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Loneliness Reflects Quality of Relationships, Not Quantity

Our resident psychiatrist explains why you might feel alone, even when you're surrounded by people.

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Tyler Joe

Q. Why do I feel lonely even when I’m surrounded by others?

People tend to think of loneliness as an issue that impacts the elderly or people who are socially isolated, but loneliness is more complicated than that. It is a longing for genuine social connection and not an objective measure of the number of people in your contacts.

A recent survey conducted by Cigna found that nearly half of all Americans report sometimes or always feeling alone and one in four rarely or never feel as though there are people who really understand them. Only 53 percent say they spend some quality time with friends or family on a daily basis. It is noteworthy that young people—Generation Z—are lonelier than baby boomers.

The feeling of loneliness has more to do with the quality than the quantity of your relationships. Having high-quality connections and a need to belong are fundamental. For this need to be fully satisfied, you must have a few close people in your life whom, one, you have frequent positive interactions with, and, two, who care deeply about you and who you deeply care about within an ongoing, enduring, and stable bond. Being around lots of people you don’t connect with or not spending enough time with those you are close to can leave you feeling pretty lonely.

While social media is not to blame for loneliness, people who have daily face-to-face interactions with friends and family are less likely to feel socially disconnected. Getting enough sleep is also important. The sleep-deprived are more likely to feel alone and less inclined to engage with others.

Belongingness is a need, not a want. Find a group of friends with whom you feel like you belong and make them a priority.

Dr. Samantha Boardman is a clinical instructor in psychiatry and an assistant attending psychiatrist at Weil Cornell Medical College in New York and the the founder of positivepercription.com.

This story originally appeared in the May 2019 issue of Marie Claire.

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