What is loneliness?
A phone that never rings. An inbox of junk mail and newsletters. Messages from no one. A train going east, full of couples holding hands.
Or maybe it’s going home alone and opening Instagram. Seeing happy people and lighting a joint to drift away from it all.
Or in another’s life — a phone that won’t stop ringing. A double-digit badge on Messenger. A train going west and someone’s hand to hold; it all feels distant.
Walking home alone, but with your ruminating thoughts. That your significant other could leave you, that they’re faking affection for you. Thoughts that your friends don’t really like you, that they’re just putting up with you. Thoughts that nobody understands you, that nobody really wants to.
A last vignette — cracking open a textbook. Losing myself in my studies. When I’m a famous professional, I won’t have to be alone. At the least, don’t think about isolation, just the relations in organic chemistry.
A student’s perspective
This last vignette is based on a story reported in The Guardian, when an anonymous fourth-year medical student sent in a letter about how she had drifted away from her friends since high school. “I comforted myself,” she wrote, “although I would never be the life of the party, I could still shine through my academic achievements.”
“Solitary evenings with my head buried in books have left me hollow and when term finishes, I have few companions to turn to,” she continued. “I’ve never had a boyfriend, or even the prospect of one. I fear I’m becoming bitter.”
According to Mariella Frostrup, The Guardian’s columnist who responds to such letters, the student isn’t alone in her state of loneliness. “There’s a stream of correspondence from 20-somethings struggling with the pressures of their studies coupled with a sense of isolation and near existential angst,” Frostrup wrote. “You might feel alone, but you’re already one of a large gang, even if it’s one in which none of its members particularly wants to be included.”
Although the student hadn’t directly mentioned social media in her letter, Frostrup explained that social media can exacerbate one’s feelings of loneliness by making one’s friends seem less isolated than they really are, adding that it’s actually quite normal for an academic to work in isolation.
A precise definition of loneliness
“Loneliness is difficult to confess; difficult too to categorise, [and] it can run deep in the fabric of a person,” author Olivia Laing wrote. While loneliness manifests itself differently in different people, a more precise, academic definition in psychology describes it as “the painful feeling” of isolation that stems from a dissatisfaction with the perceived number and quality of one’s relationships.
This explains why you can still feel lonely in a crowded room of people you know, or at least you think you know. “Simply putting lonely people in the same room as other people isn’t terribly effective,” explained University of Chicago psychologist John Cacioppo to The Christian Science Monitor.
From a more positive perspective, it also explains why you can feel at ease in an empty room. Loneliness is as much a state of mind as it is a function of how many friends you have.
Two types of loneliness
Loneliness can be divided into two types: transient and chronic. Transient loneliness is a feeling that comes and goes — perhaps you learn that your previous significant other found someone really good for them, and although you want to feel happy for them, you also feel a little lonely. But the loneliness passes.
Chronic loneliness, on the other hand, is the pervasive feeling of loneliness that exists during social activities, whether during conversations with friends and family, or while having sex with someone you love.
There’s no definitive reason for why people feel chronic loneliness, as it varies from person to person, but some starting points include expecting relationships to be easy and always enjoyable when they take a lot of work; finding it difficult to trust others, thus making it difficult to be trusted in return; or not liking yourself and feeling that you don’t deserve affection.
These reasons behind loneliness are not just based on others’ and my personal experiences. They are instead grounded in neuroscientific research.
A vicious cycle
As explained in The Wall Street Journal in 2015, Cacioppo found that the “electrical activity in the brains of lonely people occurred faster and was more extreme than that of non-lonely people when shown negative social cues.” Cacioppo and his colleagues believe that this increased electrical activity means that “lonely people are constantly and subconsciously guarding against social threats,” which may lead to trust issues that exacerbate loneliness.
Loneliness can be a vicious cycle. In Cacioppo’s interview with The Christian Science Monitor, he posited that increased sensitivity to negative social cues resulting from loneliness is an adaptive trait for self-protection when an individual is separated from their social group.
Yet the increased sensitivity for protection makes it harder to re-integrate into a new social group, increasing one’s withdrawal from social circles. This, explained Cacioppo, is “extremely maladaptive.”
The effects of isolation on an individual and on society
But why is a withdrawal from your social circles so maladaptive? For an individual, it can damage physical health. The Wall Street Journal reported that people with “less meaningful connections experience disrupted sleep patterns, altered immune systems, more inflammation and higher levels of stress.” The Journal adds that loneliness may also increase the risk of an early death, producing a similar risk profile to those of obesity and “smoking 15 cigarettes a day.”
However, findings from UK Biobank, a seven-year study of 480,000 subjects, provided evidence that the health risks may be correlative rather than causative. According to The Times of London, the researchers found that controlling for “education, income, smoking, drinking and exercise” rendered the relationship between social isolation and mortality statistically insignificant. This supports the idea that loneliness is a state of mind, based on one’s satisfaction with the quality of their relationships, as opposed to the number of their connections.
For society, it can contribute to political polarization. Loneliness can make one more susceptible to tribalism, wrote Arthur Brooks in The New York Times. Put plainly, loneliness can drive one to identify with a group that holds particular political beliefs, coming together for reasons such as hatred for a group that supports opposing views. At its worst, loneliness can contribute to extremism, which may have been the case in the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting.
All of this is part of the vicious cycle of loneliness: feeling lonely can cause one to withdraw and react negatively to social stimuli from society. This could result in a backlash against society in the form of extremism, whether by joining a hate group, a terrorist organization, or honing in on particular parts of society.
Though research is conflicting, the elderly may seek reassurances of care by increasing their visits to family physicians despite having no physical health problems. In some regions, it may also strain the prison system, which, in Japan, has been a “haven for elderly women” who shoplift in search of prison communities, according to Bloomberg.
Causes of loneliness
Causes of loneliness may include “under-or unemployment, inadequate financial resources, and marital or family conflict,” as noted a 2008 study by University of Chicago and Johns Hopkins psychologists in the Journal of Gerontology. At the University of Toronto, an academically rigorous environment may contribute to feelings of loneliness due to overwork, familial strain, and financial burdens from attending university.
Another cause could be substance abuse. Drinking or smoking excessively for stress relief can lead to social isolation, which can damage relationships and increase social withdrawal. For Dan Kieran, a contributor on Medium, a healthy mindset is crucial to avoiding problematic substance use.
“If I want a drink because I’ve had a hard day and deserve a drink, or if something bad has happened and I want a drink to escape from it, then I don’t drink. Ever. That is my rule. I can only have a beer that is just a beer—because it tastes nice. I don’t tie anything else to it.” Keeping this in mind can help with responsible substance use — the idea that it’s not alcoholism until you graduate is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, not a rational justification.
The debate continues over whether loneliness is truly an epidemic or if we’ve just gotten better at measuring it. Researchers from the United Kingdom reported in June that levels of loneliness in the region stood at about 10 per cent, and have done so since the 1930s. Increased understanding and awareness, however, has drawn more attention to the problem.
While the status of loneliness as an epidemic remains to be seen, what researchers do know is that there are substantially fewer relationships between young people than there were in the past. We are in what The Atlantic calls a “sex recession,” where 10 per cent of university students are in long-term relationships, while roughly 60 per cent engage in hookup culture. This may have significant implications for the changing intensity of loneliness over time.
Solutions to loneliness
By far, the most effective solutions to loneliness lie in addressing the tendency to perceive social cues as negative while feeling isolated, which perpetuates the vicious cycle that further separates us from social groups. Cacioppo encourages people to reinterpret how they perceive social interactions.
“You cannot connect if you isolate yourself — or if you only connect online where many people present a non-authentic self,” said Cacioppo. This means that, while browsing Instagram and Reddit may create a feeling of belonging and community, social media are by no means adequate substitutes for more authentic face-to-face interactions, where the added connection of meeting in person increases the quality of relationships.
Cacioppo also recommends that people who feel lonely take the initiative to attend more social events, find other people with similar values and interests, and pause before assuming the worst in other people’s intentions.
Preventative measures include educating students, as early as primary school, about relating to others, as CityLab reports will be the case in the United Kingdom in September 2020. This “social education” would inform children about the risks of loneliness, and provide advice on how to better form and manage relationships with others. However, concerns over whether a school-taught approach about relating to others is best for all individuals and social groups have arisen, as learning to relate to others through natural experiences may be more effective than through constructed ones in a classroom.
Other possibilities include introducing voice assistants such as Alexa or Mabu as conversational partners. While complex conversations are still outside the capabilities of most artificial intelligence systems, simpler interactions such as reminding someone to take their medication and exercise can be both motivating and useful for reducing isolation. Until interfaces develop to the level seen in Her, however, connections with other people remain ideal for combating loneliness.
Staying in solitude, while casting aside loneliness
Psychiatrist Irvin Yalom defined the four “ultimate concerns of human existence” as death, losing freedom, lacking meaning in your work, and isolation — that “we are born alone and die alone.” But, where loneliness is a result of dissatisfaction with the number and quality of relationships, there’s a distinct difference between isolation and loneliness.
If loneliness is a phone that never rings, then isolation is a phone set to silent during an hour of productive work, with the intent to check messages during a break. If it’s seeing couples make out on an evening train, it’s feeling happy that passionate relationships can exist.
Isolation is actually liking Instagram, which is my personal stance. Maybe it’s not true for everyone, but I’m afraid that reports on how Instagram posts are a curated version of one’s life are so prevalent that few people now truly believe that social media accurately represents one’s life. But I like watching the highlights of my friends’ lives; it makes me feel happy for them.
But isolation is also a leap of faith. It’s trusting that your friends do like you for who you are, and trusting that your significant other feels affection for you. Adjustment can come later, as may be required from time to time, but a default assumption of trust clears the way for more authentic expression.
Isolation is indeed cracking open a textbook — just as it’s practicing for hours on a cello, or solving problems for hours in math and physics, or typing out this feature by myself. It’s a part of the job to be productive for long stretches of time on your own, especially in the creative and scientific arts. Writers like Rainer Maria Rilke and Henry David Thoreau would certainly have attested to this.
But it’s crucial to understand that isolation isn’t loneliness. Great works spring from isolation, but not necessarily from lonely people. As Henry Miller reflected, long stretches in isolation can be counterbalanced by faith in one’s relationships, and that it can be broken up by the willingness to “Keep human! See people, go places, [and] drink if you feel like it.”
While I don’t think that last part is necessarily productive for everybody, I do think that periods of isolation can be part of an overall fulfilling life — alongside satisfaction with the number and quality of relationships enjoyed outside of periods of productive isolation.