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Mental Health

We Are Not Alone, We Are Part of the Majority

We are all lonely sometimes

Ami Rokach, PhD

From "Loneliness and Social Connection" issue of Visions Journal, 2019, 14 (3), pp. 5-7

Throughout history, the human condition of loneliness has captured the imagination of philosophers, storytellers, artists, medical practitioners, social commentators and scientists. Today, loneliness is such a common human experience that we could even call it a 21st-century epidemic.

Despite differences in language, culture and socioeconomic prosperity, all human beings are similar in fundamental ways. We all yearn for love, acceptance and understanding. People need intimacy, warmth, a sense of self-worth and frequent confirmation that they are of value to others. Lack of meaningful human contact is so painful that people will go to great lengths to fulfill their need for it.

Recently, we have begun to recognize the large-scale, widespread impact of loneliness on the health and well-being of the human population. Consider, for example, UK prime minister Theresa May’s recent (2018) appointment of Tracey Crouch as the new UK minister for loneliness.1

Unfortunately, loneliness is socially stigmatized, especially in the Western world. This means we are less likely to talk about loneliness as a condition that affects the human population as a whole, and more likely to suffer with our feelings individually. Fearing the stigma, those of us who feel isolated and alienated tend to avoid the realization that we are lonely, or we try to seek support from others, both of which often result in the deepening of the loneliness we feel.

Some of us might wonder whether we are lonely because we are difficult to befriend, or whether an innate personal quality makes us undesirable companions or "losers." We might worry that those who spend time with us will be branded as losers as well. Others might struggle to make meaningful human connections in a world that is increasingly busy and in which social opportunities are increasingly circumscribed and often digital rather than face-to-face. Those of us who experience loneliness frequently may continue our everyday activities as usual but carry our pain around with us, feeling disconnected from others, intensely alone, sometimes even terrified.

What is loneliness?

We can think of loneliness as our natural alarm system, designed to warn us when something integral to our health and well-being is missing or in dire need of correction—namely, our relationships with other people and our opportunities for love, human connection and support. It is imperative that we realize, constantly, that we cannot operate, succeed or survive on our own. As human beings, we are programmed to be a part of a group; we need to develop and consistently exercise our ability to remain part of a community. 

Loneliness is not simply the condition of being geographically alone (although someone who is lonely may also be geographically isolated). Loneliness is the condition of feeling alone—feeling disconnected from others, feeling that no one cares, as if one is not part of a social or familial network. The feeling of loneliness can be present even if we know, intellectually, that people do care and that we are part of a social and familial community.

Loneliness is part of being human—a painful and frightening condition that impacts our emotional and physical well-being. The key to combating loneliness is to increase our opportunities for meaningful social connections—whether these connections happen in the physical or virtual world.

While loneliness is a universal experience, it is also a subjective one: we all feel it differently. Loneliness can be temporary, a feeling brought on by the death of a loved one, a romantic separation or the sense of being socially unwelcome. Yet for some of us, loneliness can be continuous. It can be a chronic condition brought on by significant events in childhood or other experiences, or it may be inherent and not triggered by external circumstances at all.

Loneliness is particularly painful when we are surrounded by others but still do not feel a connection with them. Some of the most painfully acute loneliness can occur in our romantic relationships. In this case, loneliness can result in alienation from the one we love—even in a relationship that was begun with the intention of connecting with another person. When that happens, it can be heartbreaking.

Modern-day loneliness: Risk factors and wider health implications

Loneliness, which differs from solitude (that is, being alone because we choose to), is always painful and never voluntary, and can trigger a host of other physical and emotional reactions. Research shows that loneliness is correlated with illness and slower recovery from illness, high blood pressure, sleep disturbance, low self-esteem, substance use problems, criminal activity, depression, dementia, even early mortality, among other conditions.2-4

At the end of the 20th century, advancements in technology promised a more "connected" world. Digital communications technology such as email and cell phones, the launch of the Internet and various social media platforms fostered the growth of a global social community. Yet while our capacity to communicate on a superficial level with our fellow human beings has increased, our level of loneliness has not decreased. With all our increased "connectedness," we still experience loneliness. We may have 100 friends on Facebook, for example, but many of them can't offer us a physical hug when we need one.

The nature of our communications with each other—whether we communicate in person or digitally—affects how we feel. Research shows that those who actively share their life experiences on social media platforms feel less lonely and disconnected than those who simply observe what other people post on social media.5,6

There are several factors that increase the likelihood that we will experience loneliness. Our risk of continuous or chronic loneliness increases if we are naturally aggressive, shy or have difficulty being assertive, if we come from a family that isn’t loving or supportive or if we live on the margins of society, perhaps in poverty or with chronic illness.

Various other factors increase our risk of reactive, temporary loneliness. Age is one of these. Young adults from the ages of 18 to 26 experience loneliness most.7,8 Seniors aged 80 and older, who have often suffered losses in health, partners and friends, are next at risk for loneliness. In the past, many doubted that children could experience loneliness. Today we know that children can and do experience loneliness. They can describe their feelings and may show behaviours consistent with depression, social withdrawal and shyness, often without knowing how to clearly express their pain.9,10

Gender plays a role as well. While men and women both experience loneliness, women seem more capable of expressing their pain and longing, while men tend to deny that they are, indeed, lonely.10 Other factors that seem to affect our loneliness are sexual orientation, family and community dynamics, substance use, mental illness and physical health and capacity.

In general, people experience loneliness to a greater extent in individualistic cultures, which emphasize the importance of individuality, success and beauty, than in collectivistic cultures such as those of the Islamic religions and some African countries, which emphasize group and family relationships.

In the West, as our wealth and leisure time increase, and as we continue to make advances in digital communications technology, we risk becoming more and more isolated from each other as more and more of our interactions are virtual rather than face-to-face. If we experience this increased isolation as loneliness, we are likely to experience other mental and physical health problems as well.2-4

If and when we feel we are neglected, forgotten or not important to others, rather than avoiding this feeling or fearing the social stigma we will experience if we share our feelings, I believe that we need to heed this natural alarm and address our emotional needs as a serious health matter. Especially at times like this, it is important to take a proactive approach: find a good friend, deepen a friendship with an acquaintance, join a group of people who share like interests and actively work to live in community.

 
About the author

Dr. Rokach is a clinical psychologist with 40 years of experience combining teaching, research and therapy. Ami teaches in the psychology departments at York University in Toronto and the Center for Academic Studies in Israel. He is Executive Editor of the Journal of Psychology: Interdisciplinary and Applied. Ami’s therapeutic and research interests include loneliness, anxiety, human sexuality and stress management. Ami is the author of Loneliness, Love and All That’s Between (Nova, 2013)

Footnotes:
  1. Yeginsu, Ceylan. (2018). U.K. appoints a minister for loneliness. New York Times (January 17).
  2. Wilson, R.S., Krueger, K.R., Arnold, S.E., Schneider, J.A., Kelly, J.F., Barnes, L.L., Tang, Y. & Bennett, D.A. (2007). Loneliness and risk of Alzheimer disease. Archives of General Psychiatry, 64(2), 234-240. doi: 10.1001/archpsyc.64.2.234.
  3. Åkerlind, I. & Hörnquist, J.O. (1992). Loneliness and alcohol abuse: A review of evidences of an interplay. Social Science & Medicine, 34(4), 405-414. doi: 10.1016/0277-9536(92)90300-F.
  4. Cacioppo, J.T. & Cacioppo, S. (2014). Social relationships and health: The toxic effects of perceived social isolation. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 8(2), 58-72. doi: 10.1111/spc3.12087.
  5. Yang, C. & Brown, B.B. (2013). Motives for using Facebook, patterns of Facebook activities, and late adolescents’ social adjustment to college. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 42(3), 403-416. doi: 10.1007/s10964-012-9836-x.
  6. Song, H., Zmyslinski-Seelig, A., Kim, J., Drent, A., Victor, A., Omori, K. & Allen, M. (2014). Does Facebook make you lonely? A meta analysis. Computers in Human Behavior, 36, 446-452. doi: 10.1016/j.chb.2014.04.011.
  7. Arnett, J.J. (1999). Adolescent storm and stress, reconsidered. American Psychologist, 54(5), 317-326. doi: 10.1037/0003-066X.54.5.317.
  8. Arnett, J.J. (2000). Emerging adulthood: A theory of development from the late teens through the twenties. American Psychologist, 55(5), 469-480. doi: 10.1037/0003-066X.55.5.469.
  9. Rokach, A. (2013). Loneliness, love and all that’s between: A psychological look at what makes us lonely and what keeps us in love. New York, NY: Nova.
  10. Rokach, A. & Sha’ked, A. (2013). Together and lonely: Loneliness in intimate relationships—causes and coping. New York, NY: Nova.

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