Saturday, 7 January 2017

Lonely hearts

There's constant talk of an epidemic of loneliness, of hordes of people feeling so lonely and isolated it's affecting their mental health and even causing premature death.

This seems to me a wild exaggeration, falsely depicting a routine emotion as something catastrophic and overwhelming. Okay, so you feel lonely, You may feel lonely quite often. But is that such a problem? If you're a resourceful person, you simply acknowledge that feeling and then find ways of enjoying your own company and not pining fruitlessly after social contact.

That probably sounds glib and self-satisfied to some. They'll say I don't understand how painful and miserable feelings of loneliness can sometimes be. I don't understand how important company is to some people and how empty they feel without it.

But if people are pining that much for company, of course they're going to end up miserable because 24/7 company simply isn't possible. Even if you have a partner and children, they won't always be around. If you've never developed enough self-reliance and self-enjoyment to disperse feelings of loneliness, you're in for a lifetime of emotional gloom.

In the end loneliness is just another feeling like sadness or helplessness or embarrassment. You find ways of dealing with it so it doesn't become a millstone, a liability. Expecting other people to come along and solve it for you is unrealistic. You have to draw on your own resources instead of thinking the answer is somewhere else.

I'm lucky in having a partner who provides me with constant company. But even before that, when I lived alone in a dismal bedsit, I don't remember feeling lonely that much. I had many ways of amusing myself and I didn't yearn for someone else to be present. I liked my own company.

"Music was my refuge. I could crawl into the space between the notes and curl my back to loneliness" - Maya Angelou


  1. I agree with most of what you've said... for most people. However, there are some who are not perfectly stable like you or I for whom loneliness, for example, might send them spiraling into depression or other mental maladies. Of course, loneliness has never been much of an issue, for, well-balanced soul that I am, I'm also quite the introvert.

    I've actually not heard anything of "an epidemic of loneliness."

  2. Oh my Nick at times you really don't get it. Speaking from somewhere well above hurting people.

    Loneliness manifests in a myriad ways. Think of age and handicapped. Think of illiteracy and poverty. Think of addiction. Think of socially inept. And that's just for starters. Add single mothers and on....




  3. Mike: That sounds like their real problem is depression or some other mental problem rather than loneliness as such. Presumably even if they weren't lonely, they would still be mentally unsettled.

    It seems to be mainly journalists who keep referring to an epidemic of loneliness. I can't find any academic reference to an "epidemic". Once again it's the media overstating the case.

  4. www: Maybe I don't "get it", but again I think you're raising other more basic problems like addiction, autism, illiteracy etc. Aren't those the things that needed to be tackled rather than feelings of loneliness?

    I wouldn't think it's a question of privilege either. Surely anyone anywhere can feel lonely? Someone in the third world could just as easily feel lonely as someone like you or me.

  5. My 94 year old mum sometimes complains of loneliness, but she persistently doesn't answer the phone, won't invite anyone into her flat and refuses to use a befriending service. Her loneliness is very much of her own making.

  6. I had to work at being comfortable in my own company when I was younger, but now I love solitude.

    It's got to the stage where I'm aware that I've become all peopled out and need time on my own.

    My partner and I don't live together and happily, he understands and respects my need for solitude...and vice versa. If anything he needs less people-time than I do.

    I've been lonely in a relationship before and I would rather rattle around my home and garden by myself than to experience that again.

  7. Rose: I think you've hit the nail on the head, you just have to work at being comfortable in your own company. Otherwise, as you say, you can still feel lonely when other people are with you. Yes, some people can not only handle feelings of loneliness, they actually need to be on their own at times. Jenny and I are both like that.

  8. I've only read about people who isolate themselves on purpose by using the Internet as their only form of communication. If that's what you're talking about, then I agree that there's not a lot to feel sorry for.

  9. Never heard of an epidemic, but in an age where social media has made us less sociable than ever, I wouldn't be in the least bit surprised.
    I'm comfortable in my own company, but many people do find it intolerable in the same way they're unable to share silence with someone.

  10. Bijoux: I think the internet can be both positive and negative. It can be an escape from everyday life and ordinary social contact, or it can be a way of making new friends and connecting with people generally. I have friends and acquaintances in my everyday life, but I also enjoy the exchanges with my blogmates and Facebook friends.

    The articles I've read don't really mention the internet, they're more concerned with face-to-face friendships.

  11. Further to my previous comment, I often find myself craving solitude. On the rare occasion I get to be properly alone, it's like a sense of freedom combined with relief.
    Too much of anything can be a problem.

  12. Dave: As I said, "epidemic" seems to be a journalistic term. Researchers themselves don't use the word. I'm not sure social media has made us less sociable. I know plenty of people who have hundreds of Facebook friends but are also very sociable and fully engaged in everyday life. Different people use the internet in different ways.

  13. Dave: I also often have a craving for solitude. I find company stimulating up to a certain point, beyond which I start to feel mentally satiated and want to retreat to digest everything on my own.

  14. Nick, you have excelled yourself. That "social comment" of yours is harsh and insensitive beyond belief. In fact I'd be ashamed if I were you.

    Just because you don't feel "lonely" doesn't mean that others don't. To you and some of your other commentators: There is a huge difference between seeking out solitude out of desire and being/feeling acutely lonely.

    You know why loneliness is so devastating? Because human beings are social animals. We seek company. An acknowledgment that we exist. Honestly, Nick. I am incensed. What next? Blaming someone for their carcass rotting away unnoticed because they were lonely?

    Let me tell you just one little story of many I could tell you. A few years ago, shortly after I'd moved to where I live now, there was a little man. He was very old (say, I don't know, late seventies) not so much in years as in how frail he was. Frail, yet sprightly. Yet, he had that peculiar air of loneliness that old people who have lost everyone exude. Our corner shop was his social life. Read that last sentence again, Nick: The corner shop was his social life. Myself being an approachable and approaching type of person we often talked. A few minutes here, a few minutes there. One day, him being frail and tiny, he raised to the tips of his toes to plant a little kiss on my right cheek. That was, possibly, the only bit of TOUCH (physical touch) he had had in ages. Later he died. No doubt, a lonely death.

    Let's leave it there. As much as I like you I do despair with you and your "priorities" at times.


  15. Nick this may enlighten you more. (I hope, otherwise I despair)
    Feeling lonely? You’re far from alone (via @IrishTimes)


  16. Change the nomenclature to solitude and things become different.

  17. Ursula: I never said other people don't feel lonely. I was just suggesting it's not the catastrophic experience the media makes it out to be. But if you've met lots of people who're desperately lonely to the point of ill-health, fair enough, you've encountered something I haven't. In my entire life I can only think of one person I've known who was (maybe) chronically lonely. But she was also an alcoholic, which seemed to be the bigger problem.

    Why would I blame someone for dying unnoticed? How are they to blame?

    I don't agree we're social animals. Sometimes people want company, sometimes they want privacy. At times privacy is essential - for creative activities for example.

    It certainly sounds like the old man was very lonely, but without knowing him I can't really make any further comment. He was lucky that you befriended him and relieved his loneliness a little.

    But I'm prepared to admit I'm ignorant on the subject and my common-sense solutions are woefully inadequate. I'm happy to be enlightened.

  18. www: Yes, I read that article yesterday. In fact, it was what got me thinking about loneliness. But if isolation increases the risk of ill-health, what can be done about it? Should we encourage people to say they're lonely? Should there be drop-in centres for the lonely? Should we be encouraging families to visit their isolated relatives more often? Should we encourage people to use befriending services? Should we be more alert to the possibility that someone is lonely? It's a complicated problem.

    1. It starts with you as it does with me. And yes other pathologies are created by loneliness. Some we can't help. Others we can. Remembering that very few admit to loneliness. I intuit it. Recently in a friend who lost her precious daughter even though she was surrounded by family.

  19. Ramana: Certainly if people were able to see their isolation as solitude rather than loneliness, that would help. But some people do pine after social contact and aren't comfortable in their own skin.

  20. I take it you are referring to your mother - and I quote you "In my entire life I can only think of one person I've known who was (maybe) chronically lonely. But she was also an alcoholic, which seemed to be the bigger problem." The BIGGER problem? Leaving all other ways and reasons to get addicted to anything aside, I'd say that the lonely, the truly lonely, may turn to the bottle - not because they want to. But because the bottle becomes their friend. Their "only" friend. To blunt whatever pains them. Like, say and insert smiley, being lonely.

    Remember that Beatles' song (I think it was one John Lennon inspired) "All the lonely people" ...?

    Fact is, Nick, we live in a world in which, unless you make conscious and concerted effort, we let down the lonely, the god forsaken, day in day out. But, of course, as long as Jack is alright Jack is alright.

    To put it another way, Nick: Why do you blog? Surely it's because you like to connect/communicate with other people. Alleviate the feeling of being "alone", joining a community.

    I am the first to admit that I'd be perfect hermit material. But that would be partly out of choice partly because it suits what's bred in my bone, not because it's foisted on me.

    To give you credit, and I mean it, you admit that maybe you are out of your depth. You are. Let's learn from each other - and let's talk to each other.


  21. Ursula: Absolutely not my mother, who like the rest of our family drinks very little. I was referring to a woman who lived in the flat above my bedsit in the seventies. I've no idea which came first, the loneliness or the bottle, but she could consume phenomenal amounts of whisky.

    That's exactly why I blog, to connect with other people, especially interesting and intelligent people. And yes, it stops me feeling lonely. As I said, the answer to loneliness is to find ways of amusing yourself and enjoying your own company (or internet company in this case).

  22. I have a maybe stupid but very simpel question ? Why are you communicating with your readers and what need to you feel to write down and share your thoughts with them.

    BTW I wish you a Happy New Year.

    Mia More

  23. Your mother sounds rather like mine....though mine does have a circle of friends who include her in their family life - though only on her terms. Doesn't stop her moaning that she is lonely, though.
    I have set her up with Skype, etc., but she won't initiate anything...others have to make the effort.

  24. Mia: One reason I started a blog was to use writing to clarify my thoughts on various subjects. Then the comments from readers helped to clarify my thoughts a bit more. But I also enjoy the regular contact with people from other countries - especially the USA but also Canada, Britain and India.

  25. Helen: What friends my mother does have (many have died) are in different parts of England so she doesn't have much contact with them. She's always refused to have a computer so Skype isn't possible, nor email.

    Very typical that your mother complains of being lonely despite having a circle of friends! As I said, nobody can have company 24/7, unless you have a partner who never leaves the house!

  26. Nick,
    Loneliness is everywhere and it is caused by so many things. If you dont understand loneliness you dont understand the human condition.
    It's not about finding things to do, it's not about being happy in your own skin and it's not about having constant company. It is about intimacy, deep connection.
    Did you know that addiction is a direct result of lacking human connection? People cant be treated for addiction, depression and all those other "pathologies" without adequate social support.
    As Ursula says, we are social creatures, designed for community but community lets us down often.
    Your privilege shows here not because you live in a developed country but because you obviously have all your social needs met. And that is probably more a natter of luck than of management.

  27. I agree with what you say.
    I find it amazing that people say or rather that it is said about them being so lonely!
    WHEN do they have time to be lonely?
    literally EVERYWHERE you go... whether in cars or stores or restaurants or simply walking in a park... people have that blasted PHONE to their ear or in their hands TEXTING each other.
    that seems to me to be the more dangerous epidemic of these times!

  28. Even though I spend a lot of time alone and love it, I'm guessing I will feel very lonely if something happens to Andy. I do tell him I love my life as it is right now, don't mess it up by letting something happen to him. He laughs.

    BTW, we're both very old by Ursula's definition. Not so frail yet, but that could happen any time.

  29. Kylie: Well, as you see it, I don't understand the human condition, even though I'm a human. Perhaps we should stick to loneliness, which you and Ursula and www say I don't understand. You say loneliness is about the lack of intimacy and deep connection. For much of my early life I was short of intimacy and deep connection but I don't remember feeling lonely, only frustrated. So maybe I'm suppressing my own feelings of loneliness? But if I'm unknowingly lonely, according to you I should also be addictive. But I've never been addicted to anything. I wouldn't say I have all my social needs met either. I don't have that much social contact but I don't crave for more. Nor would I say I'm that privileged, except that I have more money than a lot of people. So I guess I'm a bit baffled by your comment. We seem to have different understandings of the "human condition" with no common ground. Not sure where I go from here.

  30. www: I think I'll just refer you to my response to Kylie.

    Tammy: Well, I think we may both be missing the point here. According to the others, there's a very deep and painful type of loneliness that isn't understood by those of us who've never experienced it. So how would you respond to Kylie's comment?

    Jean: Yes, I'm sure I'd feel very lonely if Jenny died. Then maybe I would understand what Kylie is saying.

  31. Nick,
    I wasn't commenting on your state of loneliness or addiction, although I suspect that boarding school would have been a lot less traumatic if you had been supported socially.

    I am an extrovert, not an extreme one but extroverted all the same so not only do I need human connection as everyone does but I like to process externally through conversation. If I don't have adequate social contact I feel a little as though my brain is shutting down as well.

    At school I struggled to connect and consequently felt like an outsider.

    After school I had my first child at 23 while my friends were still travelling the world and studying. By 27 I had four kids and my first friend to have children wouldn't start for another three years. The gulf between a new mother and a mother of four is enormous. In fact mothers of small babies like to be surrounded by people who have babies the same age. This gulf effectively ended all of my friendships.

    I developed more friends but they all moved away.

    I became self employed so didn't have the interaction of the workplace.

    My children are young adults forging their own lives and while they love me, they don't and can't relate to me except as their mum. Their priorities are foremost in their minds.

    I don't connect with my husband so the person who you would expect to be consistently around really isn't.

    All in all, regardless of how many things I have to do and how much I like myself and how many things i am interested in, I feel a little as though I am filling in time until I have better social connections. Maybe I could describe it as a black and white kind of life rather than a coloured one?
    That makes me sound depressed and I am not but it's the best metaphor I have

  32. *Slaps Nick around face with wet kipper*

  33. wow.
    i'm not sure I should respond to anyone's comment here nick! much less kylie's!
    to me loneliness seems to be such a personal thing. having to do with how one copes with childhood first.
    we moved so much when I was a child that I had no stability and no friends. there was never time.
    much like you... I learned early on to entertain myself and enjoy my own company and to be friendly with acquaintances but not to rely on them.
    when bob died and I was 34 I thought I might not survive that one. I had already lost both parents and my beloved gram long before then. and I had no children and my brother had his own life in another city far from me. loss came often and heavy for quite a few years there.
    if I let myself I could have become a walking sad sack! even now I suppose I could. but it's such a waste of time really. and so boring!
    what works for me and immediately snaps me out of any pity party is thinking of those people who had to survive the holocaust... or the thousands of refugees in the world right now. that to me would be the worst. and yet they endured and do endure. little war torn children with literally NO childhood manage to play. that is staggering to me.
    it sounds trite I suppose... but I think we 'privileged' people who have a roof over our heads and enough food to eat should look around and think loneliness might not be the worst problem to have!
    my New England grandmother told me always how to handle it. her advice was to "get busy."
    not the worst advice. and if your 'getting busy' was involved with helping others... so much the better! hard to be lonely then.
    I get weary of people with all the answers. which means I suppose since I've expounded on it more here...
    (even though at your request!!!) must mean I'm weary of me! LOLOL!!! XO♥

  34. After reading Ursulas comments I thought perhaps I'd not quite grasped where you were going with this post, so I'll delve a little deeper.
    As she said, there's a vast difference between choosing solitude and the intense loneliness that some people suffer, not through choice but circumstances.
    Comparing these situations is like the difference between feeling 'a bit gloomy' and clinical depression. Telling someone who's genuinely depressed to 'just pull yourself together' is as much use as saying "never mind, it'll grow back" to someone who's just lost their leg.
    You have been lucky enough to not have suffered real loneliness, just as I haven't, so it's unwise for any of us to suggest that there's a simple fix or to underestimate the true emotional effect loneliness could have on people.

  35. Kylie: From that interesting life-summary, I can better understand what you're saying about loneliness, social contact, lack of connection etc. Of course it must make a big difference if you're an extrovert rather than an introvert. You've obviously had a lot of difficulty making those deep connections with people. Actually I have much the same difficulty, I've had a lot of friends and acquaintances over the years but the only one I've felt any deep connection with is Jenny. Oh, and someone you know who lives in Brooklyn. My life is always brightly coloured, I've never had any sense of it being black-and-white. But I sort of see what you mean.

  36. Scarlet: A wet kipper? But I'm a vegetarian, how could you be so insensitive?

    Tammy: Thank you for making that long extra comment anyway! Yes, I was thinking about Bob and how hard that must have been when he died. I guess everyone has their own response to feelings of loneliness. For some, thinking of people in much worse situations or "keeping busy" can help, for others that doesn't help at all, they need some much more fundamental readjustment to keep them going.

  37. Dave: I was also thinking about the similar contrast between feeling gloomy and being clinically depressed. Yes, clearly searing, agonising loneliness is something I've fortunately never experienced, even though I've been through circumstances that ought to have triggered just that. When you're suffering something so overwhelming, I'm sure you're right, there's no simple fix.

  38. LOL!!!
    wet kipper... vegetarian... insensitive...
    I think your sense of humour is your protection against almost everything nick. even loneliness!
    and upon reading all the really deep comments here... I do agree with them.
    especially with anyone who suffers from clinical depression. a purely physical condition with devastating results.
    it's so easy to judge. one of the things I want to work on. YET AGAIN!

  39. Tammy: I think you're right that my sense of humour is a regular defence mechanism. However serious something is, it always has its absurd side too.

    Serious depression can be absolutely crippling.

  40. Apologies.
    *Slaps Nick around head with a two week old cabbage*

  41. Not a two week old cabbage. Stop, stop, I'll do anything you want, anything at all. Just name your price. I'm putty in your hands.

  42. I have learned to cope with solitude but don't go for it as a steady diet. People from more gregarious cultures really suffer if they have to be on their own, East Indians, for instance.

  43. Hattie: Not many people would fancy perpetual solitude, unless you're a Zen monk in a mountain cave. We all need a bit of human company from time to time, even if we're confirmed introverts.

  44. As usual with your posts on psychological issues, I think the issue is far more complex than you are presenting. First, we are indeed social animals. Biologically wired to be so like other pack or herd animals. But people run along a continuum in their need for social contact. Second, I'd make a distinction between loneliness and solitude. People who are lonely (instead of just alone and at peace with that) are sad and aching for contact and often don't have the resources to change that. Their situations might make that difficult (I think the overwhelmed single mother is an example another blogger gave) or they may not have adequate social skills to change it or they may be so mired in depression (which is not, in fact, always or only biologically driven) that they can't see their way clear to forging the connections they crave. All to say that perhaps a little compassion might be in order here.

  45. Agent: You're right, I often don't understand psychological complexities. But I can see there are many reasons why very lonely people are unable to relieve that loneliness by befriending others. And that for them solitude is not a desired state but something deadening they want to get away from. Yes, I probably lack compassion and appreciation of just how painful and wretched loneliness can sometimes be.