Evolutionarily speaking, loneliness is a fantastic advantage. If our earliest ancestors hadn’t felt twinges of sadness and longing when they strayed far from the clan, they may have ventured out farther—and perished. As a social species, loneliness acts as a survival instinct on par with thirst and hunger, says longtime loneliness researcher John Cacioppo, Ph.D., author of Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection and a psychology professor at the University of Chicago.
To this day lonely people are at risk for depression, increased stress hormones, higher blood pressure, interrupted sleep, dementia and even premature death compared to their non-lonely peers. But these days, combating loneliness doesn’t mean you have to sit around the communal fire and follow the pack all of the time. Allow us to debunk some common loneliness misconceptions so you can feel connected and secure even when you’re alone.
Related: How I Learned to Enjoy Being Alone
1. Myth: The more friends, the better.
Not necessarily. Researchers have yet to discover a magic number of friends—or parties or dates or get-togethers—that tips the scales toward not lonely. There are people surrounded by friends and family who still feel alone. Because loneliness is found in the “discrepancy between the desired and the achieved personal network of relationships,” according to Cacioppo, how you feel about the size of your circle of friends matters most. And your ideas about what an ideal social life looks like are influenced by your level of extroversion, your family size, your own self-acceptance (being alone is more painful when you don’t enjoy your own company) and even social media.
“The need for social connection varies widely among people, but it is the rare bird who doesn’t want any,” says Mark E. Sharp, Ph.D., a psychologist with the Aiki Relationship Institute in Oak Brook, Illinois, and author of Not Lonely at the Top: A Relationship Guide for the Courageous, Successful Single Who Hasn’t Found the Love They Want. “It’s important to pursue social activities to the level that fits your own profile.”
2. Myth: Introverts are lonelier.
Introverts prefer being alone more than extroverts, but being alone and being lonely are two very different things, says Maelisa Hall, Psy.D., a therapist in private practice in Irvine, California. Introverts use alone time to recharge and they need fewer friendly interactions to stave off loneliness. But because extroverts derive energy from social situations, they can feel low when they don’t receive that stimulation, putting them at higher risk for loneliness. If you’re an extrovert, have two or three “anchor” social activities scheduled throughout the week to help keep your spirits high.
3. Myth: Only close confidants count.
Research shows people who have social networks that consist of both “strong-tie” relationships (think best friend, brother, partner) and “weak-tie” ones (the neighbor you say hello to every day, your hairdresser) experience significantly less loneliness than those with strong ties only. So although small talk might not be your favorite cup of tea, those quick conversations with acquaintances matter for your overall sense of belonging.
4. Myth: Married couples don’t feel lonely.
If your marriage is filled with conflict, the opposite is true. In fact, studies show that one-third of married people report feeling lonely, as do one-third of those living with a partner. Lesson: The ring on your finger does not guard against feeling emotionally isolated. Do what it takes to stay connected with your partner, whether it’s regular date nights, remembering to cuddle in bed or couples therapy.
This article originally appeared in the July 2017 issue of SUCCESS magazine.