Loneliness isn’t something we talk about, but maybe it should be. If you’re feeling isolated, depressed, irritable, or just plain sad, loneliness might be to blame. Here’s how to understand why you feel so alone sometimes — and how to make the slow-but-steady connections that can help end your solitary confinement.
“The thing people don’t tell you about homeschooling is how lonely it can be,” says Julianne*. “People will talk to you all day about finding social networks for our kids, but we never seem to talk about how lonely it can be when you’re a homeschooling mom.”
Julianne pulled her son Bram out of school at the end of second grade to homeschool him. She spent almost a year deciding whether to homeschool and then how to homeschool her now 10-year-old son. Along the way, she asked advice of the moms she considered her closest friends. They’d met on the first day of their sons’ preschool at a school-sponsored coffee morning and became fast friends, helping each other through everything from marriage challenges to mosquito infestations. When Julianne developed shingles while her husband was on a business trip in Germany, her friends rallied to fill her freezer and make sure Bram had activities and play dates to keep him busy. Julianne wasn’t surprised when her friends were supportive of her decision to homeschool.
But a few months into their first homeschool year, Julianne was finding it harder and harder to connect with her friends. The other boys were participating in an after-school soccer program, which made it hard to get together in the afternoons. Evenings meant homework, and weekends were family time. Even when they managed to find a date that worked for everyone, Julianne didn’t get the warm feeling of belonging she’d always had when they got together. Listening to the other moms talk about the PTA fundraiser and the new librarian, she felt like an outsider.
Homeschooling may be on the rise, but it’s still lonely business for many parents. Thanks to growing numbers (1.5 million — and probably more than that —according to U.S. Census Bureau data released in 2012), it’s much easier to find a like-minded park group or co-op than it would have been just a decade ago. I know plenty of homeschoolers who rarely spend a day at home. They are busy taking outside classes, participating in activities with other kids, and getting together with their friends. Just as in more traditional environments, there are kids who have trouble finding their niche, but patience and effort go a long way. Most homeschooled kids have thriving social networks.
Their parents, however, often struggle to build a meaningful community. I met so many lovely people in our first few years of homeschooling, but there was no one I could turn to in an emergency. I didn’t have a shoulder to cry on or a pal to tell me to buck up and get on with it when I was feeling stuck. I wasn’t alone, but I was lonely — and apparently, that’s exactly how loneliness works.
People have a misconception that loneliness means the absence of a social life, but that’s rarely the case, says John T. Cacioppo, Ph.D., a University of Chicago researcher who has spent the past two decades exploring the significance of loneliness in modern life. What he discovered is fascinating. Lonely people are just as likely as not-lonely people to be surrounded by friends and family, neighbors and co-workers. They are usually just as attractive, popular, and intelligent as people who aren’t lonely — sometimes even more so. What separates them from other people is the fact that those social connections don’t go deep enough — lonely people don’t feel fulfilled by their relationships. Whatever their physical condition, their emotional condition is one of alienation.
And before you start to think there’s something wrong with you because you manage to feel lonely even when you’re surrounded by people, let me assure you: You are not alone in your loneliness. Cacioppo discovered that nearly 60 million U.S. residents — that’s roughly one out of every five people — have feelings of loneliness that keep them from feeling happy. When people in a 2002 study were asked how many intimate friends they had — confidants they could turn to for emotional support — the most common answer was “zero.” More than a quarter of study participants said they had no one to confide in. (In the same study given in 1985, “three” was the most common number of confidants, and fewer than 10 percent of people said they had no one to talk to.)
This is all very sad, but what difference does it really make if one — or even 300,000 — homeschooling moms feels lonely? A big difference, researchers are discovering. Loneliness doesn’t just make you unhappy — though it does correlate to higher risk for anxiety and depression. Loneliness can literally make you sick. People who are lonely are more likely to develop hormone imbalances, more likely to have problematic inflammation (which can lead to arthritis, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes), and more likely to have dementia and other memory problems. Lonely people have trouble sleeping. They’re less likely to recover from serious illnesses or surgery. They may catch more colds. All told, the effects of loneliness on your physical health are roughly the same as the effects of smoking. And loneliness actually seems to be contagious: Researchers found that knowing a lonely person increases your chances of being lonely by anywhere from 40 to 60 percent. If a friend of a friend is lonely, your risk for loneliness increases by as much as 36 percent.
Biologically, this all makes sense. Back when humans were just starting to get excited about painting on cave walls and planting berries, being alone was risky business. Social groups were necessary for survival, not companionship — a fact that’s still hard-wired into our nervous systems today. When we feel excluded in a social situation, that feeling triggers the same part of the brain that alerts us to physical pain. Our bodies start pumping cortisol, the stress hormone, in greater quantities, putting us constantly on edge during the day and interrupting our sleep cycle at regular intervals throughout the night. Those two habits might have saved your life as a solitary member of nomad tribe, but in the modern world, they leave us irritable, unhappy, and disconnected.
Julianne’s* loneliness in those first months of homeschooling could be called life-shift loneliness. It happens when your daily social routine is significantly disrupted, like when you drop out of traditional school or change jobs, explains Daniel Russell, Ph.D., one of the developers of the UCLA Loneliness Scale. Many of our social relationships are relationships of convenience — they exist because of shared circumstances, such as working at the same office or waiting in the same carpool lane. When our circumstances change, so does our participation in that social network. Rebuilding those networks takes time, and it’s common to feel lonely for several months or more when you lose a community like that. For Julianne, things started to get better after about four months, though she says it’s taken almost two years for her to develop a similarly strong network.
Lower on the loneliness scale is situational loneliness, the feeling of exclusion that you have when everyone in your co-op seems to have gotten together for a park day without you or your regular Monday moms night out gets cancelled. As long as these aren’t ongoing occurrences, the loneliness you feel in these situations is usually short-lived and resolves itself. More serious loneliness can develop when a life-shift is major life-change: Moving to a new city, for instance, not only shakes up your social connections, it forces you to recreate your entire life in a new place. It can take up to a year or more to shake feelings of loneliness after a major change, says psychiatrist Richard Schwartz, M.D. Even more serious are friendship ruptures, which, sure, can occur when you and a partner or you and a close friend split. But often, these ruptures are caused by less dramatic situation: Suddenly, you’re dealing with a special needs kid or a sick parent, and you don’t have time for your familiar social life. Your friends may offer support from the sidelines, but as you’re less and less available, they drift back into their lives without you. Homeschoolers can find themselves dealing with any of these kinds of loneliness, depending on their situations.
Even some of the things we do that seem like they should make us feel more connected can exacerbate our loneliness. Like most people, I have a collection of go-to forums and Facebook friends, but I am not the only person who doesn’t feel satisfied by these connections. It turns out, if you’re already lonely, social media like Facebook will only make you more lonely. In a groundbreaking 1998 study, when the Internet was still in its early days, Robert Kraus, a researcher at Carnegie Mellon University, found that people who used the Internet felt less happy and socially connected, feelings that grew in direct proportion to how frequently they used the Internet. Just this year, researchers analyzed the data from forty different studies related to Internet use and well-being and found that Kraus’s research holds true: Heavy online use does make you feel lonelier.
The reasons for this correlation aren’t clear, but our instinct for comparison seems to be one factor. On sites like Facebook or Instagram, we get a steady stream of picture-perfect moments from other homeschool lives. Even as we click “like” on a friend’s photo of their field trip to Costa Rica or cool backyard volcano, we’re judging ourselves for not living up to those standards, forgetting that we seldom see other people’s math-related breakdowns or late-night multiplication freak-outs. Logically, we know that we tend to present the best version of ourselves on sites like Facebook, so it makes sense that our friends would do that, too. But faced with a feed of upbeat status reports, it’s easy to feel more alone than ever. We may have a wider social network, but it’s also shallower — which is why a social site like Google+ feels the need to explain to people that their “friends” circles should include “only your real friends.” Online friendships can bloom into meaningful relationships, of course, but they can also give you the illusion of having more close friends than you actually do, creating a persistent social dissatisfaction that ultimately makes loneliness more acute. Interestingly, people who say they have fulfilling social lives are just as likely to feel lonely after spending time on Facebook as people who login to Facebook feeling lonely. Superficial interactions and passive relationships do not seem to satisfy our need for human connection. Like emotional fast food, they leave us wanting more.
Homeschoolers aren’t necessarily more prone to loneliness than other people, but our loneliness can be profound. For one thing, we’re parents, a condition that increases risk for loneliness across the board. (In one study, British mothers said their first year of parenthood was the loneliest year of their lives.) We’re likely to have those wider-but-shallower networks of acquaintances, as we meet new people at park days or in online forums. Our social networks are often inextricably entwined with our children’s social lives: Our friends are their friends’ parents. Some of these relationships are serendipitous. (I met my closest homeschooling friend because our daughters bonded over a passion for My Little Pony.) But often we’re left without an emotional support system of our own—we have lots of nice acquaintances but no real friends, no people who know all about us and love us anyway, as Elbert Hubbard once said. We are lonely, and it can seem like there is no good reason why.
One of the most common reactions to loneliness is frustration: What’s wrong with me that I can be surrounded by people and still feel alone?
In other areas of life, our values often affect our actions. Kids who say good grades are important are more likely to earn good grades than those who think grades don’t matter. People who value truth are less likely to tell lies. But with loneliness, the inverse is true: The more we want close friendships, the less likely we are to feel like we have them. The more lines we cast, hopeful that one will bring back a friend, the more aware we are of our own loneliness.
Loneliness is often a taboo topic, says Cacioppo, who says patients are often more comfortable saying “I’m depressed” than “I’m lonely.” We view loneliness as a personal failing — if we were just smarter, or nicer, or more interesting, or better in some indefinable way, we wouldn’t feel so alone. But loneliness is an ordinary experience, says Schwartz, who frequently has to remind his patients that they are not the only ones experiencing loneliness. “Loneliness is serious and it’s important, but it’s part of the ordinary human experience,” Schwartz says. “I doubt there’s anyone who’s never had to cope with a period of loneliness.”
Patti* learned this first-hand. Part of a happy, long-time homeschooling group, Patti wasn’t prepared for her social network to break down as her twin daughters entered high school. Some of the parents opted back into traditional schools; others got serious about outside classes; still others had activities and interests that made it hard to get together. Patti says she went from seeing her homeschool friends once or twice a week to seeing them every couple of months. When she finally found her social footing again through a meet-up group for local teen homeschoolers, she says she and the other parents immediately flocked to each other.
“We were like refugees,” she says. “We had all been part of long-standing groups, but that changed as our kids got older. We were so happy to find each other and for our kids to find each other, too.”
One of the sneakiest side effects of loneliness is that it works to perpetuate itself. When you’re lonely, you’re more likely to shut down in social situations, focusing on self-preservation rather than on real connection. Loneliness makes you suspicious — why is this stranger being nice to me? — and resistant to friendly advances. It robs you of your sense of humor and your willingness to jump into a conversation. Interacting with people takes time and effort. It takes a willingness to risk all the negative things that can result from human interaction: rejection, criticism, intrusion, annoyance. Pushing past your internal resistance isn’t an easy task, but the rewards can be significant — and even the smallest efforts can move us toward the kind of meaningful relationships we crave. One Purdue University study reports that simply making eye contact with strangers, instead of avoiding meeting their eyes, can make people feel less lonely. Making small steps can lead to bigger steps — and ultimately, to a social network that gives you the emotional connection you need.
Practice meditation. Researchers at UCLA found that when lonely people meditated regularly, they significantly reduced loneliness (and its associated inflammation). Study participants used simple mindfulness meditation, focusing on the present moment and using deep breathing techniques. A meditation session before your next social activity might make it easier to turn off the negative effects of depression so that you can have a more positive social experience.
Engage on social media. Stop clicking “like” and make a real connection. While spending lots of passive time on sites like Facebook can increase loneliness, genuine interaction can reduce loneliness. Instead of giving a virtual thumbs-up next time you see a photo of your friend’s reorganized homeschool space, leave a comment about it — or better yet, give her a call to chat about it. When you make the shift from using Facebook as a social proxy to using it as a social springboard, your time spent there won’t leave you feeling lonely.
Make the effort. Finding your tribe is hard at any stage of life, but it can be especially hard for homeschooling parents. Keep at it. Patti says they tried dozens of groups and activities before landing on the group that was the right fit. It’s tempting to go hermit when you’re dealing with loneliness, but isolating yourself can make those feelings worse, says Toronto psychotherapist Leslie Mussar, Ph.D. By avoiding people, you’re mentally reinforcing the belief that you have no social value.
Stay busy. Your social calendar may not fill all your emotional needs, but it’s an important starting point to building a satisfying social network. Think about an activity that’s meaningful to you — knitting, reading, cooking, blowing things up in your backyards — and look for a group that’s focused on that activity. Having an interest in common makes starting conversations easier, and it’s often less threatening to pursue a passion than a friend. Don’t fill up your schedule with junk, though — try to choose only activities and organizations that you’d want to join even if you weren’t feeling lonely.
Think about what you are missing. All loneliness is not created equal, which is one reason it’s hard to offer easy solutions. Most people have one of two types of loneliness: They’re missing a social circle, a group of like-minded people who engage in conversation, activities, and emotional support, or they miss having an intimate friend, who satisfies our need for emotional closeness. (Often, people’s chosen partners fill the role of intimate friend, but not always, says Mussar.)
Let yourself be vulnerable. It’s not easy to put your feelings out there, but it may be one of the fastest ways to move past loneli- ness into a relationship. Kianna* was having trouble making friends at any of her local homeschool groups. Though everyone was friendly, no one seemed interested in more than casual conversation. The loneliness was so bad that Kianna started to think about putting her son Jed and daughter Riley back in school. Then one day, Kianna came to park group stressed out about an encounter at an unmarked intersection near the park. She couldn’t help ranting about the poor planning as she related the incident to the other moms, and she was surprised when they jumped in with stories of their own. Soon they were swapping funny stories about their experiences learning to drive, and Kianna left with a coffee date with another mom on her calendar. “People always say if you want to make friends you have to be yourself, but I was trying too hard to be the best version of myself,” Kianna says.
Be patient. Julianne*, whose story started this article, says it took her two years to rebuild her social network. Two years into homeschooling, she once again has a handful of close pals she can rely on for emotional and practical support. She says persistence is the key — one of her closest friends now took almost six months to commit to a get-together, but now, they see each other every week. “Now I look for the new moms who have just started homeschooling and try to really reach out to them,” says Julianne. “I know how lonely it can be. I’ve been there.”
*last names removed for online publication
This article was originally published in the summer 2014 issue of HSL.