“Loneliness is not a personal failing”: Dartmouth Health psychologist offers advice for forging connection, feeling better

Illustration of person sitting alone

Loneliness is an emotional signal that tells you to go find someone to talk to, engage in your community, and serve others—even if you think it will be hard.

Andrew J. Smith, PhD

In this coldest time of year, northern New Englanders tend to spend more time indoors and turn in early—and that can be a little lonely. The COVID-19 pandemic also forced all of us to spend more time in isolation, with many of us still getting less human interaction than we used to as a lot of office jobs shifted to a work-from-home model.

Alone time can be relaxing and energizing, but too much can have negative impacts. Last year, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, MD, issued a public health advisory about the dangers of loneliness, saying it impacts half of all American adults.

“If you are among those suffering, the antidote to your loneliness could be closer and more accessible than you think,” said Andrew J. Smith, PhD, a psychologist at Dartmouth Health’s Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center, who recently co-authored a study on how social connectedness can help improve health. “No doubt, loneliness can have far-reaching effects on a person’s life. But loneliness is not a personal failing. Loneliness is an emotional signal that tells you to go find someone to talk to, engage in your community, and serve others—even if you think it will be hard.”

Studies show myriad impacts of prolonged loneliness and social isolation on our health, leading to increased risk for cardiovascular disease, immune dysfunction, insomnia, stroke, dementia, depression, anxiety, and even earlier death. Loneliness can not only impact your emotional wellbeing, it can make you feel worse about yourself and your perceived prospects for a meaningful life.

If you feel you are suffering from loneliness, ask yourself some questions:

  • Are you having trouble in your relationship with loved ones?
  • Do you feel disconnected from the wider world?
  • Are you avoiding friends?
  • Do you feel “less than” others?
  • Are you afraid of feeling judged or rejected?
  • Are you avoiding social situations?

If you answer “yes” to any of these, you may benefit from taking proactive measures to forge or strengthen your relationships. It’s important to remember while seeking help that everyone feels lonely at times, and getting help is a sign of strength, not weakness.

“Loneliness is not a mark of special social incompetence, unworthiness, or some kind of pathetic-ness,” Smith said. “Even your doctors, clergy, partners and friends feel lonely sometimes. What loneliness does mean is that you and the people in your life could benefit from you finding someone to serve, talk to, say a kind word to, or share space with. The more active you are, the better.”

Dartmouth Health offers assistance for seniors, who are especially prone to isolation, through its Aging Resource Center. Call 603-653-3460 for more information. If you or someone you know is struggling with loneliness and needs immediate help, contact the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline by texting 988 or calling 800-273-8255.

About Dartmouth Health

Dartmouth Health, New Hampshire's only academic health system and the state's largest private employer, serves patients across northern New England. Dartmouth Health provides access to more than 2,000 providers in almost every area of medicine, delivering care at its flagship hospital, Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center (DHMC) in Lebanon, NH, as well as across its wide network of hospitals, clinics and care facilities. DHMC is consistently named the #1 hospital in New Hampshire by U.S. News & World Report, and recognized for high performance in numerous clinical specialties and procedures. Dartmouth Health includes Dartmouth Cancer Center, one of only 56 National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Centers in the nation, and the only such center in northern New England; Dartmouth Health Children’s, which includes Children’s Hospital at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center, the state’s only children’s hospital, and multiple clinic locations around the region; member hospitals in Lebanon, Keene and New London, NH, and Bennington and Windsor, VT; Visiting Nurse and Hospice for Vermont and New Hampshire; and more than 24 clinics that provide ambulatory services across New Hampshire and Vermont. Through its historical partnership with Dartmouth and the Geisel School of Medicine, Dartmouth Health trains nearly 400 medical residents and fellows annually, and performs cutting-edge research and clinical trials recognized across the globe with Geisel and the White River Junction VA Medical Center in White River Junction, VT. Dartmouth Health and its more than 13,000 employees are deeply committed to serving the healthcare needs of everyone in our communities, and to providing each of our patients with exceptional, personal care.