationship with them is superficial.
  • You don’t have anyone specific with whom to express yourself or share your hobbies, tastes, and secrets.

Nowadays, emotional loneliness is more common than social loneliness, one in which a person doesn’t have a close support network.

Lonely woman with a red umbrella thinking that I feel lonely

You do everything for others and you feel alone

This may happen if you’re a caregiver or accustomed to burdening yourself with a large number of responsibilities. That’s because you pay attention to others 24 hours a day, and there comes a time when your own needs take second place.

Then, sooner or later, the feeling of loneliness arises. You feel like you’re being left to one side, and that your environment only sees you as someone who’s there only to give, not to receive.

Adversity that’s not been overcome

A loss, an emotional breakup, or the weight of a traumatic childhood. These are the kinds of events for which no one is prepared. They’re painful and you’re not always able to overcome them. In fact, they leave wounds that are extremely difficult to heal. Furthermore, the fact that you haven’t yet faced them often leads to a feeling of constant and distressing loneliness.

In these situations, your emotional relationships don’t last long. Every bond you create is unstable, and no friend or partner seems to cover all your needs. As a matter of fact, these wounds from the past are an obstacle to creating and maintaining a stable and secure network of people that you can count on in the future. 

When loneliness turns into abuse

There’s one type of loneliness that deserves particular attention. It’s related to the elderly. Today, this reality is a true epidemic, a social alarm call that requires awareness and action. Because there are a large number of older adults (mostly women) who live in a situation of isolation and unchosen loneliness.

Sometimes, they have relatives, neighbors, and social services who care about them. However, none of this is sufficient, valid, or meaningful for these people. That’s because they spend too many hours in a day in a house where there’s only silence. These situations leave a mark that accelerates cognitive deterioration and diseases already present in the elderly.

For this reason, it’s necessary to establish other more active mechanisms to deal with the isolation of older people. Indeed, our society is moving toward a situation of increasing life expectancy, hence new intervention and care strategies must be generated.

To conclude, loneliness isn’t chosen and it’s one of the greatest enemies of current times. It demands not only greater sensitivity but also concrete emergency actions. Because loneliness is synonymous with social exclusion and it can appear at any age with serious consequences.

Take action, be more sensitive, and ask for help if you need it.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Cacioppo, J. T., Hawkley, L. C., Crawford, L. E., Ernst, J. M., Burleson, M. H., Kowalewski, R. B., … Berntson, G. G. (2002). Loneliness and health: Potential mechanisms. Psychosomatic Medicine64(3), 407–417. https://doi.org/10.1097/00006842-200205000-00005

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.