If you’re single and searching for a partner, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re lonely. In fact, it could mean the opposite. People who enjoy being on their own are less likely to settle for mediocre relationships, while those who fear solitude usually have lower standards.
Maike Luhman, a psychologist at the University of Cologne in Germany, recently explained in a Vox interview that everyone has very social different needs. One person could be completely content with only one meaningful connection, while another might need ten.
“It’s really different from person to person. That’s why we can’t really look at the number of friends a person has. Are they married? These objective things don’t tell us how lonely a person might be,” she said.
But for even the most autonomous single person, our society presents a lot of challenges.
It can be tough navigating a world where so many people feel comfortable disappearing into couples and nuclear families.
This is important because the pain of loneliness is real. “Loneliness really hurts,” says Luhman. “It literally hurts. Brain studies show that the same areas in the brain light up when you experience social pain as when you experience actual physical pain.”
It can also create a self-fulfilling prophesy, she said. Loneliness can makes us defensive, and even a little paranoid: “We depend on others to feel secure. When we feel lonely, we feel like there’s a permanent threat. It might not be a real threat, but we perceive things as threatening. So what this amounts to when we’re in a normal, neutral social situation, we’re more likely to interpret the other person as being threatening. Someone might look at us in a neutral way, and the lonely person will think, ‘This person doesn’t like me.’”
If your primary means of alleviating loneliness is to search for a romantic partner, you could be creating an unnecessarily obstacle for yourself. You’ve raised the stakes for every coffee date and pub meet—and increased the odds that your efforts could backfire.
Fortunately, romantic love is far from the only way to relieve loneliness. Any sort of social connection will do—calling a friend, chatting with a neighbor. Singles are often advised to take classes or sign up for volunteer projects as a means of finding a boyfriend or girlfriend. That’s fine—until you look around the room and realize you’re not interested in dating any of your fellow phone-bankers or photography students.
So try lowering the stakes. Find activities you’ll enjoy anyway—a book club, an art lecture, a political discussion group—and make the goal to have a simple, friendly exchange, rather than meeting your future wife or next best friend.
I don’t want to sound too cavalier—just take a class! Believe me, I know how frustrating it can be to find connection in this world, and to continually force yourself out of the house in search of it.
But I also know that developing the ability to connect is like building a muscle. It can be boring and exhausting, but if you keep doing it you suddenly discover that you’re much stronger than you ever knew.
Sara Eckel is a personal coach and the author of It’s Not You: 27 (Wrong) Reasons You’re Single. You can get a free bonus chapter of her book at saraeckel.com. You can also find her on Twitter and Facebook. Ask her any questions here.