LONELINESS: THE OTHER PANDEMIC
In 2003, the British author, Analis Rufus, published a book entitled, Party of One: The Loner’s Manifesto, which was a tribute to introversion and those who prefer solitude in a world dominated by extraverts. Henry David Thoreau, the famous 19th century naturalist once observed, “I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.” To be alone, then, is a privilege sought after by some yet, evidently, a cause of suffering for many. According to a recent survey conducted by Cigna Healthcare in January 2020 as many as 61% of adults report they are lonely, and this was before the coronavirus pandemic. A 12-month study in 2012 on the prevalence of loneliness that prompted the appointment of a “Minister of Loneliness” in the United Kingdom found that people above the age of 65 and below the age of 25 are most susceptible to loneliness. Over a third of elderly people reported feeling “overwhelmed” with loneliness. In Japan, “elder loneliness” is a recognized phenomenon. A survey here in the United States in May 2020 found that nearly 1 in 3 millenials suffers from loneliness and one of the reasons for this, paradoxically, is the advent of social media inasmuch as it can become a substitute for real in-person interaction, cyberbullying, and an impression from images posted on social media that suggest the popularity of those who are contributing to these social media sites.
One of the sources of confusion when discussing loneliness is that, strictly speaking, loneliness is a state of mind not to be confused with being alone. Susan Pinker, a psychologist and author of The Village Effect, explains that loneliness is an emotion associated with the belief that the state of being alone is not of one’s choosing. Examples might include imprisonment and house arrest, ostracism and social exclusion, agoraphobia which is an irrational fear of leaving one’s home, social withdrawal associated with depression, low self-esteem, or an anxiety disorder, a medical quarantine such as in response to a pandemic, or a catastrophic event such as Tom Hanks’s character in Cast Away, the survivor of a plane crash who was stranded on a distant island. Thoreau was not lonely in his blissful sanctuary of solitude called Walden Pond, therefore, because it was his choice to dwell there.
Loneliness may also be engendered by a subjective state of social disconnection. Perhaps one of the loneliest places to be is in a heavily populated city where you know no one. This phenomenon is supported by neuro-imaging studies which show that activity in the medial prefrontal cortex of lonely people differs from others with respect to the magnitude of disparity in the relative loci of excitation in these areas of the brain when conjuring images of oneself in relation to that of other people.
Loneliness not only contributes to mental distress and depression, it is also hazardous to one’s health. Studies have suggested that effects of social isolation on one’s health are worse than smoking the equivalent of 15 cigarettes a day as well as the debilitating effects of obesity, air pollution, and physical inactivity. It has been estimated that loneliness increases one’s chances of an “earlier death” by as much as 26%.
HOW DO WE ASSUAGE FEELINGS OF LONELINESS?
In order to learn how to feel less lonely, we should attend to the two fundamental aspects of lives, our relations with others and our relations with ourselves:
Our relationships with ourselves: Since loneliness is a subjective state, in order to address this problem one should learn how to cultivate a state of joy and learn therefore how to become a better companion to oneself. This may be accomplished in the following ways, for example:
Our relationships with others: Although loneliness is ultimately a subjective state, it is assuaged by the quality of life we establish with others:
It wasn’t but long ago when anger was all the rage. Concerns about reports in the media that some disgruntled employee went “postal,” on a murderous rampage. Disaffected young, teenage boys, misfits and loners raising suspicion about what they might be capable of doing. Heightened public attention to the prevalence of domestic violence. Whether for the purpose of sensationalizing a tragic event or raising public attention to a social problem that has lurked for too long behind the private curtain of everyday family life, anger has become a topic of concern in the public eye. And with this concern questions have been raised whether anger is a destructive emotion rooted in the blood of our primeval ancestors, merely a vestige of an uncivilized part of our human heritage.
Are All Negative Emotions Really Bad?
The value we give to temperance, the apparent opposite of anger, is a matter of civility, what it means to behave in a civilized manner when in social situations. When anger is counter-posed in this way, i.e., as both primitive as well as dangerous, it isn’t a far stretch to understand how the social pressures of political correctness have railed against it. In my blog, “Can we be positive all negative emotions are bad?” I raised the question whether emotions generally regarded as noxious or unpleasant, such as anger, are necessarily toxic or harmful. While granting that the emotion, anger, can give rise to the enactment of terrible things, the question, then, whether anger is useful or simply a remnant of primeval instincts becomes confused when we conflate emotions with actions. In other words, it is important when answering this question to be clear that just because one feels anger doesn’t mean that one is necessarily acting in accord with it or even at all. Moreover, not all useful emotions are pleasant. By the same token, not all civil actions are necessarily pleasant, to wit our jurisprudence system, an institution that harnesses adversarial relationships within the confines of a civil society.
Whether anger is useful or harmful, then, depends in part on how we define it. Acknowledging the difference enables one to recognize and accept anger without judging oneself as aggressive or destructive to others. Anger serves an important purpose as all emotions do. When we feel angry something within ourselves is telling us that something is not right that harkens us to take aggressive action, whether it be from a threat to ourselves or those we care about or from an insult to our sense of dignity.
Rather than judging ourselves or others for experiencing anger, what matters is first, your awareness of the presence of the emotion, secondly, what are its likely causes, and finally how should one respond to it. If we disavow our feelings of anger, we are susceptible to projecting it onto others and when we disavow anger in actions we are inclined instead to play a semantics game with ourselves and others, for example, “Oh, I wasn’t angry, I was just upset!” Anger is a broad term for a wide range of emotions, from annoyance and irritation to rage and all the gradations in between. It can be cumulative, a thousand irritations can lead to a volcanic explosion, or sudden, like striking a nerve, depending on the level of threat that elicited the emotion.
Knowing what causes us to become angry enables us to know where to direct our response to take action. When we don’t know the origins of our emotions we are susceptible to repressing them and directing them elsewhere, such as displacement, when we redirect anger toward an easier or more available target or intro-punitively toward ourselves. Suppressing anger over a long period of time as we know can lead to stress reactions that are toxic to one’s self-esteem and physical well being. As the cliché goes, resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die. Anger is sometimes the result of stress, fatigue, hunger, frustration, etc., and in other cases it can be an effect of a mental disorder such as major depression or bipolar disorder. Rage reactions can arise from situations that present imminent threat, certain kinds of drug reactions or withdrawal, a personality disorder, or flashbacks associated with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Perhaps, most importantly, what determines whether anger is a useful or destructive emotion depends on what we do with the emotion. When we disavow anger we confuse those we care about or worse give others cause to blame themselves undeservedly; when we repress our anger we deprive ourselves the opportunity to understand ourselves much less resolve problems that beset us. People with “anger management” issues don’t express their emotions constructively. Sometimes these issues serve to intimidate or manipulate others. Effective anger management on the other hand uses empathy and clear and specific communication in order to maximize the likelihood that the party toward whom anger is directed will respond in a sympathetic and cooperative manner.
When you are angry at someone or about something, use the following guidelines:
When I was a child, I remember thinking to myself, “boy, if I could only have that toy, I would never want another thing the rest of my life!” Happiness was something that one has, a thing to be possessed. Of course, when I did get what I wanted the joy it brought was short-lived. How puzzling it seemed to be disappointed, disabused from what seemed sure to guarantee eternal contentment. A lesson learned throughout a lifetime, happiness is not a material object or a thing to possess. It is not an attainable state of eternal bliss, nor is it the promise of a future obtainable through the satisfaction of a desire. If not these, what then is happiness and how is it obtainable, if at all? Much attention has been given in recent years by several authors and studies to try to answer these questions. Perhaps we best start by examining the wisdom of philosophers from antiquity to modern times.
Aristotle, the great philosopher of Greek antiquity, regarded the achievement of happiness an ethical issue. To live an ethical life is to live a good life, a balanced life engaged in purposeful endeavors. Happiness, he said, is an end in itself, a purpose toward which all other endeavors, such as friendship, financial prosperity, and good health, serve. Thus, to be happy one must be engaged in life, driven toward achieving goals, and capable of appreciating the joys engagement in purposeful activity brings.
Epicurus of Samos was a philosopher who lived in the third century B.C. who believed happiness to be the goal of life itself. For Epicurus happiness is a long-term project achieved throughout a lifetime by living a simple life and avoiding extremes. A life of balance and temperance and tendering good friendships, he believed, offers one the greatest prospects of freedom from the hardships and perils that unbridled ambition and indulgence in pleasure risk.
Arthur Schopenhauer was a 19th century German philosopher who is known for helping found the movement in philosophy known as existentialism. Schopenhauer noted wryly that it is a tragedy of life that pleasures are fleeting whereas misery and suffering seem to endure forever. Life is a mortal coil in which we all are entangled and cannot escape; to invest in happiness that is derived from earthly pleasures, therefore, is doomed to bring bitter disappointment and emptiness. For Schopenhauer the solution to this tragedy is to invest in the more enduring rewards that transcend one’s biological and mundane needs, such as in the arts, humanities, and philosophical practices that promote empathy and compassion.
The Rewards of Altruism
Balance, moderation, friendship, investment in a future and in altruistic concerns, these are the themes that resonate with the great thinkers throughout civilization. Recent studies have supported these notions by and large. Living a life devoted to helping others and involvement with others builds networks of support that create purpose, a focus away from one’s personal troubles, and a lifeline that offers stability and enrichment of life. While financial security is a necessary condition to live a safe and stable life, recent studies have found that earning more than a moderate level of income does not increase one’s level of happiness over-all. Altruistic endeavors, such as contributing to charitable causes, elevate one’s self-esteem and sense of well-being.
Self Reflection To Gain Wisdom
I recently heard an ad on the radio quoting the famous pop/jazz musician, Herb Alpert, whose basic advice to artists and musicians seeking success and fulfillment in their professions is to “find your own voice.” An appreciation and knowledge of oneself and one’s own talents and limits, “know thyself,” the famous philosopher, Socrates, once advised. In order to know oneself one must first accept oneself and secondly develop the capacity for self-reflection. From the love of oneself both a generosity of spirit and capacity for self-examination grow and it is through self-reflection that one may develop a capacity for wisdom and to actualize all that one is capable of offering.
Posted by Robert Hamm, Ph.D.
Robert Hamm Ph.D