Midlife and Loneliness

“Loneliness,” writes Abigail Van Buren, “is the ultimate poverty.”

As humans, we are social beings, but sometimes we lose touch with that social part of ourselves—or we don’t have enough chances to exercise it. When this happens, we may feel lonely and isolated.

What Loneliness Is—and Isn’t

Loneliness is the feeling that we would like more connection, community, and companionship than we think we have.

The curious thing about feeling lonely is that it has roots in a measurement. When we feel lonely, we measure the amount of social interaction we have against our ideal or our desire for how much we would like to have. That “ideal” differs with each individual and can change over time, especially during midlife.

We wish that the phone would ring with invitations from our friends. We want our weekends to include activities with people we like. We long for an intimate relationship that’s loving, stimulating, and fun. We’d rather not eat our meals alone. And when those things don’t happen, we may feel lonely.

There are two important distinctions to make when talking about loneliness. The first is that loneliness is different from solitude. If you’ve ever craved “time to yourself,” you know that being alone and enjoying your own company can be a restful, replenishing, and even a creative or spiritual experience. Loneliness, in contrast, doesn’t “fill us up” the way solitude can. It drains us.

The second distinction is that feeling lonely is different from being depressed. Depression is an ongoing state of feeling low and avoiding activity. While loneliness can certainly contribute to depression, feeling lonely once in a while is a normal part of being human. It usually ebbs and flows with what’s going on in our lives, whereas depression doesn’t pass as easily or quickly.

How to Cope When You’re Feeling Lonely

When you’re feeling lonely, here are some things you can do to comfort yourself:

  • Check in with yourself. Are you waiting for others to take action instead of doing so yourself? Are you worried about what might happen if reached out, asked for support or made an invitation? As you explore what you’re feeling the loneliness, be gentle with yourself.
  • Reach out. Do you have a friend you can call? You don’t have to share how you’re feeling; sometimes just talking with someone you care about and hearing how they are doing can lift your spirits. (Your reaching out will make them feel cared for, too!)
  • Make a move, make a stretch. Do an activity that nourishes you, such as going for a walk, being in nature, or snuggling your pet. Or stretch outside of your comfort zone but without overwhelming yourself. Accept an invitation that sounds fun. Find a book group or a cooking circle. Use your loneliness as an invitation to try something new and meet likeminded people you enjoy.

Loneliness is something we all experience from time to time. But it can also be a call to action, a message that we need more connection in our lives, and that the time has come to seek it out.

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