Similarly, only 28 percent of those who had donated their time at a school, hospital, or other nonprofit organization in the past 12 months are lonely, along with 26 percent of folks who belong to a book club, garden group, or other social organization. This compares with 41 percent who had not volunteered and 39 percent who belonged to no social groups. "Any situation where people meet regularly to work together on some common cause is likely to result in deepening relationships," says Olds. "It's good for the soul."
Confidants — those you know and trust, and who offer you support — are likewise vital. We asked our respondents how many people they had in their lives with whom they could discuss matters of personal importance. Almost two-thirds of those who answered "none" — and close to half of those who had one or two such people — were lonely. Loneliness was much less common among those who had three or four confidants (32 percent), and it was lower still for those who had five or more (21 percent). When we asked how many people had been supportive of them in the past year, 76 percent of those who reported having no supportive persons in their lives were lonely, compared with just one-third who had at least one. Cacioppo's prescription for happiness: "People who need social connections should think about being alone in the same way a person with high blood pressure thinks about salt."
But making connections can be daunting for the lonely. Emily White volunteered at several charities while she was lonely, and although she found it satisfying, she did not find someone in whom she could confide. "My family was always urging me to just get out and meet people," she says. "But that advice didn't correspond to the reality of my loneliness. The lonelier I became, the harder it was for me to socialize. I knew that I needed connections, but creating them seemed almost impossibly challenging."
Alas, there are no easy solutions for people like Emily. Unlike treatments for depression, there are no pills or established therapies for loneliness. Social connections and a circle of intimates are obvious antidotes, but establishing them can be a trial.
So, where can the lonely turn for help? Loneliness is only now being recognized as a distinct mental health issue in the United States, and credible anti-loneliness programs have yet to be developed. Dialogue with a therapist is the only recourse at this point — that and a willingness to probe the roots of one's isolation.
Lonely author Emily White has a partner now, and she finds socializing less intimidating. The onset of her recovery, she says, came when she discovered the research on loneliness. "Start with education," she says. "Learning about loneliness can be a powerful tool in responding to it."
What White learned was that chronic loneliness can end only when the person who has it looks in the mirror and sees an entirely different person, someone who draws support and meaning from others instead of just themselves. But a change this profound cannot happen overnight. So when she met the woman who became her partner, White moved into the relationship gradually, with lots of breaks for alone time.
"I know now that I am vulnerable," she admits, "and that loneliness will probably re-emerge in my future. But I have learned that connection is critical. If I have to work to keep loneliness at bay, that's what I'll do."
Brad Edmondson is the former editor of American Demographics magazine. He lives in Ithaca, New York.