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What is Loneliness

Loneliness corresponds to a discrepancy between an individual’s preferred and actual social relations (Peplau and Perlman, 1982; in Cacioppo et al., 2015). This discrepancy then leads to the negative experience of feeling alone and/or the distress of feeling socially isolated even when among friends.

In other words, you can feel alone with hundreds of Facebook friends if you expect thousands. You can feel alone even if surrounded by family and friends if you expect more or different.

Humans do not simply require the presence of others but the presence of significant others. People to trust and rely on. But most importantly, loneliness is a matter of perspective.

It has been suggested that loneliness can be experienced at three different levels:

1. The intimate space (the family or people in a living environment).
2. The social space (including friends and acquaintances), and
3. The public space (typically, people are anonymous space in this space).

Individuals can experience loneliness at different levels in these spaces. How do we address loneliness from a psychological point of view?

Psychological Therapy for Loneliness

Psychologists have tried a number of strategies to help individuals who feel lonely. Intuitively, these strategies make a lot of sense. Firstly, help individuals to get more friends. Yet, having a lot of friends is not a problem for most people in the age of social media. So clearly simply assisting individuals to get a lot of contacts, acquaintances and friends is not really addressing the core of the issue.

Another approach is skills training to assist people to develop new relationships and friendships if and when required. Clearly, social skills training can be very helpful in the context of autism. However, we have seen already that individuals can feel lonely in the presence of others so the skill to obtain new friends in itself is not addressing the problem.

From the viewpoint of cognitive behaviour therapy, we must address maladaptive and unhelpful cognitions that result in the experience of loneliness. What are these conditions?

Nobody becomes or feels lonely voluntarily. The experience of loneliness typically includes the feeling of being on the fringe of a social network. A feeling of being isolated. Frequently, there's the experience of a process: Step by step the individual perceives isolation and loneliness as if moving from the centre of social relations to the edge. This experience often results in maladaptive thoughts and behaviours.

The perception of living on the edge of social networks frequently results in efforts to make new contacts and in high expectations for these new friendships. These new relationships have great importance due to the perceived isolation, any event that makes the development of these friendships more difficult, in particular early in the process, can be viewed as very negative. It can result in unhelpful thinking styles such as catastrophising and personalisation.

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Cacioppo, S., Grippo, A.J., London, S., Goossens, L., Cacioppo, J.T. (2015). Loneliness: Clinical Import and Interventions. Perspect Psychol Sci., 10(2): 238–249.