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.
Perhaps one of the loneliest places to be is in a heavily populated city where you know no one. So, loneliness may also be engendered by a subjective state of social disconnection. This notion 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:
Robert Hamm Ph.D