Loneliness is one of the most aversive emotions in our lives. We feel estranged, we feel isolated. We feel like nobody cares about us. And it seems that despite manifold ways to communicate (in person, over video chat, via email), more and more people feel lonely these days. But why do we feel lonely?

An apparent reason why we feel lonely is because others are mean to us. Being betrayed, hurt, or ignored by others might lead to a distressing feeling of loneliness. In fact, lonely people tend to have more negative social experiences than nonlonely people.

However, this could also be the case because lonely people perceive others in a more negative way. When I am lonely, the whole world may seem unkind. Someone's sigh is a sign of disdain, their laugh becomes a mockery. We interpret others' behaviors in a negative light, and perhaps this then feeds back into our feelings of loneliness.

It does appear that there are differences between short-term loneliness and prolonged loneliness. Researchers have argued that one negative social experience—for example, one instance of social rejection—reinforces our tendency to reconnect with others. We actually reach out to others more after we've been ostracized. However, if loneliness becomes chronic, these reconnecting tendencies are replaced by social withdrawal.

In our research, we examined how loneliness and social experience impact each other across days and months. We asked 245 college students to report for 14 days whether they felt lonely (by confirming statements such as "I had no one I can turn to") and how they experienced their own and others' behavior. We asked both about the frequency of negative behaviors—such as criticizing, complaining, insulting, and ignoring—and also positive behaviors, like showing affection, complimenting, empathizing, or being tender. We repeated these two-week diary phases four times for up to two years. This allowed us to test both daily and long-term associations between loneliness and perceptions of social experiences.

We Learned a Lot About Loneliness

First, our results generally provide strong support for the notion that it is loneliness that causes us perceive our own and others' behavior in a less positive way. Then, people who tend to experience others' social behavior less positively are also the people who report higher levels of loneliness later on. Overall, we found stronger evidence that loneliness predicts reports of social behavior than the other way around.

Second, it was prolonged loneliness that affected people's perception of others' and own behavior, not daily fluctuations in loneliness. People might be well equipped to counteract temporary fluctuations in loneliness, but in the long run, the need for connectedness must be met. Otherwise, we start to perceive our social world less positively. So, if we are lonely for a longer time, feeling that the world has forgotten us, it may well be that we are simply misinterpreting the behavior of others and thus missing opportunities to reconnect, and maybe also feeling even more lonely as a result.

Third—and maybe most interesting—it was the absence of positive interpersonal behavior but not the presence of negative interpersonal behavior that was associated with loneliness. Not feeling and perceiving affection and love is thus more relevant for feelings of loneliness than being hurt or criticized. This finding has an important implication for our daily lives. Maybe we do not have to be too afraid to bring up something uncomfortable or risk conflict in our daily interactions. But it appears that we certainly should clearly show our affection, in order to keep those around us from feeling lonely—and to receive affection ourselves.

Although we need more research to test actual behavior and to know whether we can generalize our findings to other groups, such as older people, our study nevertheless indicates that loneliness is not only about how people feel, but also about how they perceive their social world. And, if we feel like we are missing opportunities to connect, we might be likely to develop loneliness at some point. Finally, missing the opportunity to connect with others seems to be more relevant for feelings of loneliness than daily social hassles such as being criticized or ignored. This shows how important it is in our social lives to focus on the positive, even though we are often more afraid of the negative.

For Further Reading

Gong, X., & Nikitin, J. (2021). "When I feel lonely, I'm not nice (and neither are you)": The short- and long-term relation between loneliness and reports of social behaviour. Cognition and Emotion, 35(5), 1029-1038. https://doi.org/10.1080/02699931.2021.1905612

Cacioppo, J. T., & Hawkley, L. C. (2005). People thinking about people: The vicious cycle of being a social outcast in one's own mind. In K. D. Williams, J. P. Forgas, & W. von Hippel (Eds.), The social outcast: Ostracism, social exclusion, rejection, and bullying (pp. 91–108). Psychology Press. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203942888-13

Jana Nikitin is professor of Psychology of Ageing at the University of Vienna. She studies people's social behavior until their very old age.