Updated: Oct 5, 2020
What we avoid when focus on loneliness.
Photograph by Eli Gottlieb
In recent months, we’ve expanded our vocabulary about connections with others. There are policies of social distancing and quarantine, and concerns about loneliness and social isolation. Even before the pandemic, we were reading about the rising number of singletons, our declining ability to enjoy solitude, and a looming loneliness epidemic.
What does each of these terms mean?”Quarantine,” for example, comes from the Latin for 40, which was the number of days that ships arriving in medieval Venice from infected ports were required to sit at anchor before unloading. Terms like loneliness, solitude, and isolation are more difficult to distinguish from one another.
Clearly, one can be on one’s own without feeling lonely, and one can feel lonely even while being surrounded by others. Does the difference between loneliness and solitude, then, come down ultimately to the question of choice? Or is it more a question of duration and intensity? Does context matter? For example, is the 90-year-old widow who just lost her husband of 71 years lonelier than a 17-year-old who split up with his girlfriend two weeks after asking her out?
Consider the following three moments from my life:
Wednesday at midnight, a little over a year ago. I turned off my car, lowered the back of the driver’s seat down as far as it would go, closed my eyes, and thought: I will never go back. I was cold; there was no one I wanted to call or anywhere I wanted to stay; I was not in any mood to explain and couldn’t if I’d tried. I was entirely alone.
A Sunday evening, 32 years ago. I walked into the room I shared with my two best friends. They fell silent as if my entry had sucked the laughter out of the room. An unspoken signal had passed between them. I realized then that the two of them, who weren’t friends before that year, were now better friends to each other than either would again be to me.
A Tuesday afternoon, 18 years ago. I’ve just given a job talk. It went badly. I’m standing outside smoking and one of my colleagues is talking to me. I know my professor is about to walk by and say something calming, but that he too knows it wasn’t good. I feel there’s no one with whom I can share what I’m feeling.
These examples illustrate a few things. First, you can feel lonely even if you’ve chosen to be alone. Your sense of longing for a particular person’s company, or for company in general, doesn’t disappear just because you were the one who decided to be alone. Second, loneliness often includes an element of comparison. You feel that, relative to others or to another time, you’re more alone, right here and right now. Third, you can be with people who care about you and still feel that there are things you’re feeling that they’ll never understand.
Being alone sometimes feels good. Feeling lonely never does. Being alone includes an element of independence and self-sufficiency. Feeling lonely includes the opposite—a feeling of dependence, of needing something and lacking it. For this reason, some researchers compare loneliness to physical pain or to hunger – as if our body is telling us we lack social connection, and we need to reach out to others.
Photograph by Eli Gottlieb
Research distinguishes between objective and subjective aspects of being alone. Social isolation is the objective aspect, measured by the number and frequency of our social connections. Loneliness is the subjective aspect, defined as “perceived social isolation” or “the distressing feeling that accompanies discrepancies between one’s desired and actual social relationships.” The two aspects are related, but not as closely as you might think.
For example, contrary to popular belief, subjective feelings of loneliness are actually less prevalent in “individualistic” countries, in which large proportions of the population live alone, than in “collectivistic” ones, in which fewer people do. Similarly, although old people are more likely to live alone than are young adults, they are actually less likely to feel lonely than are young adults.
The subjective nature of loneliness accounts for some of its more perplexing features. The loneliest people are often those most sensitive to social clues, rather than those who are insensitive to them. They withdraw from social interaction to avoid being hurt. Similarly, one can feel loneliest of all in moments of unreciprocated intimacy, such as when you seek closer connection, and your partner retreats, or—which can feel even worse—when your partner wants to get closer, and you need space.
Over the last decade, many headlines have claimed that we’re getting lonelier. Long before anyone had heard of COVID-19, Vivek Murthy, the former U.S. Surgeon-General, warned of a loneliness epidemic. Since the pandemic, he’s toned down this language, but he’s still concerned that, unless things change when the lockdown is lifted, the United States faces a “social recession.”
America isn’t alone in worrying about increasing loneliness. In 2018, then UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, famously appointed a Minister for Loneliness. Well, actually, and less dramatically, the Minister for Sport and Civil Society, Tracey Crouch, became the Minister for Sport, Civil Society, and Loneliness. All the same, rising loneliness was recognized as a national problem.
Causes cited for rising loneliness include smaller families, more single person households, declining participation in civic and communal activities, and increasing use of the internet and social media. However, a closer look at the data indicates that while social isolation may be increasing, loneliness is not. The evidence that people are spending more time alone is strong and compelling, from the rise of singleton households to the negative correlation between social media use and face-to-face interactions among young adults. Not so, despite the headlines, the evidence that people are feeling lonelier. On the contrary, some of the studies commonly cited show no such thing, while other studies suggest we’re becoming less lonely.
Why all the fuss about loneliness? Why are we giving it so much attention when little about it seems actually to have changed?
The answer may lie in what we’re not talking about when we talk about loneliness instead. When reading Harvard Business Review’s special issue on loneliness in the workplace, I was struck by the thought that, by focusing on loneliness, businesses and governments turn structural socioeconomic problems into psychological ones. Rather than attributing workers’ unhappiness and alienation to low pay or inhuman workloads or toxic organizational cultures, they “blame” the individual’s resilience or social habits.
This may be true also on a personal level. It’s easier to say, “I’m lonely,” than to say my future is uncertain, I find it hard to connect to others, and I worry that my behavior alienates people. Figuring out why it’s difficult to create or maintain relationships is hard work. Talking of loneliness like it’s a medical condition isn’t.
Photograph by Eli Gottlieb
The interventions that reduce loneliness most effectively are those in which the lonely help others. This is a fascinating twist on the Golden Rule. To feel understood and cared for, it helps to focus on what others need from us. This isn’t always easy, especially when you’re feeling sorry for yourself. But it’s something anyone can try. And it’s guaranteed to make someone feel cared for, even if that someone isn’t—yet—you. About the Author: Eli Gottlieb, Ph.D., is a cognitive Psychologist at the Graduate School of Education and Human Development at The George Washington University.