What’s the opposite of loneliness? If we were asked to define loneliness itself we may all come up with a slightly different concept, but we’d all be able to give our own definition. But the opposite? That’s much more difficult - impossible even.
Perhaps the opposite depends on our experiences of loneliness. Often there’s a misconception that if we're alone, then we're lonely. That absolutely is not the case. Being alone can be very good for mental health. It’s something that we may even crave and really enjoy. And yet, sometimes we could be in a room full of people - surrounded by people - and feel the loneliest we've ever felt. Both of these things can affect the same person, at different times. Being alone and feeling lonely are not the same - and there are even many different ways in which we can feel lonely.
So what causes us to feel lonely? Well, humans are social animals. We are hard-wired to connect with other human beings. When we were living in tribes, it was essential that we worked as a community, with hunter gatherers, protectors, nurturers, all working together to create one strong collective. Getting separated from this community, this tribe, would have been very dangerous indeed.
Loneliness is actually an evolutionary mechanism. It is a signal our brain sends to let us know that something is missing - something is wrong. It works much like hunger. If, for example, you hadn't eaten for a day or two, your brain would be sending signals which would be physically painful, and would lead you to fulfil that need by eating. Loneliness works in exactly the same way. It’s a feeling which is intended to make us realise that we’re lacking something, because social connection is one of the most important core needs we have.
In fact, the need for connection is so deeply rooted in us that a lack of it can actually make us feel very rejected, very hurt, and socially excluded. When we experience any of those things, it hurts like a physical pain. Your brain is saying you need to be part of a tribe, you need to reach out. It’s important to realise that those painful feelings are there as a prompt to encourage us to make connections with others.
Very often when we feel lonely we tell ourselves there must be something wrong with us. We may feel ashamed, and we may - consciously or unconsciously - start to avoid people even more. This just perpetuates loneliness. Whenever you feel lonely, don’t listen to the stories you may start telling yourself about why you’re feeling lonely. It isn’t something you’ve done wrong, and there isn’t anything wrong with you. And you’re definitely not alone in feeling this way. In fact, researchers suggest that in industrialised countries around a third of people are affected by loneliness.
So when you recognise those feelings yourself, it’s really important to tell yourself that it is simply your brain’s way of reminding you to reach out and seek contact, in the same way as feeling hungry leads you to answer that need with food.
At Beam, we are working hard to help prevent loneliness and are proud to sponsor The Social Medicine, a totally free initiative designed to help us connect with people better. Go to their website to sign up for a free zoom place on their next event.