In a world more interconnected than ever, it is a sad irony that loneliness is getting worse. Around half of Americans don’t have daily meaningful connections with a close friend or family member, while the reported number of close confidants is most commonly given as zero. For many people, traveling is a chance to meet a ton of new people, so it can come as a shock when you start to feel lonely as a solo explorer. Despite sharing experiences with locals and fellow travelers, you can feel isolated as you wander alone through foreign streets, far away from anyone close to you. Feeling lonely at times is entirely normal, but it is also important to understand the dangers of chronic loneliness and find a remedy when you spot the symptoms.
Loneliness as a Social Epidemic
Traveling can contribute to loneliness, but even those who stay at home, close to family and old friends are likely to experience feelings of isolation. Two in five Americans say that their social relationships are not meaningful and 20% admit to feeling lonely or socially isolated. Perhaps surprisingly, young people are more lonely than their grandparents, with seniors showing more resilience to their social isolation. With household sizes falling, many younger people feel the effects of a lack of community.
Loneliness is more than a psychological condition. Studies suggest that it is as damaging to physical health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, with the socially isolated experiencing an increased risk of death of around 30%. Low quality relationships also increase the risk of heart disease and stroke by 29% and 32% respectively. Clearly, something needs to be done to facilitate healthy and meaningful connections between people in society.
The Effects of Long Term Travel
Travel can be an incredible way of meeting people. From lifelong friends to business partners and romantic encounters, getting out into the world brings people together and enhances social interaction. It may seem paradoxical, then, that so many solo travelers and digital nomads report feelings of loneliness and isolation.
Loneliness is not as a result of having no social interactions but comes from the lack of depth and meaning to these connections. Often interactions with other travelers, say in hostels or onboard planes, are shallow and short-lived. They involve little more than small talk, with the same conversations about where you’re from and what you do, day in day out. Most travelers don’t stick around for more than a few days or weeks, making close friendships hard to form. Meanwhile, your best and oldest friends are thousands of miles away for the vast majority of the year.
As a solopreneur, you then head off to work on your own, while your new travel buddies go off sightseeing, hiking, and exploring. You spend your time eating alone in restaurants filled with couples and families. You check into hotel rooms, where the feeling of being alone really hits you. Some stave off the loneliness with daily bar crawls, looking for friendship and romance, if only for one night, but this is unsustainable. As the months and years of hard travel drags on, it is normal to start to accept that much of this time has been spent feeling lonely and isolated. Admitting it, though, is the first step to overcoming such a condition.
Reassure Yourself of Your Self-Worth
The feeling of loneliness is essentially a feeling of being, to put it crassly, a loser. You feel like a loser eating alone in restaurants when everyone else is sitting with friends or drinking in a bar when you’re the only one not engaged in conversation. It is important in moments like this to reassure yourself that you are not in this situation out of a lack of value as a human. In fact, it is quite the opposite.
You have set off across the world and arrived in a foreign land with no one else’s support and just the possessions in your backpack. You have carved a life for yourself, earning a sustainable, location independent income and diving headfirst into unknown cultures. That’s pretty badass. Keep reminding yourself that you are an interesting person, with stories to tell. Moments alone are a result of being so interesting. This positive affirmation can help to lower feelings of loneliness.
Take Care of Your Physical Health
Like any aspect of mental health, feeling isolated can cause travelers to neglect their basic needs. A fear of loneliness might prevent you from entering the restaurant for dinner or stopping in a café for a coffee and bathroom break. The negative effects of declining physical health can then cause your mood to drop even lower, creating a dangerous circle.
Pay attention to your physical symptoms and consider whether you might not be lonely, but rather underslept and lacking in the right nutrition. If you live a healthy lifestyle, then you will find that you have the energy to be more social and form the deep connections that all humans need. Try to form this cycle of virtue to maintain a healthy and balanced mindset while on the road.
Don’t Isolate Yourself
Whether or not you are an introvert, staying social while traveling can be exhausting. At some point, it can be tempting to withdraw into yourself, but this will only make feelings of isolation worse. For example, after months of living in crowded and noisy hostels, you may be at a point financially that you can book your own room. It could be hotels, motels, or apartments that you choose, in order to get some peace and quiet, some proper rest and some alone time to be reflective and productive.
Eventually, however, this can make it difficult to have social interactions. If you are finding yourself going for days without talking to anyone, then it may be time to move back into a shared hostel dorm and start reconnecting with fellow travelers. Alternatively, you could find a coworking space rather than working from your hotel room or go to a bustling street-food vendor as opposed to ordering a takeaway to your room. Be aware of your own self-imposed isolation and find ways of reengaging with travelers and the local community.
It is also important to stay in close contact with family and friends, new and old. Texting is good, phone calls are better, Skype or Facetime can provide even more social fulfillment, but keep in contact as a means of meeting up in person. You can alter your travel plans to match that of a friend’s, who may also be feeling lonely and wanting to meet. If possible, take more opportunities to go home and reconnect with the family and friends you left behind. Doing so every couple of months, rather than once a year, will make a significant difference in how lonely you feel.
The modern world is suffering from a loneliness epidemic that has no easy answers. Solopreneurs and lone travelers are, by the nature of their lifestyle, more susceptible to these feelings of isolation. Remind yourself that you are in an unfamiliar culture and that these doubts are understandable. However, you are in this situation because you are a bold and resilient person. Take control of your negative thought patterns, maintain your physical health, and become more actively engaged in pursuing meaningful social interactions.