Loneliness. It is not a sensation that anyone enjoys. Human beings are social creatures. We actually seem to need a minimal amount of social interaction in order to survive. Even the most extreme introvert requires some kind of human contact every once in a while; they just seem to prefer less than extroverts. Sometimes you can even feel lonely when completely surrounded by other people, though. Like many things (especially emotions) human, loneliness is a potentially complicated subject that can often be misunderstood.
Loneliness: the emotional state that occurs when a person has fewer interpersonal relationships than desired or when these relationships are not as satisfying as desired.
Taking a look at this definition, we see that there are two significant sides to the lonely coin. The first half is the number of relationships a person has and wants. Some people enjoy having hundreds of friends--and they can even keep track of all of them and maintain them to a relatively satisfying and functional level. Some individuals prefer only a few dozen relationships--friends and family included--because it is too difficult to keep track of so many or because they prefer to have a much greater personal investment in each relationship. Do not judge anyone as lonely or shy based solely on the number of relationships they have with others. It is a matter of how many relationships that person wants to have. Some people, especially extroverts, love being surrounded by others. Some people prefer smaller crowds. It is a matter of personality matching with preference.
The other half of the equation is the quality of relationships you want to have with other people. This is probably the more telling indicator of whether or not a person can be considered lonely. Again, some people prefer to have many shallow interactions with others and some people need a much deeper relationship in order to be satisfied. The depth of a relationship is determined by the amount of self-disclosure on the part of both parties.
Self-disclosure: the voluntary act of verbally communicating private information about oneself to another person.
Self-disclosure can take on many different levels of meaning. The simplest form of self-disclosure is the "name/rank/serial number" (or, for those of you who remember text-based chat rooms, a/s/l). When we first meet someone we already to begin to share information about ourselves. We give our name, maybe a little about ourselves (introducing a spouse implies you are married, introducing a child implies you are a parent) and our occupation. This simple surface sharing could be the beginning of others getting to know you, or it could be the terminus of the knowledge someone has about you. With the ability to search public information on just about anyone, self-disclosure may become a mere "going through the motions" act, but it will still be important, nonetheless, as it shows your willingness to volunteer the information yourself.
The more we get to know a person, the more we interact with them, then the deeper our self-disclosure can become. The act of asking someone "how are you?" is really a request for more information about the person. While we often brush off this question with a simple "Oh, fine," it is an opportunity to share more about ourselves and then ask for information about the person in return. Think about the people you consider to be your closest friends or family. You should know more facts about them than about your acquaintances or strangers. If you feel that your "best friend" is close to a stranger to you because you barely know anything about them, then you might consider yourself lonely. Again, it is a matter of personal preference that determines how much self-disclosure we engage in, and receive from others, we desire in order to feel that this is a meaningful relationship.
Now, let's put the two sides of the coin together. What we can have is an individual who prefers only one or two really deep relationships, coupled with many more shallow relationships. We can also have someone who has hundreds of shallow relationships, or hundreds of deep relationships, or only a few shallow relationships, or any number of moderately deep or shallow relationships. The important point is that the number and quality of those relationships satisfy that individual's needs and desires. If the amount or depth is lacking, then loneliness will ensue.
We can look at loneliness from a causal perspective, as well. This can either be seen from a quantity/quality combination point of view, or from a duration angle.
Emotional loneliness occurs when we lack a significant romantic partner, a confidant, someone with whom we can share our joys, our hopes, our fears, just about everything about ourselves. We do expect to have reciprocal information from this person in return; self-disclosure is more meaningful when it is a two-way street. Social loneliness occurs when we don't have enough friends and/or when the relationships we do have are too shallow.
Sometimes loneliness comes and goes as a function of time. Transient loneliness occurs when we have those brief moments when we feel that no one is around when we need them. There can be moments, even for people who have many deep friends, in which a person feels like everyone is otherwise occupied and there is "no one around" to talk to. These moments are thankfully often temporary. They tend to go away once we reconnect with another person or distract ourselves from this feeling. Transitional loneliness happens any time we experience a disruption in our social network--someone moves, we experience a death or divorce. Often this transitional loneliness is overcome once we start to form new bonds with other people or reconnect with someone from whom we may have drifted apart and find once again. It is important for our mental and physical health to maintain and grow our social support networks throughout our lives. Sometimes, however, an individual just doesn't seem to be able to form or maintain the right amount or depth of relationships for their own needs. Chronic loneliness is found in people who have not been able to form a satisfactory interpersonal network (either quantity or quality) over a number of years. Sometimes it is due to an abrasive personality or a lack of social skills. While shyness does not lead to loneliness, it can hamper our ability to form new relationships with others or generate a reluctance to engage in meaningful self-disclosure. I will discuss more about shyness in a future post.
Overall, you can feel lonely in a crowded room and not be lonely when you are by yourself. It is all a matter of personal preference and whether or not your needs and wants for personal interaction are being met in the right amount and the right depth for you. One does not have to be a lonely number if you are happy with it. Do remember to have some kind of human contact once in a while, though.