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How To Not Feel Lonely In The Company of People

ezeileagu chibisi chidubem, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons


Feeling lonely, even when engaging in social interaction, is a commonly reported feeling. Maha Roy, an intern for a senator, and a human rights advocate, speaks on their experiences with this feeling and more. In their interview, they stated, “being alone and being lonely are two different things. Even when in a crowd, you might sometimes feel lonely.” 


Elaborating on their statement, Roy stated, “You might feel this way because you can’t express yourself to the people around you. You may feel like an outcast, lacking the confidence to be yourself.” Roy’s experiences are not isolated incidents, as social exclusion and struggle with self-confidence are common reasons for this feeling (Figure 1). While all of these scenarios are plausible, emerging research shows that there are other possible solutions that may help alleviate feelings of loneliness in social interactions.


Figure 1: Lonely Surrounded By People

Another common reason for this feeling could be underlying mental illness such as depression.


R. Gordon Rinderknecht and his associates published an academic article that discusses how the tricks to feeling less lonely might be more than meets the eye. Rinderknecht and his associates discuss how perceived feelings of loneliness vary greatly depending on whether people perform activities alone, in conjunction, or in parallel. The perceived feelings of loneliness also vary depending on how close the tie between the subjects are.


Rinderknecht explains in the introduction that in a day and age where social interaction is everywhere, loneliness may not necessarily come from a lack of social interaction, but from a mismatch between the desired interaction and experienced interaction. 


To better understand this mismatch, the researchers first had to conceptualize the differences between varying levels of closeness between people. They first differentiate between “weak” and “strong” ties between people. Examples of strong ties include close friends, intimate partners, and family. Examples of weak ties include classmates, coworkers, and roommates. Although this characterization of tie strength is from older research by Mark Granovevetter, it was an important part of the analysis.


The researchers also conceptualized different types of social interaction. They defined “active engagement” as people doing the same activity together, such as two people folding laundry together. They defined “passive engagement” as two people in each others’ presence, but not engaged in the same activity, such as one person folding laundry and the other person cooking. 


The results found that engaging in activities alone reported the highest feelings of loneliness, which is intuitively expected. People passively engaged in activities reported a slightly lower level of loneliness, and people actively engaged in activities reported the lowest levels of loneliness. In addition, when people were engaging with strong ties, the reported loneliness was even lower. 


It’s important to note the limitations of this research. It was done on graduate students. Different groups of people may or may not have different results such as parental status, single people, socioeconomic status, and more. They may or may not have different types of activities or different social networks. 


There also may be identity politics that play a role in loneliness that this study did not address. Roy stated, “As an immigrant student I felt subjected to stereotypes about vegetarianism and islamophobia. When really I practice Sufi Islam and eat a lot of non-vegetarian food. Cultural barriers, sometimes even when you’re with someone from the same culture, can contribute to feeling lonely.” 


It’s also important to not discount the importance of weak ties. Granoveter’s research showed that weak ties are also important as they help expand one’s network. Roy’s story is also an example of this. “As a former international student, my acquaintances are valuable to me. They all helped me meet specific needs, whether it was financial, resources, or community. They were an important part of my social network.” 


From this research and Roy’s story, there are plenty of important takeaways. Realize the importance of both strong and weak ties and make room for both in your life. Spend the most time with people who understand and accept you for who you are. And make room for more active engagement with these people.


Be creative and you’ll find there are many ways to incorporate active engagement in your life. For example, if you normally work out at home in isolation, or go to the gym in passive engagement, you may turn the same activity into active engagement by designing a workout routine or taking a workout class with a friend. Instead of cancelling plans because you have cooking to do, make plans with a friend to cook together. Your friend might even be more likely to agree if they understand the research behind it.


Edited by: Matsoarelo Makuke

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