The science of loneliness

Did you notice how, when you are unhappy, seeing others being cheerful gives you the impression that they are simply... fake?

Loneliness: a vicious circle

The lonelier we feel, the more irritable we get, and the less we enjoy good company. If loneliness was only painful it would be hard enough. But research indicates that it also impairs our perception of others and the quality of our relationships.

It's a vicious circle! For expats and internationals, loneliness is a major issue according to many surveys.

Chronic loneliness & The immune system

John Cacioppo is a specialist of loneliness and social isolation at the University of Chicago. He has studied extensively its consequences on health and behaviours. Several studies have shown that chronically lonely people (those who report feeling lonely more than two days a week) are more susceptible to viruses and to cardio-vascular diseases.

In 2007, Cacioppo and colleagues demonstrated that lonely people had an increased activity of genes encoding molecules that promote inflammation and a decreased activity of genes encoding molecules that slow down inflammation.

In other words, they demonstrated the direct impact of chronic loneliness on the immune system. A weakened immune system also weakens the brain and mind, making you less resistant to stresses and augmenting your risks of depression.

Sadness & Depression

Once loneliness has become chronic and associated with sadness and sometimes depression (see Expat Mental Health: Depression), it gets surprisingly difficult to overcome it. This is partly because lonely people become more and more reluctant to meet others.

Cacioppo and his team discovered that lonely people judge their interactions with others less satisfying than non lonely people. In a scanner, their brains show less activation of the reward centers when they see smiling faces. And as a consequence, they also produce worse impression to the people they meet and will not attract people as easily as happier people do.

How to minimise loneliness

How can we diminish this feeling when it seems to overwhelm us, time and again? Loneliness never goes away from our lives, but it can be made less common, less painful and less devastating on our relationships with others. 

 Strong emotional bounds

An important factor is to maintain strong emotional bounds with the people we already know. In expat couples, once a partner starts to feel isolated, the reaction will be to start to blame or withdraw, which impairs the relationships further and makes the lonely partner feel even more isolated.

Sharing feelings and communicating about the isolation feelings and trying to find solutions together will help to strengthen love and trust.

 Meeting new people

Meeting new people is also part of the solution but of course, can be a real challenge in a new country. For those without a job, a good solution is to join a group or club. But joining a club will not fill in the days. If you have tried to join a club only for the sake of killing time, you may have failed to meet any interesting person. Same for cocktail parties: if you feel lonely, it just makes you feel worse.

 Help others

Instead, think about learning something useful with others or helping others. It will help you to develop a sense of belonging, sharing an interest in common with others, but also and more importantly feeling helpful, feeling appreciated by others for your contributions. The relationships with others will be less superficial. It will help to avoid seeing your self-esteem fading away at this fragile moment in your life when you feel like the entire world seems to ignore your very existence.

Mental representations & expectations

But loneliness is not only about the number of acquaintances and friends; to a large extent, feeling lonely depends on mental representations and expectations. In sedentary people, studies measuring loneliness feelings and comparing it to the amount and the quality of people's relationships (friendships, family etc.) show that the two are only moderately correlated.

That is probably why you see that, in a same situation, some expats really enjoy their new life and their new freedom while others are just extremelly distressed and feel abandoned and rapidly loose their self-confidence.

How to fight loneliness

So, how can you fight loneliness? Here are some tips and strategies for lonely people:

 See your own responsibility

Every lonely person should learn to change his or her representations of the situation, of the people and, yes, also their representations of themselves! It is important to see your own responsibility in building up your own isolating fortress. 

 Cognitive therapy

Cognitive therapy has proven benefits and its principles can be applied by anyone (see references below).


Relaxation associated with visualisation (or meditation) has also generated a lot of encouraging results in the last decade. Relaxation relieves stress by decreasing heart rate and muscles tensions. It has a positive impact on the immune system.


Meditation will help developing mindfulness and compassion by reducing fears that often prevents us from meeting new people. It improves self-esteem (compassion for one's self) as well.


› All you ever wanted to know about loneliness is in Cacioppo's 2008 book: Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection.
 A number of stress reduction techniques (including cognitive therapy) are very helpful to manage loneliness feelings or prevent them. A good self-help book is: Stress reduction workbook, M. Davis & E. R. Eshelman, M. McKay.

Catherine Transler


Catherine Transler

Researcher in developmental and cross-cultural psychology. Arrived in the NL in 2001 after a few detours by Brussels, London, and Paris. Now living with my pre-teen son in Rotterdam....

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