Back in 2017, then-former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy (he's now back in the post) warned that "America is in the midst of a loneliness epidemic." Three years later, an actual epidemic struck, severely limiting our ability to socialize and exponentially increasing America's loneliness problem.
Which, in light of the health-related havoc caused by Covid, might not seem that pressing an issue by comparison. But research shows loneliness is a serious issue. Social isolation, scientists have found, can be as bad for you as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
Getting a handle on loneliness is essential then, and while you may not have much control over the coronavirus restrictions and remote work policies that can make the problem worse, there is plenty you can do to ease your own personal loneliness. The first step, according to coach E.B. Johnson on Medium, is realizing loneliness isn't a monolithic phenomenon.
There are different flavors and shadings of loneliness, each with its own particular cause. Diagnosing the exact one that's afflicting you is the first step to reducing your suffering. Here's a quick rundown of the seven types of loneliness Johnson identifies.
1. Superficial friendship
The worst kind of loneliness, in my experience, is the kind you experience with other people, the feeling that even though someone is right next to you, in terms of connection and understanding they're actually miles away. Johnson kicks off her taxonomy of loneliness with just this feeling of being isolated and unseen even though you're supposedly with friends. "Skin-deep friendships don't offer up a lot," she warns.
2. Brave new world
Not all loneliness is necessarily bad (though it's never much fun). Some is temporary and a sign of personal growth. "Maybe you're setting yourself up in a new city where you don't know anyone and don't have a set routine. Maybe you've moved jobs, and it's your first quarter at a new company. When we wipe the slate clean with big change, it's scary. It can cause us to feel isolated and alone in the experience," Johnson explains.
3. Animal connection
"Are you someone who has always been surrounded by animals? Do you suddenly find yourself unable to care for a pet? Your loneliness could be stemming from your need to connect with the animal world," Johnson says. For those of us who grew up surrounded by nature and then moved to the concrete jungle, I'd take this a step further and suggest that it is also totally possible to long for a connection with the natural world more generally.
4. Outside the box
A kind of extension of the whole "lonely with friends" concept, outside the box loneliness comes about when you feel out of touch not just with a particular person but with a whole social scene.
"Have you ever felt like you're the odd man out? Like you don't belong in the environment that you're in?" Johnson asks (and, I'd wager, gets a lot of nodding heads in response)."If you don't feel like you fit in or belong in the environment that you're in, you start to feel isolated as an outcast."
5. Intimate solitude
"Humans are very social creatures, and many of us crave deeply intimate relationships (that are non-romantic in nature). We want to be surrounded by people who love us unconditionally; people who cheer us on when things are tough. When you don't have a deep emotional connection at home, it can lead to loneliness," Johnson writes, surprising exactly no one.
6. Growth and separation
Another flavor of "good loneliness." While "Brave new world" happens when your context changes, this variety occurs when you change.
"You can become incredibly lonely when you grow apart from people who were once important to you. Although this is a natural process, it's a painful one. We watch our friends and loved ones move in different directions while we are also forced to pull away toward our own fulfillment," Johnson notes.
7. Lacking romance
During the worst of the country's coronavirus restrictions last year, the Dutch government advised single citizens to get themselves a "sex buddy" to bubble up with to avert the worst of lockdown loneliness. It's not just health authorities in the Netherlands who understand how profoundly painful a lack of intimacy can be. So does Johnson, who calls this one of the most common types of loneliness.
Once you've pinpointed the cause of your loneliness you'll be much better placed to take concrete steps to improve the situation, be that more weekend hikes, a Tinder account, a moving van, or joining a club or activity whose members feel more aligned with your true identity. Johnson also offers a handful of concrete suggestions in her complete post.