Reflecting on the Realities of Loneliness

December 4, 2023 9:24 am Published by
Working late | Appreciation at Work with Dr. Paul White

The increasing references to loneliness in our culture creates a variety of responses within us (some communicated, most are not).

  • Numbness — from hearing the issue referred to repeatedly.
  • Acknowledgement – both from our own personal experiences and observations of others.
  • Irritation — “How many times do I have to hear about this?!”
  • Concern – “Wow, this is a real issue that is affecting a lot of people.” And . . .
  • Questioning — “Why is this such an issue now? What can (or should) be done to make it less of a problem?”

Clarifying What Loneliness Is

Loneliness is not the same as being alone. Feeling lonely is not just a result of being physically distant from others. We can be in the same room with others and still feel a sense of loneliness. Conversely, it is possible to be alone (physically) and yet feel cared for and connected to others.

Loneliness is an internal experience which is often accompanied by sadness, unhappiness and a sense of disconnectedness from others. People who feel lonely often feel isolated and not cared for by others (both by other people in general and more specifically by those we desire to be close to).

Why Do We Feel Lonely?

Loneliness can be caused by a variety (and combination) of factors.  A lack of communication and interaction with those you care about (akin to being homesick as a child when you go to camp). Feeling not “known” or understood by others. An experience of loss in your life – death of a loved one or moving to a new city away from friends. Illness. Physical isolation from others. A sense of not being connected with those around you.

Why is loneliness reported more often recently? No one knows for sure, but a number of factors seem to be relevant:

  • Our recent long-term experience of being isolated from friends and family
  • The disruption in our social interaction patterns as a result of the pandemic
  • An increase in communicating electronically rather than in person
  • Fast-paced lives focusing on accomplishing tasks, with less emphasis on interacting with others
  • A cultural focus on image (“looking good”) which has led to people being less willing to share their true self and daily struggles

Loneliness Isn’t Static – And Its Intensity Varies

As with many of our other emotions and social needs, there is a natural ebb and flow with loneliness. We usually don’t stay at the same level of loneliness over time. And, unfortunately, this holiday-filled time of year intensifies the feeling of loneliness for many people. Acknowledging that we might feel low now but haven’t always felt like this and won’t feel like this forever can be helpful. 

The Law of Unequal Social Initiative

The reality is that almost everyone feels like they reach out more to others than others initiating social interactions with them (“I’m always reaching out to others more than they contact me”). We feel we are putting out more energy to build relationships than we are getting back – like there is a leak in the Earth’s social energy equilibrium. (If you doubt this is true, ask your friends.) The real problem is our unwillingness to accept this principle as being true and the need to deal with it as part of life’s reality.

What Does Loneliness Have to Do with Work?

You may be asking yourself, “Ok, loneliness is a big issue, but what does this have to do with work?” Well, most adults spend the vast majority of our awake time working (whether at home or on site). As we discovered through the pandemic, our personal lives and our life at work intersect and impact one another.  So . . . if we are struggling with loneliness, almost certainly our loneliness influences us at work. Finally, our work relationships can be a significant factor (positively or negatively) affecting our sense of loneliness.

Actions to Consider

Ultimately, the question becomes: “What can I do to make things better?”

. . . If You Are Struggling with Loneliness

Fortunately, we are not helpless in combating the loneliness we experience. Here are some practical actions you can take:

  • Respond when others reach out to you. Don’t keep them at a distance. Accept their invitation to do something together.
  • When interacting with others, work at being present with them. Listen to what they are saying. Respond in some way (even if it just a nod). Don’t be distracted by your phone. Try to avoid thinking about what you are doing next (where you need to be, what you need to do).
  • Most of our daily life experiences are a result of a number of tiny actions:  Say hi to people. Ask how their weekend was. Respond with more than one or two words to others’ questions. Send someone a text, just to check in and see what they have been doing.
  • If your loneliness is a symptom of a broader struggle with depression, seek out help either from your physician or a mental health professional. Loneliness won’t magically disappear if there are deeper issues creating it.

. . . If You Believe a Coworker is Struggling

Sometimes we become aware that one of our colleagues seems to be struggling. They are quieter than usual. They seem rather flat emotionally, showing less emotion than usual. They’ve withdrawn and don’t interact as much socially.

Showing interest in and concern for others is a step in building connection. But be careful not to be led astray by their answers to questions like: “How are you doing?” “Are you okay?” because we are socially programmed to answer “I’m fine,” “I’m okay, thanks for asking.” Often, we need to go a step further and say, “Really? Because it seems like you have been quieter and withdrawn recently” or “Hmmm. You just seem more indifferent and less happy than usual.”

Then listen and respond to what they say. Generally, a global invitation like “Okay, well let me know if I can do anything to help” leads to no real action. When appropriate, offer a more specific invitation that fits your relationship – “I was wondering if you’d be willing to have lunch with me in the next week or so?” or “The team and I were thinking about … and wondered if you’d join us?”

Little steps – whether for our own good or for the benefit of others – are the best way to climb out of a rut. Doing something, no matter how small, is almost always better than doing nothing at all.


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Published by
December 4, 2023 9:24 am


  • Roberta Wood says:

    What a great newsletter to share during this time of the year! Although all things seem bright and cheerful during the holidays, there are others that have been “dealt a bad deck of cards” – either health, money or family issues – and I so appreciate the reminder. Thank you!

    • Paul White says:

      Thank you, Roberta. Sometimes there are more obvious reasons for our loneliness (“a bad deck of cards”), and sometimes it can be a subtler confluence of smaller things that add up. We’re glad this newsletter resonated with you.

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