When we talk about loneliness, we imagine an old man or woman, alone and without any visitors. And while this kind of scenario sadly does exist (visit your neighbours, people!), feeling lonely is a lot more nuanced than we might expect.
An intriguing new study has found that loneliness can hit at any time in life, and it’s not necessarily linked to having no friends. Rather, you may not have the kind of friends that you want.
Research by Dr. Dilip Jeste and his team at the University of California found that loneliness peaks at three ages in life (late 20s, mid-50s and late 80s) and is classed as “subjective distress”.
“Loneliness does not mean being alone; loneliness does not mean not having friends,” Jeste explains.
Instead, he says, it comes from the gap between the social relationships you have in your life, and those that you crave. It’s a state of mind rather than a fixed condition, and it comes down to feeling understood by those around you.
And so, while feeling lonely naturally causes distress, it is “a little bit more under our control than some people think”, says Jeste.
How to take back that control, and meet people you really connect with? Try following these steps…
Examine your relationships
If you’re feeling lonely, you’re not alone: nine million people in the UK of all ages are either often or always lonely.
The situation is mirrored in America, where nearly half the population feels isolated.
Of that figure, 56% say the people who surround them “are not necessarily with them”, while 54% feel like no-one knows them well.
A further 40% say the relationships they do have “aren’t that meaningful”. In other words, we have people in our lives, but we’re not always feeling connected to them; and that creates a sensation of emptiness.
So, a good starting point is to think about the people around you. Who energises you? Who makes you feel drained (cue: avoid)? Can you pinpoint what it is you that think that you’re missing?
Use this process to build up a picture of the kind of relationships you crave, whether that’s a work wife, someone to have a laugh down the pub with, or a person you can really confide in.
Be proactive and open
Now you have an idea of what you want from a good relationship, go seek it out.
Friendship won’t come and find you, so you have to be the agency of the change that you want.
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The usual advice applies. Sign up to local clubs, say yes to new invitations (even when you’re feeling scared), try volunteering – which will help generate happiness anyway, as well as putting you in the path of new people.
Then: be open. It’s our default setting to be reticent when we meet new people; we’re conditioned to hold back, and not express our feelings, for fear of looking too eager.
But research shows that by breaking these ingrained “safety behaviours”, we’re more likely to build trust and a sense of closeness.
When you’re real, you encourage other people to be also: and that creates the core of a meaningful relationship.
“Vulnerability is, ‘Here I am – my frayed edges, my secrets, my fears, my affection Be careful – they’re precious,'”says psychologist Karen Young.
“In return, it invites, ‘Oh, I see you there. It’s okay, you’re safe. And here – here’s me.'”
Create space for meaningful friendship
Feelings of loneliness can be thrown into relief by city living, with social networks that ebb and flow rapidly, and everyone distracted by their busy, job-centric lives.
And our obsession with phones doesn’t help. We’re all in the habit of looking down, not outwards.
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Add in a convenience culture geared around instant gratification, and you have a perfect storm for stalled relationships.
Friendships take time to form; around 80 hours, in fact. They won’t just happen at the drop of a hat, especially if you’re looking for that all-important connection.
Instead, you need to slow things down and invest a bit of energy and effort into the process.
Start widening the net, and looking beyond your usual avenues for meeting people. The more people you come across, the more likely you are to find someone you hit it off with.
Then, create the space in which that friendship can evolve. How? Look to new experiences, learning new skills – and yes, shared adventures.
Away from the distractions of everyday life, friendships have the room to develop. Whether you’re on an overnight train trip in Vietnam, or taking a day-long boat trip around Colombia’s Caribbean coast, you give yourself the time to get to know people.
And the like-minded link in Flash Pack adventures means the foundations for chemistry are already set. Hello, the people you *really* want to meet.
Images: Shutterstock and Flash Pack
Meet like-minded people on three great escapes
Beach-hop in the Philippines
Glamp out for two nights on a secret beach in the Bacuit Archipelago (with a private chef on-hand), quad bike over the iconic Chocolate Hills and kayak across crystal-clear waters with your Flashpacker pals.
Get partying in Cuba
Cruise around Old Town Havana in a 1950s convertible, learn how to salsa over delicious local rum and live all your beach dreams on the Caribbean island of Cayo Levisa.
Spy the wildlife of South Africa
Come swimming with seals – the playful “dogs of the ocean” – spy out whales and meerkats, and get familiar with the Big 5 on a ravishing game drive or two in the Eastern Cape.