Lonely people tend to die younger. They have more health problems when they’re still alive, and tend to be more anxious than average. They tend to suffer more from high blood pressure. They have weaker imune systems. Bummer.
Of course as with all findings about mental health, you must be careful talking about causes when all you have are correlations (feeling unwell might prevent you going to social events, for example), but it does seem likely that being lonely is bad news. The findings on the positive effect of social support – people with plenty of good friends and a strong social network tend to be happier and healthier – are after all just the other side of the coin.
We can distinguish acute loneliness (loneliness that persists for a relatively short period of time and that arises as a result of loss or transition, such as the death of a partner, change of job, or a geographical move) from chronic loneliness (loneliness that goes on and on and is part of a person’s life over some years). I’m currently reading Emily White’s book Lonely, about her chronic loneliness, and enjoying (or identifying with it perhaps) very much.
I think there is now more of a stigma attached to being lonely than there is to being mentally ill. Most people now accept that mental illness is a result of many factors, and that the ill person is not to blame. However, many people appear to believe that if you’re lonely, it’s your fault. You should just try a bit harder: join a club, do volunteering work, or take a dancing lesson. Or perhaps, they think, you’ve got no friends because you’re not a very nice person.
I admit it: I am chronically lonely – and I’m a very nice person.
Being chronically lonely (just lonely from now on) is related to many other things. White clearly thinks that being lonely and being depressed are very different; the main evidence for this claim is that many people report average levels of depression. I’m a bit sceptical that people have good insight into their mental states (we know from cognitive psychology that our insight is limited), but loneliness does seem to be related to social anxiety and personality factors independently of depression. I can feel lonely at a crazy party. In fact I sometime feel loneliest at a crazy party, where everyone else is obviously enjoying themselves, playing party games and singing songs. I have been in a packed football stadium where everyone else is singing and chanting and cheering and I just can’t join in; it feels false, wrong. I’m not looking down on the people who join in – although it must often look that way to other people – I just can’t make myself feel like other people. I’m an outsider (or as my mother used to say, “weird”, the irony being that she also is a lonely outsider).
I do wonder if people who think of themselves as very lonely mean “lonely” in the same way as others do. I think most people have acute loneliness in mind, whereas I think people like White and me are struggling for a word to capture a sense of alienation and otherness that pervades our lives even when others are present. A lot of what White talks about in Lonely makes me wonder if she just means “single”: a lack of intimacy, having somewhere there, the sound of voices and feet padding on the carpet at home, havint someone to touch, having someone with whom to share everything. But then I have felt lonely when with other people, including partners. Perhaps some of us are just destined to feel different. And for me it is entwined with depression.
But these are simple labels for complex experiences. I have no advice for others in the same party. I don’t want to go to a party or start dancing. Perhaps that’s why I enjoy the gym so much: I can be with other people, who vaguely share the same aim, but who don’t expect anything of me.
5 thoughts on “Loneliness”
I find myself nodding whenever I read your writing. Somehow it’s reassuring that you put these things in to words.
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Thank you for your kind words. I try. I am struggling a little with this topic though. I now think that “lonely” isn’t the right word to capture what I’m talking about; what I have in mind is so different from the typical image of someone who has no friends and has to endure missing other people. We might have that too, but we also have a sense of “otherness” that isolates us from other people, so we can be lonely in a crowded room of people we know. It’s an inability to connect with other people that troubles us. According to research described in White’s book, the condition is worse in people who come from “broken” homes (for want of a better word; some divorces and separations are civilised and amicable and don’t harm the child at all; others are brutal, or, as in my case, resulted in the severing of all contact with one parent).
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I agree, I don’t think “lonely” adequately conveys the magnitude of that feeling. A sort of alienation, and sometimes even in the places that are least likely to cause that. I think “otherness” is the perfect description. To be stood in your own life and yet somehow on the periphery looking in, slightly removed from your position. I have felt it many times, and the only way I can weather it is to write my way out or through it. Whilst you feel that you struggle with this topic, I feel that you’ve given a real glimpse of it, how it feels, and the impact of that. Keep writing. I implore you.
I left my job about four years ago and thought I’d feel lonely but I didn’t – it seems the amount of people I have in my life, although it’s not a lot, is enough for an introvert like me. But it’s the sense of alienation or disconnection that bothers me sometimes. I guess you could say it’s quality not quantity that matters – so I think you made an important distinction there.
Different people want different things. As you observe, quality of relationship definitely matters more than quantity, at least for many people. We can be alone in a crowd of people. It’s also difficult if you never mix socially with people like yourself.