Loneliness is a highly complex emotional response to isolation or the lack of companionship which human beings can feel intensely but find hard to define. Solitude, with which loneliness is often juxtaposed, refers to finding a state of wholeness or completeness with oneself while alone. Loneliness is related more to a pain in being alone, while solitude enables us to explore ourselves within our environment, often with a sense of enjoyment or pleasure. Solitude accepts the state of being alone; loneliness deplores it. Saints as well as artists have attained enlightenment through the use of solitude. In Zen meditation, for example, practitioners deprived of sensory input and social interaction can attain great calm as well as visionary insights. Loneliness, however, entails no such conscious efforts but also offers few rewards.
Loneliness has become something of a social and communicable disease in the advanced economies of the world. This is a remarkable phenomenon of increasing psychological concern, but it is not well understood. When one person in a group starts to feel lonely, this sense can spread to others, increasing the risk of “infection.” People can feel lonely even when they are in a crowd where there is usually almost no personal contact. Loneliness can therefore be considered as a subjective experience: If you think you are lonely, then you are lonely.
The number of books dealing with his affliction is staggering. This also reflects the far greater attention given to loneliness today than in previous times. A study in the UK by Independent Age revealed that 700,000 men and one million women aged over 50 were suffering from severe loneliness. In the United States 60 million people, or 20% of the total population, admit to pollsters that they feel lonely. Another survey found that the number of people with whom the average American discussed important personal matters had decreased from three to two in the previous twenty years. The number of Americans with no one to discuss personal matters has now tripled as national loneliness continues to rise.
How has this come about? Our socio-economic system, technological innovation, (such as television and the internet) and increased longevity each play an important role in nourishing loneliness. Capitalism, with its emphases on the individual, on competition, greed, money and profit, has overwhelmed previous cultural emphases on cooperation, religious communion, social concerns and responsibilities. The massive move away from agriculture and the land and into the anonymity of larger cities has also contributed to the growth of loneliness. The fact remains that we are social animals and need the company of others.1
One of the tragic outcomes of modern loneliness is that people turn to their televisions for consolation: two-fifths of older people report that the one-eyed monster is their principle companion. Television now keeps “the lonely” in their living rooms while their predecessors in previous generations had gone to the pub, to bars or to the public libraries. Television as a form of self-medication also tends to aggravate the social disease aspect of loneliness.
Similarly, the social media have failed to improve the blight of loneliness in our society. While we recognize the new opportunities to join others on Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter, the commercial atmosphere leads us to distrust the temptations and potentialities offered by possible new encounters. I have come into contact with no end of people who have joined Facebook but feel they are now even more removed from genuine contact. The new social media can occupy ever more of their time without giving them the opportunity of answering the question: “Why do I still feel so alone?” Twitter raises different kinds of pack reactions involving millions who pin up notices on a global bulletin board. Perhaps this can make them feel more social or tuned-in – but with only a few letters left at-a-go, how satisfactory could such tweeting be in making one more understood? Personally, I am “LinkedIn” but don’t really feel connected. This site is all about “contacts” and professional advancement — not friendship nor closer communion.
Psychologists, sociologists, teachers as well as parents around the world have become increasingly familiar with the deep loneliness of teenagers who want to be desired, to be part of something, to be loved, to be special and to be understood. Sylvia Plath brilliantly described the desperation of such youthful loneliness: “Life is, loneliness, despite all the opiates, despite the shrill tinsel gaiety of ‘parties’ with no purpose, despite the false grinning faces we all wear. And when at last you find someone to whom you feel you can pour out your soul, you stop in shock at the words you utter — they are so rusty, so ugly, so meaningless and feeble from being kept in the small cramped dark inside you so long. Yes, there is joy, fulfillment and companionship — but the loneliness of the soul in its appalling self-consciousness is horrible and overpowering.”2
Neither friends nor parties could cure Sylvia’s loneliness. Her creative writing came with solitude far away from the literary crowd. There are clear distinctions between feeling lonely and being socially isolated, as Thoreau and so many more writers have demanded. Solitude is simply a lack of social interaction: being alone. Solitude can help writers as well as philosophers, those engaged in religious practices, and others exploring their innermost being. Psychologists have also observed that solitude can help to enhance one’s cognitive state and improve one’s mental concentration. Solitude consequently can enrich the self, just as loneliness can impoverish it.
“If you are lonely when you are alone, you are in bad company,” said Jean-Paul Sartre. His existentialist school of thought viewed solitude as essential to what it is to be human. Every person comes into the world alone and travels as a separate being throughout his or her lifetime, ultimately dying alone. Loneliness is thus basic to our human condition. The paradox of the meaning of life arises because it is ultimately in conflict with the emptiness and nothingness of our universe. “Why should I feel lonely” wondered H.D.Thoreau in Walden (1854) “Is not our planet in the Milky Way?” This writer of solitude saw his condition in greater perspective than the existentialists!
The writer Janet Fitch in White Oleander (2001) confidently declared that: “Loneliness is the human condition. Cultivate it. The way it tunnels into you allows your soul room to grow. Never expect to outgrow loneliness. Never hope to find people who will understand you, someone to fill that space. An intelligent, sensitive person is the exception, the very great exception. If you expect to find people who will understand you, you will grow murderous with disappointment. The best you’ll ever do is to understand yourself, know what it is that you want, and not let the cattle stand in your way.”
Politicians have not done any better than philosophers in coming to terms with loneliness. An exceptional few have promoted a social contract, but few have sought to decrease the sense of loneliness of their electorate. John F. Kennedy sparked the optimism and sense of social engagement of many, while Richard Nixon worked to augment their isolation and insecurity. Initially millions felt inspired in a common cause by both Obama and Tony Blair. Those feelings have now vanished — making many feel more isolated and lonely.
The programs of Margaret Thatcher to deny the very concept of society reflected the sense in Britain that individualism would rule supreme. That is why she bashed the unions, promoted capitalist competitiveness and celebrated individual enterprise. Her efforts greatly increased the isolation and loneliness of the people. This Christmas, The Economist featured “The Loneliness of Tony Blair” on its cover. Inside, The Economist stated that “in his home country he is reviled. The ostentatious combination of money-spinning, globe trotting and commercial deals with some unappealing governments sit uneasily in austere, post-crisis Britain.” His political loneliness is matched by the sense of the voters that they are not being engaged or listened to by their elected leaders. Many feel abandoned, saddened and lonely.
Our increasingly longer and lonelier lives are becoming harder to transform. One specialist on the outer reaches of loneliness, John Cacioppo, has offered a number of tips in his many books on more positive prospects: First of all, your loneliness is an indication that something needs to be changed. It is vital to develop relationships with those who may share your interests and values. Then focus on your positive thoughts and attitudes with those contacts. Consider doing something for your community or other social activity that you enjoy. There you may encounter others who are also seeking similar engagement. There is no guarantee that such popularized advice will decrease the afflicted. Cacioppo fails to reach the inner core of loneliness.
For those who feel strongly that religious belief is one way out, consider Criss Jami’s observation that “A lonely day is God’s way of saying he wants to spend some quality time with you.”3
As opposed to being lonely, there are so many benefits to spending time alone. The shift from the sense of loneliness to one of solitude is not easy, but it can be immensely rewarding: Freedom is considered to be one of the benefits of solitude. A person’s creativity can be sparked when given such freedom. Another benefit may be the attendant exploration of the self. When one spends time in solitude away from others, changes to one’s self-conception and notions of identity may occur. Solitude provides the time for contemplation, for growth in personal spirituality, and for the self-examination involved in finding a sacred place in one’s inner being.
1George Monbiot, Life in the age of loneliness, The Guardian, October 15, 2014, p.31
2Sylvia Plath, The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, (1982)
3Criss Jami, Killosophy (2015)