Why Are You Feeling Lonely? Causes & Effect of Loneliness

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Whether you feel lonely depends on yourself and the context. If you feel isolated or if you feel that you have nobody to pour out your heart, you can feel lonely. And if you feel lonely, then it is you. It’s that simple. Loneliness is subjective.

More than 40% of people sometimes feel lonely. About 10% feel severe to very seriously lonely. This is according to research from the CBS from 2016. But loneliness should not be a given, not a state of being. Instead, it is a warning. Just like feeling pain or cold make sure that you take care of yourself or turn up the heating. For example, feeling lonely is a signal from your body to make open contact.

What is loneliness?

Loneliness is personal. We feel lonely when we feel less connected than we would like. We may feel left out or neglected when we have less contact with others than we would like. This may concern the number of contacts and the intimacy of the contact. In short: we lack a bond with the world, with the people around us.

“Loneliness is the subjective experience of an unpleasant or inadmissible lack of (quality of) certain social relationships. The number of contacts one has with other people may be smaller than people want. It is also possible that the quality of the relationships that have been realized falls short of the wishes. Loneliness is involuntary, it is an experience of people and therefore difficult to perceive from the outside. “

Van Tilburg and De Jong Gierveld (2007)

Emotional & social loneliness

This is about emotional and social loneliness. Emotional loneliness is a “subjective experience.”

Why Are You Feeling Lonely? Causes & Effect of Loneliness - Why Are You Feeling Lonely - Nu Age Psychology

lack of an emotionally close bond and/or an intimate relationship with a partner or close friend (s). “In social loneliness, there is” a subjectively experienced lack of meaningful relationships with a wider group of people, such as acquaintances, colleagues or fellow students, neighbors, people who share the same interest in hobby or sport. “So it is not about all social contacts, but supportive social contacts. Volatile contacts do not offer protection against loneliness. And also contacts that evoke negative or competitive feelings, such as at work or school, for example, do not help against the feeling of loneliness, but having to perform, even when compared to others, causes stress.

How often does loneliness occur?

In Europe, 43% of the adult population (people aged 19 and over) felt lonely according to a 2016 CBS survey. In this study, loneliness was measured using the loneliness scale, a questionnaire consisting of 11 items, on which people should indicate on a three-point scale or the statement, does not or sometimes applies to them. People are not directly asked how lonely they feel, because people may then give a socially desirable answer and do not dare to express it.

33% of the respondents felt moderately lonely. 10% felt serious to very lonely. That means that more than one million people over the age of 18 strongly feel lonely.

Almost 31% said they felt emotionally lonely. 43% called themselves socially lonely. Men indicate that they feel more lonely than women. Social loneliness is slightly more common among men, while emotional loneliness is somewhat more common among women. Older men above the age of 65, in particular, feel lonely. And people with children without a partner also feel more lonely than people with a partner and children. The number of young people who experience loneliness is also striking.

Where this detachment comes from?

People need each other to survive. That’s how it was and that’s how it is. For various reasons. Whether it is to alert you when danger is imminent, to comfort you when you are in pain or to take care of you when you are sick. We depend on each other for the surrender of the species and our well-being. So we need each other to feel safe, but also to be happy. The pain of loneliness is just like all other forms of pain: a signal from your body that something is wrong. Just as cold makes you seek the heat, hunger is an incentive to eat something, a ‘sleeping’ foot sign is that you have to shift your leg. Loneliness is, therefore, a signal that you need other people. Just as others need you. By making contact you feel connected and you are no longer lonely.

Why Are You Feeling Lonely? Causes & Effect of Loneliness - Why Are You Feeling Lonely - Nu Age Psychology

At the same time, a lonely feeling makes you less focused on the other. Your self-image can become lower so that you avoid contact. You feel worthless and are afraid of being rejected. Your image of man can also become more negative. And if you start to distrust people you will be less inclined to make contacts. The evolutionary model of John Cacioppo (Goossens, 2018) is based on the latter. If you feel lonely, first withdraw to consider your options. This is the first step. The second step is that you become hypersensitive to social hints and clues, verbally, and non-verbally. As a result, you see earlier the contact options, but also the possible threats that others can pose.

Suppose you walk through a shopping street and you see someone looking at you while he is walking towards you. You can then smile at the person in a friendly way. After all, a friend is a stranger you know. However, you can also think that the other is staring at you, making you aware of yourself (“do I have something on my nose?”) Or think that your other person is about to attack you, because why else would he look at it that way. The world becomes a more hostile place for you when you are lonely. This negative spiral is hard to break.

So you have to deal with loneliness the moment you notice it in yourself. This first signal gives you the chance to prevent chronic loneliness.

Why the taboo on loneliness?

Before someone can admit to himself, let alone another, that he is lonely, a lot has to be done. On the one hand, having many friends is the norm. A large group of friends. As many connections as you can on Facebook, Instagram, Google+, Snapchat, LinkedIn, Twitter. This certainly applies to young people.

Many people cannot be alone. As soon as they have a moment of peace for themselves, they contact others. Then the familiar question “What are you doing?”. Boredom is also something that people quickly experience as annoying. They would rather look for other people. “Only is only”, right? Social media ‘help’ with this.

They ensure an always-present audience. In this way, you always receive confirmation of your existence. I’m here! Just look at my selfies, see what I’ve seen, look at what I eat and drink, and with whom. I may be there. Numerous companies are anticipating this primordial desire. Give a status update in WhatsApp, share your photos with Facebook or Instagram, let us know what you think of an article on LinkedIn or send your opinion around the world via Twitter.

On the other hand, seclusion is seen as strong in our society. Being alone is good. With clear boundaries, you define yourself against others. You are an individual. You are independent. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. Of course, it is good to have a relationship and / or friends. But you don’t have to feel dependent on that.

That is how you defeat yourself, which is the message that is becoming stronger in today’s individualistic society. You have to do it yourself, although it is not alone. Besides, it is difficult to indicate from yourself that you need something if messages on social media make you believe that others have everything they want. What can they do with you, then you can think.

The tension between individual and relationships, between autonomy and dependence, between being on yourself and together, makes it confusing and difficult, certainly for some people, to find a good balance between them. This can contribute to feelings of loneliness.

Admitting that you are lonely is admitting that you are pathetic because you need others, you can think. Of course, that is not the case at all. We all need other people. Admitting that you feel lonely is listening to yourself and standing up for your interests. If that is not strong!

What are the causes of loneliness?

Loneliness has several causes that can reinforce or weaken each other. Known risk factors are changing living conditions such as partner loss, relocation, less experienced management (for example in the event of illness or old age) and divorce. Studies show that people whose risk factors increase (which reduces protection) are more susceptible to loneliness. Dementia is also a risk factor for loneliness because it is becoming increasingly difficult to find the right words and thus have meaningful conversations.

This may be a reason for those with dementia to withdraw, but the environment may not know how to deal with it and therefore avoid contact.

People with financial problems, chronic illness or physical disabilities are more often lonely when this makes social contact more difficult and people are less able to participate in society. This can also apply to informal caregivers when they are so busy and / or imprinted by their informal care duties. People who do not speak the language, orally and / or in writing, such as low-literate people and people with a migrant background, are also more likely to feel lonely.

Psychiatric diagnoses such as autism, depression, psychosis or a personality disorder can also reinforce lonely feelings. Among other things, too few social skills, lack of energy, too much self-doubt or too high expectations can cause feelings of loneliness. Which in turn can negatively influence the symptoms or complaints? A vicious circle.

Heredity may also play a role in the development of loneliness itself.

People differ in their genetic predisposition to loneliness and can, therefore, have a greater chance of loneliness. One needs a larger social network than the other. But someone can also be more adept at making and maintaining contacts than another, or one person has a more positive self-image than another and therefore makes contacts easier.

In this way, one person can also label himself as lonely more quickly, while the other sees it as the freedom to experience everything alone. So it is not necessarily true that because of the increased predisposition to loneliness you actually feel more lonely, but you are more sensitive to loneliness. If you are sensitive to loneliness, then this can also mean that you experience this very intensively. If your circumstances are such that they encourage loneliness, such as a divorce or the death of your life partner, then certain personal qualities increase the chance that you will become lonely.

It is not only circumstances and (hereditary) characteristics that make people feel lonely. People expect a lot from life, from themselves, and relationships. “As long as they become happy” is the fervent wish of every parent. And why? The pressure is constantly being increased from then on.

But loneliness is not just something that people can do something about. The traditional social connections such as church and neighborhood communities have lost a lot of meaning for many people. The living environment can also play a role in increasing loneliness. Where in the past many shops made people see each other regularly, it is now very different. In some small villages or city neighborhoods, there is no longer a supermarket or convenience store. Entire village centers have disappeared.

Because people are less regionally bound and change work and relationships more often, they move more often and further away. This ensures that people do not know each other or know each other well. If you feel like a stranger in the neighborhood and find it difficult to connect, you can feel lonely faster. Certainly, because it demands more from your social skills. But also simply because it takes time. People with, for example, a full-time job, young children and/or a considerable distance from home to work, for example, often run out of time. Investing in contacts in the neighborhood or with friends is an issue. Before you know it you feel alone.

Loneliness & life phases


As a child, you can already feel lonely. In this way, preschool children who cannot yet come out of their words so well can feel misunderstood and alone and therefore lonely. Also or in contact with peers. As a parent, you often know what your child means, but in primary school, things are very different. Not all children are equally useful in making contact with other children. For example, they are very shy. Being aware of this as a parent/educator can take a lot of the pressure off.


Young people can feel very lonely. As a young teenager, you distance yourself from your parents. You focus more on your peers, but you are not always connected to this. Also because it is difficult to share your inner world with others. Also, there is a complicated interaction between being yourself and becoming yourself through others. You may still discover who you are and want to be, but at the same time, you want to be part of it and not be excluded. Because of this, there is sometimes little room to really show yourself. How often does it happen that the happily purchased new sweater remains in the cupboard after wearing it once, because a friend at school has remarked on it? All of this can encourage feelings of loneliness.

Adolescents/students often move to a (different) city when they go to study. All of a sudden they are responsible for the design of their lives. They must build a new circle of friends and deal with the demands of higher education. They miss their parents and old friends but often receive little support from them because they are further away. Many contacts that students have are superficial and that does not help prevent loneliness. Fortunately, this loneliness is often situational and not long-lasting, that is, after such a huge switch, most young people find a new balance and loneliness often diminishes. If this is not the case, this is a reason to ring the bell. It may be because you miss a click with fellow students, so you have to look further and it takes more effort (and time) to make friends. You may also lack social skills, making it difficult to make and maintain friendships. Even then it is good to get to work actively with it. Everything can be learned.

Adults: 30 to 67 years

As an adult, the factors determining loneliness are often: job, partner, friends and having or not (young) children. Having a job can make you feel less isolated, although having to work in a highly competitive, state-of-the-art environment can increase the feeling of loneliness because you don’t know who you can trust. That makes it difficult to be open. Friends often have less time due to having a permanent relationship and children. But even when you are married you can feel lonely. Social loneliness in particular occurs. Having young children can provide extra contacts, so you can find new friends in the parents of other children at daycare, daycare center or school, but you don’t have to. Expectations about this can even get in the way of these new friendships. Young children can also cause more loneliness. Especially emotional loneliness. For example in the case of single parents or children who need more care. Sometimes you can find support online from people who experienced or experienced the same thing. For example, if you have questions about the development of your child and there is a suspicion of a development problem, you can go to the Balance Forum when you are a member of the parent association Balance.

Adults: from 68 years

Older men are often slightly more lonely than women of the same age. Especially when it comes to social loneliness. It is precisely for this age group that work has been dropped or the number of working hours has been greatly reduced. This changes the social position and daily contacts. Dealing well with this requires a lot of adaptability. Women over 85 indicate that they feel more emotionally lonely. This is often due to the loss of a partner. Widowers and widows indicate that they feel more emotionally lonely, but not necessarily more socially lonely. So they do have a network around them, but they miss someone with whom they can pour out their hearts. There is also loneliness in nursing homes. Especially if you can find less or no connection such as gay, lesbian or bisexual elderly who are afraid of their sexual orientation.

What are the consequences of feeling lonely?

If you feel lonely you can get the feeling that you are worth nothing or worth less than another. You can start to see yourself as insignificant or meaningless. This sense of worthlessness can make it more difficult to make contact with others. As a result, many people can be left out of society. Not good for the people themselves, but society also lacks enormous potential.

Lonely people go to the doctor more often, recover less quickly from illnesses and generally feel less fit.

Loneliness is associated with a poorly functioning immune system, higher blood pressure, more stress hormones, poorer sleep quality, fewer executive functions, overweight/obesity, alcoholism and drug use, and even dementia in older adults. This makes loneliness a serious risk factor for poor health, comparable to obesity and smoking.

Loneliness influences our behavior in different ways. Because it reduces the skills associated with executive functions, it is harder for lonely people to control their impulses. That means that they are more likely to give in to an unhealthy habit instead of sticking to a healthy diet or for example fitness or running. People not only feel unhappy as a result of loneliness, but they also feel unsafe. This also means that they can unconsciously put more emphasis on the negative qualities of others or have a negative experience of their pleasant contact with someone else. You soon feel yourself fall short or you feel that the other person is falling short. This allows you to behave more distantly, which can reinforce loneliness.

Is loneliness “contagious”?

Because you feel lonely, you can not only change your self-image negatively, but your image of man can also be negatively influenced. You become more negative about other people, you start to distrust others and you talk less with them. If you feel lonely, then you will forget the chat with your neighbor. You are less likely to socialize with the baker about cows and calves. Or you will contact your friends less. This also makes the neighbor a bit lonely. And your friends too. After all, they must miss in contact with you. Before you know it, loneliness spreads like this.

Effective interventions loneliness

Loneliness is an experienced difference between desire and reality concerning social relationships, which can gradually become stronger and longer-lasting. And then from the wish to desire can grow. This means that prevention is better than cure. By paying attention to your social network. By investing in your love and friendship relationships, you ensure that your social network can take a beating. But once you feel lonely and completely preventable, that is not possible. After all, the loss of important others is part of life. That means that a solution is always tailor-made. The Movie website includes activities that can be effective. The movie is the national knowledge institute for a coherent approach to social issues. Effective activities come from municipalities and civil society organizations where people attend training courses for insight and guidance. In this way, they learn to talk together or to undertake things.

It is important to first check what the wishes of people are before you come up with a solution or approach. This is how every approach starts with a conversation. Talking about loneliness already helps. And we can do that for each other: putting on the bad shoes and talking to each other. That way we can all help ourselves and each other.

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