This professor interviewed dozens of people about loneliness. Here's what we get wrong about it.

Professor Sam Carr shown in a photo illustration with a brain, a woman, a silhouette of a man and empty chairs.
Professor Sam Carr shares what he's learned about loneliness. (Photo illustration: Blake Cale for Yahoo News; photos: Sam Carr, Adobe Stock)

According to U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy, we’re in the throes of a loneliness epidemic. In a recent interview, Murthy noted that one in two American adults experience “measurable levels of loneliness,” while “the numbers are even higher among young people.” In addition to the mental health consequences associated with a lack of connection — such as an increased risk of depression — loneliness can affect our physical health too. Feeling lonely and isolated is linked to an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, dementia and premature death.

While recent research has found that middle-aged U.S. adults were more likely than their European counterparts to experience loneliness, feeling socially isolated isn’t strictly an American phenomenon. Just ask Sam Carr, a senior lecturer at the University of Bath in England who has become known as the “scholar of loneliness.” In his new book, All the Lonely People, Carr shares his observations gleaned from conversations with dozens of people — including that loneliness is a universal experience that’s an intrinsic part of the human condition.

“I've always been interested in the sort of darker sides of being human … and I guess I've always noted that when people are suffering, one of the common ingredients is usually loneliness,” Carr tells Yahoo Life. “So you can be talking about all kinds of different suffering — mental health issues, neglect, breakup, heartbreak, grief — and loneliness is a big part of all of those human experiences.”

But there are a number of misconceptions — along with a lot of stigma — about what it means to be lonely and how to work through those feelings. “Almost everybody has loneliness as a part and parcel of their journey at some point,” Carr says. “Sometimes it stays with us longer than others, but almost everybody has it inside them. But a lot of people are very afraid to acknowledge and admit that, so it gets buried inside us.”

Here’s what Carr has learned about loneliness — and what people get wrong about it.

According to Carr, there’s a “very popular discourse” among psychologists that loneliness is a problem that should be fixed. “But other schools of psychology would say that to be alive is to be lonely, so we should expect it,” he notes. Trying to get rid of loneliness altogether is “a bit like trying to get rid of the inevitability of death,” Carr says. The way forward, as he sees it, is to “learn to live with it and to relate to it better.”

“We won't do that very well if we see it as a disease because everyone's afraid of it,” Carr adds. Like grief or heartbreak, loneliness is a part of life, and accepting that can make it easier to navigate when those feelings do arise.

In a recent Yahoo News/YouGov poll, respondents cited not living near loved ones, not having a romantic relationship, difficulty making friends and not having time to socialize as factors contributing to their loneliness. But 8% blamed being in an unsatisfying romantic relationship, supporting Carr’s finding that other people can both alleviate and cause feelings of loneliness. While reaching out to a friend when you’re feeling alone or finding a group in your community that fits your interests can often offset those feelings, it’s not always the answer.

Over the course of his research, Carr says many people have told him, “Never do I feel more lonely than when I'm with other people, because they don't see me.” A number of factors can contribute to this. Perhaps someone is masking their true self in order to fit in with others, or finds that their peers don’t really “get” them. Maybe another person is fueling the sense of isolation; “my husband or wife of 50 years makes me feel lonelier than anybody else in the whole world” is another refrain Carr has come across.

“People are not always the solution to loneliness,” he says.

Loneliness is a universal experience, but it can affect people in vastly different ways, says Carr. For some, it’s a fleeting sensation that comes and goes. Other people might experience loneliness in the short term — say, after a breakup or move to a new city. And there are people for whom it’s a more frequent occurrence or linked to a bigger mental health issue.

Context matters, Carr says. “I've definitely learned that 20 people telling you they're lonely looks like 20 very different stories,” he explains. “There's all kinds of different reasons and ways people can feel lonely.” And it’s very subjective and “down to the individual” as to whether that loneliness is a more serious issue that needs to be addressed on a deeper level.

“People might like to think there's a way of sort of scanning a barcode reader over us and deciding, ‘Yep, yours is severe enough to be an issue,’” Carr notes. Generally speaking, however, things to look for are whether or not the loneliness feels like prolonged suffering versus a situational or short-term phase, or if the loneliness seems to be driving a mental health condition such as depression or anxiety.

You might see someone eating dinner solo or on their own at a concert or movie screening and think, “Oh, they must be lonely.” But that’s not true for a lot of people — consider the harried parent who wants a little peace and quiet, the solo traveler who wants to see the world on their terms and anyone who simply enjoys, or perhaps prefers, their own company.

Carr says that knee-jerk assumption speaks to “an increasing stigmatization of loneliness and being alone,” an awareness of which can stop people from venturing out on their own. Carr himself finds dining solo or seeing a film without a plus-one perfectly pleasant, but “you can often feel like you’re a bit of a leper,” he concedes. Some people struggle to push past that discomfort, and therefore wind up missing out on experiences because they feel like they must do them with other people.

One way to get around that awkwardness is to rationalize, Carr suggests: “Probably everybody in this restaurant, even if they’re not sitting on their own now, will have their experiences of loneliness at some point.”

As Carr noted, there’s so much stigma surrounding loneliness and being alone, but there’s an opportunity to find common ground on what he sees as an inevitable part of life. While there’s an instinct to hide our experiences of feeling disconnected because we see them as shameful, Carr found in his interviews with people about their loneliness that sharing these stories is what appears to help them the most. The “most profound response” from his research, he says, has been this: “I feel less lonely because I now know that everyone's got a story of loneliness.”

“[Sharing] immediately makes you feel less alone with your loneliness,” Carr says. “Because if you're alone with your loneliness and the fact that you feel it, it's even more lonely; that's part of the problem in a way. … If we normalized it and shared it more, I think we'd find we would as a society do better with it.”