On Social Needs and Loneliness
Published at 19/01/2024

On Social Needs and Loneliness

Our social motivation is based the same system with hunger, and other motivation.

It’s based on our dopamine circuitry.

This is why isolated people can stress eat ‘comfort food’, they seek other source of dopamine when the usual dopamine from our social life fail.

Social Craving

With hunger, your body can learn when to expect food and it will induce hunger based on the timing.

If you eat at 7 am everyday and suddenly don’t eat at 7am, you will feel hungry, because the body is expecting food at 7am.

The same thing happen to our social needs. If we meet someone at lunch everyday and suddenly it changes to only meeting once a week. We will feel lonely during lunch.

The lack of the usual dopamine causes craving. Wanting to socialize is basically the craving of the dopamine.

This explains a lot why I usually feel lonelier the day after a big event/gathering. And why I’d feel lonely living alone for a while, but then I will get used to it.

Introvert and Extrovert Misconception

Extrovert gain energy from socializing with people and introvert gain energy from being alone is a common misconception.

Extrovert actually gain less dopamine from a social interaction than introverts. That’s why they seek more social interaction. Because they need more interaction to fill their social needs.

Introvert actually gain more dopamine from the same social interaction. So we need less interaction to fill our needs. Once our craving is satisfied, we don’t feel motivated to socialize anymore.

One thing I’m curious is why do introverts feel drained after excessive social interactions? Even if there is no craving anymore, more dopamine usually will still make us excited. Like seeking for higher peak in drugs. Do we stop getting dopamine from social interaction after we are satisfied? Or do we need deeper social connection and the small talk doesn’t elicit dopamine anymore?


Loneliness is the gap between your expectation of social interaction you should have vs your actual social interactions.

So chronic social isolation can actually cause anti-social behavior [1]. Your body learns to expect very low social interactions. And since there is no craving on social connection, you are not motivated to socialize.

This help me understand some of my behaviour. I always wondered if something is wrong with me when I don’t feel lonely even after almost no social interaction for a long time. The covid quarantine feels normal to me.

But there are also many introverts and people with little social interactions that feel lonely. Why? By logic, they should have get used to it and their social expectation adjusted.

I think one of the reasons why other people might feel lonely even after their prolonged social interaction is because social media or and other’s people display of their social life. So you see people having great friends and relationship, and your expectation for social interactions increases. And because your actual social life doesn’t match the expectations, you feel lonely.

This matched with my experience. When I’m being a hermit because I’m engaged or focused on something else, e.g coding, gaming, etc. I don’t really feel lonely. I only start feeling lonely if I go into social media, watch romance movie, or start thinking of how great having friends or a partner would be.


[1] Lee, C. R., Chen, A., & Tye, K. M. (2021). The neural circuitry of social homeostasis: Consequences of acute versus chronic social isolation. Cell, 184(6), 1500-1516.