Feeling lonely? ISU prof recommends forgetting ghosts of Christmas past

AMES, Iowa -- Loneliness can be particularly painful at the holidays, and feelings of isolation can affect people at any age or stage of life. For those approaching the holidays feeling pangs of loneliness, an Iowa State University professor has some advice that sounds much like the lesson of Ebenezer Scrooge: Forget the ghosts of Christmas past, and focus on the present and future.

Dan Russell, a professor of human development and family studies and a researcher with ISU's Institute for Social and Behavioral Research, has been studying loneliness since the early 1980s. He's found no direct correlation between the number of relationships a person has and his or her level of loneliness.

"Loneliness is different than being alone," said Russell, whose research was recently featured in O, the Oprah magazine. "In general, people who are lonely have fewer close friends. But this isn't always the case. Lonely people can have many close friends, whereas people who aren't lonely may not know anyone."

The lonely aren't who you might think in terms of age, either. Russell's research has found that older adults are the least lonely age group, while high school and college-aged students are the most lonely.

"The most socially isolated group is the elderly," he said, "and yet that group understands that being more alone is part of the aging process, and adapts to it."

Loneliness is not affected by the quantity of relationships, but rather the expectation an individual has for those relationships, Russell said. For that reason, recalling fond memories of friends and relatives in holidays past can cause some people to feel lonelier during this time of year than they do most of the time.

"It is helpful for people to live in the present and not the past, and understand how their situation (of being around close family and friends at the holidays) can change over time," he said. "If they do feel lonely, they should try and understand why they're feeling lonely. What is it about their relationships that make them feel lonely?"

Loneliness also may be a natural byproduct of the holidays, according to Russell, because of the break in a daily routine.

"In the case of people who work for a living -- we work a lot," he said. "So you're working like crazy and always around co-workers, and then suddenly you're not working at all because of the holidays. That's when you start feeling lonely. In the case of college students, they're also taking time off for the semester break. So the time at the holidays may make you think more about relationships and how you feel."

Russell recommends that people approach the holidays as an opportunity to build relationships, rather than to assess or dwell on a lack of close ties to others. 'Tis the season to reconnect with both relatives and friends, or possibly make new friends, he said.

"People should try and get together with friends while they're home for the holidays, and then maintain contact with those friends throughout the year," Russell explained. "They can also try and find some projects that involve some social interactivity during the holidays. They are typically more abundant during this time of year."

Regardless of whether someone is seeking new social relationships or romantic interests, Russell says the holidays make those possibilities more salient. That's just as Charles Dickens wrote for his fictitious Mr. Scrooge -- whose new-found interest in others allowed him to become "as good a friendas the good old city knew."