understanding loneliness

This article discusses why people feel lonely, and gives evidence-based solutions for loneliness (that are valid during a pandemic). If you’re short on time, the main takeaways of the article are discussed at the end of the article.

Before we get into it, my name is Dr. Cody Phillips – I have a Ph.D. in Human-Computer Interaction, and I’m an academic games user researcher. My research explores how games and rewards impact motivation, emotions and wellbeing. As a disclaimer: While I believe this article has value, I am not a medical practitioner and this article should not be construed as medical advice.

The Science Behind Loneliness

If you’ve played The Sims, imagine yourself as having three psychological needs that work like independent ‘hunger’ bars that deplete throughout the day. These bars are called ‘Competence’, ‘Autonomy’ and ‘Relatedness’. Everything you do throughout the day empties or fills those psychological needs. This is the essence of Self-Determination Theory – which is a robust psychological theory.

A sub-theory of Self-Determination Theory, Basic Psychological Needs Theory, suggests that as these needs are facilitated or subverted, our mental wellbeing benefits or declines. In this article, we’re going to be focusing on the psychological need of relatedness, as it’s strongly linked to feelings of loneliness.

In effect, loneliness (and the emotional dysregulation associated with it) is what happens when your relatedness status bar is empty. One of the most obvious solutions to this problem is that we need to do more things that increase our relatedness stat. Unfortunately, the Covid-19 event has upset the social fabric, and many behaviours that are efficient for facilitating relatedness are currently less accessible. 

While most gamers who’re feeling lonely are still engaged in behaviours that can increase their relatedness, many people seem to be depleting it faster than they’re gaining it. Over a matter of weeks, this wouldn’t be too much of a problem, but this whole pandemic thing has lasted longer than everyone had hoped, and it’s ticking away like damage over time. For many people, that loneliness is shifting from being acute to chronic loneliness, and that’s a bad place to be. To break free from that, we need a set of strategies. 

Strategies for Increasing Relatedness

Idea #1: Play Video Games

To most gamers, this one is kind of obvious. Even the World Health Organization is getting behind this one. Playing video games is a great way to increase relatedness and feelings of social connectedness, especially if it’s multiplayer (though even single-player games can help to facilitate relatedness).

Outside of a pandemic situation, I’d normally recommend games like Pokemon Go (I co-authored a white paper that found that Pokemon Go increases social connectedness). However, I’m not convinced that’s a great option at the moment since happenstance encounters with other players are going to be rarer than usual, and most PokeStops are in heavily-trafficked areas. You probably shouldn’t get coronavirus for Magikarp.

But again – psychological needs are intrinsically motivating. You probably don’t need much help picking games that will increase relatedness, because they’re probably the games that are naturally rising in popularity. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that games like Animal Crossing: New Horizons was a breakout hit at the start of the pandemic, and that casual party games like Fall Guys are exceeding sales expectations (a relatively unknown developer hitting 2 million copies sold in the first week of launch). These types of games are a fantastic option for connecting with others, especially if you chat with friends over voice chat while you play.

Idea #2: Get in touch with nature

There is a concept that’s similar to relatedness called nature relatedness, which specifically discusses your connection to nature. It’s slightly speculative, but I believe that if you facilitate nature relatedness, you’ll likely facilitate normal relatedness as well – since relatedness doesn’t necessarily require a relationship with another human (as in our single-player video game example). Worst case scenario, nature relatedness is still positively linked with wellbeing, so getting into nature will still be beneficial. If you’re socially isolated and can’t make friends during the pandemic, try to get out of the house and into nature.

If getting out into nature sounds like too much effort, buy yourself a plant. I love subreddits like r/indoorgarden and r/houseplants, because they’re full of people with positive energy posting their beloved plant families. It’s true that a plant will never love you back, but they will depend on you – and it can be satisfying to nurture them and watch them grow.

Idea #3: Join Online Communities

While social media gets a bad wrap, you should consider it a tool. How you use it is important. If you’re prone to using social media for self-comparison, you should probably avoid Instagram, Facebook and TikTok. Alternatively, consider curating your list of subreddits on Reddit (if anyone’s interested in my subreddit recommendations, hit me up), so that the majority of content that you see is adding value to your life. If you’re smart about who you follow, sites like YouTube, Twitch and Twitter can be good options as well. You just need to remain vigilant (and willing to unfollow people as their content changes). 

With access to our real-world communities being limited, online communities are likely our best alternative. A benefit of online communities is that they can cater to your niche interests, and easily leave communities that you outgrow. On the topic of niche communities, self-improvement for gamers is quite specific, yet this blog has a small and growing Discord server. I also contribute to a bunch of other Discord servers, and it’s a great way to casually drift in and out of conversations with likeminded people. Most of the people I know that avoid Discord aren’t interested in it because they think it’s a VoIP service (and while that’s largely true) if you’re not keen on using voice most of the larger Discord communities have very active text channels.

Dealing with Maladaptive Thinking 

While increasing relatedness is extremely important, there’s an even better strategy – changing your thinking patterns. The evidence for this is actually extremely strong – a meta-analysis of 50 different loneliness studies found:

…Interventions that addressed maladaptive social cognition had a larger mean effect size compared to interventions that addressed social support, social skills, and opportunities for social intervention. …Among the four intervention types, addressing maladaptive social cognition most directly addresses this regulatory loop.

So while most people believe that the best way to stop feeling lonely is to engage with other people, there’s a path that you have greater control over. Since it’s possible to be surrounded by others and still feel lonely, it is neither being with others nor being alone that is the cause of loneliness. If you feel lonely, you are lonely – and so the only way to stop feeling lonely is to address your subjective thoughts and feelings.

Unfortunately, the research shows that when you’re feeling lonely you’re more likely to:

  1. Have increased sensitivity to social threats
  2. Prefer negative social information
  3. Focus on negative social memories
  4. Hold more negative social expectations
  5. Behave in ways that reinforce your negative expectations

Experiencing thoughts like those above, it should come as no surprise that you’re going to struggle in social situations. Cognitive behavioral therapy is one of the best ways to interrupt and overcome these thinking patterns. A core part of cognitive behavioral therapy is identifying your own thinking processes, and learning to question your own beliefs. By asking yourself questions like: “Does this person really hate me/find me annoying? What other reasons might they have for acting the way that they did? Have I ever acted in a similar way without ill intent?” you ought to realize that the evidence doesn’t support the conclusions that you’re making. So if you’re feeling lonely, I’d encourage you to do some more reading on cognitive behavioral therapy, and decide if it might be a good fit for you. Even if you are alone, you don’t need to feel lonely.

If CBT isn’t your style (or you can’t afford it), a journal is a good alternative. Those who are familiar with Stoic philosophy will know that cognitive behavioural therapy and the ancient philosophy share many commonalities. The Stoics used another useful technique – journaling. Meditations is a famous journal by the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, and details a man trying to understand himself, his thoughts, and his values. So if you’re struggling with feelings of loneliness, consider writing about your feelings. Through reflection, you might just find some resolution. 

Through my own self-reflection, I’ve realized that being in a crowd won’t stop me from feeling lonely, and that being alone doesn’t make me feel lonely. That reflection gives rise to a type of strength that can only be found through solitude and independence. If you don’t want to take my word for it, I’ll leave you with this quote from Keanu Reeves:

“Someone told me the other day that he felt bad for single people because they are lonely all the time. I told him that’s not true. I’m single, and I don’t feel lonely. I take myself out to eat, I buy myself clothes, I have great times by myself. Once you know how to take care of yourself, company becomes an option, not a necessity.” – Keanu Reeves

The 10 Main Takeaways:

  • Chronic loneliness is a debilitating feeling and negatively impacts the lives of many gamers
  • Loneliness and a basic psychological need called ‘relatedness’ are strongly linked
  • Playing video games can increase your relatedness
  • Joining a Discord would give you an opportunity to talk with other people
  • Getting in touch with nature is a great way to increase your nature relatedness and wellbeing
  • Be intentional about when and how you use social media
  • The best way to treat loneliness is to deal with maladaptive thinking
  • Consider cognitive behavioral therapy and/or journaling
  • It’s possible to be alone without feeling lonely
  • Keanu thinks you’re breathtaking (and you should too)

Self-Improvement for Gamers

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