Disconnection from Others and Loneliness: One Social-Environmental Cause of Depression

Today I want to talk about one major cause of depression and the prospect of counteracting or removing that cause. This cause is disconnection from others, or loneliness (more on that shortly). I’m basing this largely on Johann Hari’s investigation and discussion of these matters in his amazing book Lost Connections, which I wrote about in a previous post, explaining what the book is about and why you might want to read it. In Lost Connections, Hari identifies nine causes of depression, six of which are social-environmental, and he also explores what he conceptualizes as non-pharmaceutical anti-depressants. These are things which are not drugs, but which do have real and significant anti-depressant effects.

Disconnection from Other People

One social-environmental cause of depression is disconnection from others, and perhaps more specifically, loneliness. We have to ask here, are loneliness and disconnection from others precisely the same? It isn’t entirely clear, nor is it entirely clear whether Hari equates the two. What we can say is that loneliness, as defined by Hari and the researchers he interviews, is certainly a form of disconnection from other people, and a major one at that.

What Is Loneliness?

Here’s the definition of loneliness being used. First, it isn’t the same as simply being alone. This should be fairly obvious, for otherwise, it would be impossible to feel lonely among a crowd of people. Or, conversely, to feel deeply connected with others even with no one else around. Thus loneliness isn’t the same as being alone.

Next, it turns out that not feeling lonely has at least two parts, according to loneliness researcher John Cacioppo. One is “to feel you are sharing something with the other person, or the group, that is meaningful to both of you.” The other is to feel a sense of “mutual aid and protection.” (See Chapter 7: “Cause Two: Disconnection from Other People,” in Lost Connections.)

Loneliness would thus be something like this: not having other human beings in your life with whom you both (1) feel that you share things that are meaningful to both or all of you (presumably values, goals, interests, etc.), and with whom you also (2) feel a sense of mutual aid and protection.

To me, that seems fairly clear, and a fairly good definition of loneliness. As I mentioned earlier, loneliness, thus understood, is a disconnection from others which can be a significant cause of depression. Besides the obviousness of this (I mean really, how could loneliness not contribute toward depression?), there appears to be a good deal of scientific evidence. I don’t want to go into too much detail in this post, but in Lost Connections Hari does a wonderful job of explaining some of the studies and experiments, and he also points you toward plenty of the actual research and researchers.

Loneliness Causes Depression

But let’s talk about it a little. One finding is that already depressed people, when made to feel more lonely than they already may feel, feel even more depressed. And that already depressed people, when made to feel less lonely, feel less depressed. A different study followed a large number of people who were not depressed to begin with, for five years. Those people who happened to become depressed during this period usually became lonely first. Another way to say this, is that becoming lonely made it statistically many times more likely that a person would then become depressed (or “develop depressive symptoms”).


The basic moral is twofold. First, that loneliness, or disconnection from others, is a significant causal factor in depression. Second, that becoming better connected with others is therefore a legitimate and effective anti-depressant, even if it is not a drug.

There is some interesting indirect evidence from a cross-cultural study, and one specific re-connection practice or strategy, that I will write about in a follow-up post.

Has anyone observed this link between loneliness and depression?

Next in series: Effective and Ineffective Pursuits of Happiness: Investing in Relationships with Others Is an Anti-Depressant.

SeekerFive creates expressive photographic art at matthewvphoto.redbubble.com.

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20 thoughts on “Disconnection from Others and Loneliness: One Social-Environmental Cause of Depression

  1. I found for me that I felt loneliness most when my self-worth was non-existent and I felt unworthy. I hesitated to reach out because my fear of rejection was too strong. Now that I have worked on building up my self-worth, I find myself rarely lonely, as I find my own company to be very satisfying when I am alone. I now know I have the skills and the inner wherewithal to reach out to people when I want to.

  2. Interesting read. I’m always dubious about attributing causes of depression or whatever after the onset of the illness. Each person is unique and as such that applies to their illness. I read an article last week that said depression is now thought to be caused by trauma and not brain chemistry?!? I was initially diagnosed with depression and because of brain chemistry but if it now isn’t because of this or that then what is it?

    As for loneliness I think it’s another personal thing. You can be surrounded by 100 people but feel so alone.

    1. Hi Rochdalestu, that’s right, loneliness and being by oneself are not at all the same. Depression has many different causes, not all of which are present in each case. Some are social-environmental, some are psychological (including unhealed psychological trauma), and there are also genetic “pre-dispositions” (which make it more possible to develop depression). Loneliness is factually established as causative of depression, but not everyone depressed will be lonely, and not everyone lonely will be depressed. As you say, there’s a certain uniqueness to each case, and at the same time there are definite causal factors, some but not all of which are quite common. I strongly recommend reading or listening to Lost Connections.

      1. Yeah you’re right and it’s something that I could discuss with you for hours on end. Depression is to me, the feeling of being numb. After I was diagnosed it progressed to bipolar disorder. I’m currently trying to learn as much as I can about it. The statement that depression was caused by trauma was from a prominent medical publication and I thought it was a little unfounded as you said it is unique to each person. What works for you might not for me and vice versa.

        I’ve got an question about loneliness: When I was living in my flat, every time I got in and the front door shut, it was coupled with a feeling of being alone. I’m not seeing or speaking to anyone unless I leave the flat.
        Yet I am at home now, and I live with two other people, I might not speak to them all day but I don’t have the same feelings of being alone as in the flat

      2. I’m glad you brought that up, about not having the same feeling of aloneness, just with having some other people around. I think (based on my own experiences) that there’s also this other kind of loneliness, which has more to do with being along in the sense of not physically having other people around. This aloneness-loneliness is something different than the type of loneliness the researchers were looking at, so I didn’t bring it up in the blog post because I didn’t want to spread the topic too widely.

        But, I think it’s real, and it’s probably also important. Unfortunately I don’t how much research there might be about it. But I think we can trust our experience on it. I suspect a lot of people get pets for this reason too.

        It sounds like trauma might not apply to you, but if you’re interested in that sort topic, there are a couple good books by Pete Walker that deal with Complex PTSD and the “abandonment depression” at its root.

  3. Hell yeah! I can be a vital contributor during the day, lonely and depressed at night. It’s a puzzle. I think it might be, in part, that I haven’t figured out how to restart a closer, more intimate relationship. Most of my previous marriage was a very generous environment of sharing and learning. I suspect that I have commitment issues. I want to find someone, but don’t want to be torn apart like I was previously.

    1. Hi DWNelson, thank you for sharing. I’d like to emphasize for you that loneliness (or disconnection from others) has almost nothing to do with romantic relationships specifically. Quality friendships relationships and family relationships (where possible) are at least as important. If you’d like further insight into that, consider Jennifer Taitz’s “How to Be Single and Happy: Keeping Your Sanity While Looking for a Soul Mate.”

      1. I’ve dated for years. Online stuff isn’t real. There’s no time to get to know anyone. Everyone’s in such a hurry. I think I know how to do this. I just find most people just don’t have the patience to get to know someone else. I’ve tried for a few years. I sometimes think I’m too picky. But how can someone be too picky about something so important? I’d much rather feel lonely than settle. In some ways, online services count on people jumping around. They get paid longer for indecisive people. My dad moved in with me. That makes it harder. Before that, my daughter lived with me. Even when they were home, I was lonely. I don’t do social media, except WordPress. I find it less real. I’ve had some great dates. All of them failed. I’m sure some that I didn’t go with felt similarly. The answer? Human interaction. I’ve tried getting jobs to meet people. But the women are either too young or married. Imagine dating someone a year younger than my daughter?! No thanks. I don’t have the budget to volunteer. I get tired from work. Then I manage my own business, a small band that plays for volunteer events. I fight depression. I have my adult life. I work hard on making things better for myself and am slowly improving. I had no idea how far down I was until I realize how far I’ve come. I still have a long, long way to go. I don’t read much. But I spend a whole lot of time writing. If anything, it’s the illusion of community that has kept me going these years. I used to hate the movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life” because I thought it was a lie. But maybe the celebrations don’t happen the way it seems, with friends and loved ones. Maybe the celebrations are all inside. Maybe, if I work hard enough, I can finally sing those happy songs.

      2. It sounds like a long a difficult period without a partner, I’m sorry to hear how difficult it has been, and of course how frustrating dating is.

        I would gently yet strongly suggest Jennifer Taitz’s “How to Be Single and Happy: Science-Based Strategies for Keeping Your Sanity While Looking for a Soul Mate.” (I know I already mentioned it before.) It’s really very useful, even if not (of course) a “silver bullet.”

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