Haven’t we all had days like this? Certainly we’ve all felt the bitter sting of loneliness. You’re definitely not alone—we’re all in it together. Britain is the loneliness capital of Europe. Five million Brits have no friends. Nearly 30 percent of households in the U.K. now consist of one person. This has been called the “Age of Loneliness.” We’ve become an alien-nation, isolated from each other—and our own selves. The cup of human kindness is empty these days.
What exactly is loneliness, anyhow? We might define it as a painful subjective experience borne of insufficient human contact and intimacy. The subjective part is important: Only you can judge whether or not you’re lonely. There is no external standard; no required threshold of Facebook friends. It’s possible to have a life filled with people and feel very lonely. It’s possible, too, to feel completely content with a solitary existence. (Possible, but not very likely—as Sullivan wrote: “There is no way that I know of by which one can, all by oneself, satisfy the need for intimacy.”)
A significant contribution to our understanding of loneliness came from British child psychiatrist John Bowlby in the 1950s, who claimed that contact and intimacy are basic needs in themselves, as vital as food and water to our survival both as individuals and as a species. He used the term “attachment,” which he defined as “lasting psychological connectedness between human beings.” We are social animals. We seek connection; it is through what Cozolino calls the “social synapse” that we develop and grow, certainly as babies but throughout our lifespan, too. As Sue Gerhardt writes in the excellent Why Love Matters: “My understanding is that human beings are open systems, permeated by other people as well as by plants and air and water. We are shaped not only by what we breathe and eat but by our interactions with other people.”
Loneliness, then, could be thought of as useful information akin to hunger or thirst. It is a call to arms, a warning, a klaxon in the dark night. We can tolerate it for a while and carry on, but the more socially starved and weakened we become, the harder it’s going to be to rectify. And we do need to address it. Because loneliness can be a toxic companion. It is bad for your health. Ever since Émile Durkheim’s 1897 book Suicide, we’ve understood the dramatic negative impact of social isolation. “We know that loneliness shaves about eight years off your life expectancy,” says Dan Buettner, author of The Blue Zones, which are those places around the world known for extraordinary longevity. One study claims that chronic loneliness increases your chances of an early death by 45 percent. By contrast, the opposite of loneliness—love, connectedness, belonging—promotes longevity. Love is not all you need, nor does it make the world go round. But it is certainly a vital part of being human.
OK. Loneliness is painful enough without having additional, secondary things to feel bad about, like its impact on your health. Or anxiety that it will always be this way. Not to mention the guilt and shame of loneliness, the bitter pill that you’re not living life the way you’re “supposed” to, the way you hoped, the way others hoped for you. Calls to the Samaritans are always highest around the Christmas holidays, when the stream of TV ads depicting perfect people being nourished by perfect meals, perfect friends, perfect families and perfect gifts makes us feel so utterly starved.
We imagine loneliness to be a modern malaise, and to an extent, it is. In the olden days, we suppose, people would spend their sepia-coloured evenings together, gathered round the hearth, the repast, or the piano, at the beating heart of the home, family and town where they grew up, where they would live, work, marry, procreate, recreate, retire and die. Then central heating came along and we retreated to our bedrooms. Then the TV was turned on and conversation petered out. Headphones—we retreated further still. Then aeroplanes—we could get even further away from each other. Then came the Apollo rockets, and the aching prospect of an infinite outer space, and the terrifying idea that when it comes to life, our planet is all alone—or the terrifying idea that it isn’t.
The capitalist machine cranked up a gear. It used to serve mankind; after what Polanyi called “the great transformation,” mankind existed to serve the machine, and ever since we’ve been working longer hours, moving to the ever-sprawling suburbs, and spending an awful lot of time commuting. Meanwhile, the old customs and niceties have been bulldozed in the name of progress and development. In the immortal words of Joni Mitchell, they paved paradise and put up a parking lot.
With society already on its knees, along comes email, the internet, mobile phones, virtual reality. Kafka-esque scenes of humans avoiding real contact with each other and their environment, even at social gatherings, family meals, weddings, vacations. We commune instead with tiny little screens. The lure of texts, emails and what is laughingly called “social” media. Alfred J. Prufrock measured out his life with coffee spoons. Ours are measured out in “likes” on Facebook. “Did you have a good life?” the nurse will ask us on our deathbed. “I don’t know,” we will answer, “I missed most of it. I was too busy checking my email.”
Broken attachments—we’ve been ripped apart from one another and scattered to the four winds. The family, the clan and the community lie in pieces. We’re disillusioned with the state; we’ve lost faith in faith. Without a social life, society breaks down. All the old certainties gone.
Loneliness: a key to love?
In reality, however, though social cohesion may well be declining, on a broader, more philosophical level, loneliness might be as old as humankind, an inextricable part of the human condition. Mijuskovic says we are “intrinsically alone and irredeemably lost”; the human being is “continually struggling to escape the solipsistic prison of his frightening solitude.” (I don’t know—maybe Mijuskovic just spends too much time alone in front of his typewriter.) Loneliness has always served an evolutionary purpose, ensuring that cavemen sought out other cavemen and created cave babies. Thanks to loneliness—and other unpleasant tendencies like anxiety, which has kept us ever-alert to threats—our species survived and thrived. Thanks to loneliness, our ancestors, stretching back to the dawn of time, got together with each other. Thanks to loneliness, you and I are here, today.
In his classic, slimline 1961 volume Loneliness, Moustakas writes: “Man's inevitable and infinite loneliness is not solely an awful condition of human existence but . . . it is also the instrument through which man experiences new compassion and new beauty." In the womb, we are alone. At death, we make a journey to something else, and again, we travel solo. In the part in between, our hour upon the stage, we might well essentially be alone. But if we can embrace it, it is our loneliness that guides us and teaches us how to live. It shows us that life is better with other people around, people we see into and who we feel see into us. We are more human when there is humanity—when there is love.
What to do about loneliness
I wrote an article for the Harley Therapy blog site called How to Overcome Loneliness:
“Loneliness exists for a reason, and from another perspective, it’s something to have gratitude for. Why? It’s the canary in the coal mine. A red flashing light on your psychic dashboard. Loneliness is a warning sign from yourself to you. It’s letting you know things are not all right in your stratosphere and it’s time to stop, take a deep breath, and figure out – in a kind and gentle way – to learn how to relieve your inner pain and get what you need from life and others.”
Read my how-to-beat-loneliness story by clicking here.
Videos about loneliness
• TED Talk: The lethality of loneliness by John Cacioppo.
• Orson Welles debates loneliness with Henry Jaglom in Jaglom’s terrific, unknown movie “Someone to Love.”
• Eleanor Rigby: “All the lonely people, where do they all come from?”
Books about loneliness
• Loneliness. By Clark Moustakas
• Loneliness in philosophy, psychology, and literature. By Ben Lazare Mijuskovic
• On love and loneliness. By J. Krishnamurti