Many of the stereotypes we hold about loneliness turn out to be wrong.
For one thing, lonely people are no lower-status than anyone else. Research conducted in 2000 found that among more than 2,500 undergraduates at Ohio State University, those who called themselves lonely had just as much “social capital” — defined by physical attractiveness, height, weight, socioeconomic status, and academic achievement — as their non-lonely peers.
For another thing, lonely people are not necessarily more isolated. The students at Ohio State who were lonely belonged to as many clubs and had as many roommates as those who were “socially embedded.” And while some studies indicate that living alone puts people at greater risk for loneliness, living with a spouse is not necessarily any protection. In fact, researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, reported in 2012 that among nearly 700 Americans over age 60 who described themselves as lonely, 62.5 percent were married. (As a comparison, 72 percent of men over 65 were married in 2011, but just 42 percent of older women.)
What is different about lonely people is how they interpret their interactions with friends and acquaintances. In the Ohio State study, lonely people tended to feel put upon and misunderstood. They were, the researchers wrote, “more likely to attribute problems in social relationships to others,” and to see themselves “as victims who are already giving as much as they can to their relationships.”
In other words, people grow lonely because of the gloomy stories they tell themselves. And, in a cruel twist, the loneliness itself can further distort their thinking, making them misread other people’s good intentions, which in turn causes them to withdraw to protect themselves from further rejection — and causes other people to keep them at arm’s length.