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Expert Advice

Comfort a friend facing a lonely holiday

It might surprise you that during this season of holiday parties and family gatherings, some of us feel more alone than ever. Loneliness creeps up year-round, but it can be an especially tough experience during the holidays.

What is loneliness?

Public health practitioner and physician Jeremy Nobel says that loneliness is the difference between the social connections a person wants and the ones they feel they have. It doesn’t matter if a person has plenty of friends; their view of the quality of their relationships can lead them to feel that something is missing. It’s also possible for someone to feel lonely even when they’re surrounded by others. One might feel lonely in a marriage, at work, or in a classroom.1 Loneliness is not the same as being alone—choosing solitude at times can help introverts recharge.

Why does loneliness matter?

At any given time, 20 percent of people—60 million Americans—feel loneliness that is a major source of unhappiness.2 It can happen to anyone, at any age, and to people with many friends and contacts.3 According to Kory Floyd, professor of interpersonal communication and author of The Loneliness Cure, loneliness can have serious health consequences. It increases the risk of depression and the likelihood of misusing drugs or alcohol. It can shorten the lifespan about as much as smoking fifteen cigarettes per day.4 The increased stress from loneliness can contribute to heart disease, diabetes, and other chronic conditions.

Why might someone feel more lonely during the holidays?

According to Floyd, many factors could spark such feelings. “You may live far away from family and be unable to see them during the holidays. It might be the first holiday season since a parent passed away, or the first Thanksgiving after losing a child. Some people dread spending time with relatives. Even though they are surrounded by people, they can still feel there is no one they really connect with.” Nobel adds that society's expectations about deep connections to loved ones during this time of year can make people feel worse if that’s not the case for them.

How can you tell if someone may be feeling lonely?

As Floyd explains, “Lonely people spend more time alone. You might think feeling lonely would motivate people to be more socially engaged, but it actually has the opposite effect.” Nobel notes, “Loneliness often distorts what we think we deserve from relationships. People incorrectly think that others don’t value them, that they have little worth; they draw within themselves further, and this makes it harder to reach out.”

Other signals could include:

  • Getting sick or having frequent sleep disturbances
  • Seeming disconnected, sad, or anxious
  • Recently experiencing a big life change, like the death of a loved one, health problems, loss of a job, moving to a new city, or ending a relationship, for example

How can you help someone who seems lonely during the holidays?"

However you decide to reach out, the most important thing is to make your loved one feel safe and supported.5 Avoid saying or doing anything that suggests something is wrong with them—loneliness is already stigmatized. One way to do this is to put yourself out there first and share something personal. It doesn’t have to do with your experience with loneliness. The key is to let your guard down and be vulnerable.

  1. Listen without advising. As Floyd notes, many people are uncomfortable around those who are struggling with loneliness, so they keep conversations short and superficial. This only adds to the problem. Instead, he suggests taking time to “ask your friend questions, and listen intently, without interrupting and without offering unsolicited advice. That’s something that can help your loved one feel heard and accepted. Advice such as ‘Snap out of it’ or ‘You just need to get out there and meet people’ is usually not helpful, even if it is well-intentioned, because it implies that their loneliness is simply a matter of the choices they make.”
  2. Share an experience. Nobel suggests, “Do things that don’t require ‘performing’ or ‘being on.’ Go to a museum or a concert and share an experience together. It gives you material for a conversation that you can really connect over more easily than topics like the weather.”
  3. Make plans—and stick to them. Invite your loved one to join you for lunch, a movie, or even to sit next to you for holiday dinner. And, Floyd cautions, when you make plans, make every effort not to cancel or reschedule, as lonely people often look forward to that time together.
  4. Connect through creativity. Nobel believes that creative expression—using photos, videos, poems, or music—gives us a way to craft and share our personal stories and experience the stories of others. You could invite your friend to think about their most positive memories of the holidays. Find a creative outlet you can do together—write a poem, make a collage or homemade cards. Or send each other a photo of something that you do around the holidays—dressing up, lighting the menorah, cooking a special meal, etc.
  5. Volunteer together. Having a sense of purpose or feeling like we’ve contributed to something greater than ourselves may help us feel more connected.6 Learn about how to find a volunteer opportunity.
  6. Be patient. Remember that loneliness can warp someone’s experience of a relationship because they are afraid of getting hurt. They might seem negative or irritable. Floyd reminds us that the holidays are a difficult time for many of us, whether we’re lonely or not. Try even harder than usual to be kind, patient, and understanding.

What if they say they want to be alone?

Give your loved one as much space as they want. Be persistent but not pushy. As Nobel reminds us, “Friends and families should also be sensitive to the fact that loneliness is often accompanied by guilt, shame, and a reluctance to engage. Gentle, respectful, and persistent efforts to reach out are rarely out of place for the holiday season, especially if done with sincerity and warmth.”

We all feel lonely from time to time, and that’s okay. But when loneliness is extreme, it’s a signal that our need to belong isn’t being met. That can have serious effects on our health and happiness. As Nobel advises, “Above all, we need to learn not to be afraid of loneliness—whether our own or another person’s—and not just during the holidays but at any time. And instead of feeling guilty or ashamed about it, we should be curious about it and willing to explore and push back against loneliness, even though it is often a very unpleasant feeling. How can we best support loved ones and get ‘connected’ ourselves? By being willing to take the risk of sharing authentic things about ourselves with friends and family and inviting them to share back.”

Endnotes

  1. Stephanie Cacioppo, Angela J. Grippo, Sarah London, et al., “Loneliness: Clinical import and interventions,” Perspectives on Psychological Science 10, no. 2 (2015): 238–49.
  2. M. McPherson and L. Smith-Lovin, “Social Isolation in America: Changes in Core Discussion Networks Over Two Decades,” American Sociological Review 71 (2006): 353–75.; John T. Cacioppo and William Patrick, Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2008).
  3. Cacioppo, Grippo, London, et al., “Loneliness: Clinical import and interventions.”
  4. J. Holt-Lunstad, T. B. Smith, M. Baker, et al., “Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for mortality: A meta-analytic review,” Perspectives on Psychological Science 10 (2015): 227–37.
  5. Cacioppo and Patrick, Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection.
  6. Steven W. Cole, Morgan E. Levine, Jesusa M. G. Arevalo, et al., “Loneliness, eudaimonia, and the human conserved transcriptional response to adversity,” Psychoneuroendocrinology 62 (2015): 11–17.