Loneliness used to be associated with the elderly but more and more of us – young and old, single or married – are admitting to feeling alone. Psychologist Maureen Gaffney asks why are we all so lonely – and what can we do about it …
Loneliness is epidemic. But it is a lonely epidemic. Like lonely people themselves, it is poorly understood, pushed to the margins and largely ignored. Yet, every day millions of people around the world wake up feeling profoundly and painfully alone, with a gnawing sense of inner emptiness and lack of self-worth. When we do get around to thinking about loneliness, the image that comes most readily to mind is the frail, elderly man or woman living alone in social isolation and we guiltily hope the St Vincent De Paul is doing its job.
EVEN PRE-SCHOOLERS GET LONELY
That image is far from the full picture. While loneliness is indeed a factor in old age (somewhere between 20-30 per cent of older people report feeling lonely at any given time or for much of the previous week, and ten per cent consistently feel very lonely) increasingly, loneliness is being identified as a problem of golden youth. Hard and fast percentages are difficult to pin down across different studies but the overall picture emerging is that loneliness tends to peaks in adolescence and is particularly prevalent among 18-25-year-olds. Even among pre-schoolers, up to twelve per cent suffer from loneliness.
Most of the psychological and health benefits of marriage disappear if you are experiencing intense loneliness in your relationship – a feeling that you are neither truly known nor truly loved. In fact, a growing sense of loneliness turns out to be a very significant warning signal of real trouble in a relationship
As people become couples and have children, it declines. But even in this heartland, loneliness lurks. Most of the psychological and health benefits of marriage disappear if you are experiencing intense loneliness in your relationship – a feeling that you are neither truly known nor truly loved. In fact, a growing sense of loneliness turns out to be a very significant warning signal of real trouble in a relationship. And while women more readily admit to feeling lonely in a relationship, it is just as much a problem for men – though they often don’t articulate their experience of emptiness as loneliness.
WHY WE GET LONELY
Loneliness has two major dimensions: social isolation and the absence of an intimate attachment. It can be triggered by lack of friends or a social network that gives you a feeling of belonging or mattering – even if you are in a happy and intimate relationship. Or, on the other hand, even if you have a vibrant social network, you might feel intensely lonely if you long for, but don’t have, a special person in your life, a romantic partner or best friend who truly loves and understands you, and is there for you when you need them. Somebody with whom you can share the big moments in your life, good and bad. One way or another, the essence of loneliness is the feeling that you are not really important to anyone.
Although loneliness is psychologically distressing, the capacity for loneliness is highly adaptive for our survival as individuals and as a species. To paraphrase Freud, longing is the birth of love. Humans are hardwired to long for connection because only that way can we form the kinds of attachments that allow us to bond, to rear children, to live in groups and to form coalitions to get things done. When that is not happening the way it should, we experience the sharp pain of loneliness: a signal to go out and make it happen.
When we are connected, and the interaction is going well, we feel happy, valued and understood but, after a while, we become exhausted and depleted and we want to withdraw our energy and renew ourselves psychologically.
But it is not that simple. A fundamental dynamic in life is the tension between connection and autonomy, between being deeply engaged with other people and being alone and free to focus on ourselves. When we are connected, and the interaction is going well, we feel happy, valued and understood but, after a while, we become exhausted and depleted and we want to withdraw our energy and renew ourselves psychologically. Then the wheel turns and we begin to feel bored and lonesome so we seek out engagement again.
We devote a great deal of psychological energy throughout the day and throughout our lives to getting that balance between connectedness and autonomy right for ourselves. Personality is a factor. Extroverts draw their energy from engagement, feeling most alive when interacting with others. Introverts need and relish having time to themselves to think and act. People also differ in the level of intimacy they need and can tolerate. As most couples find out, even in the best of relationships, negotiating the “right” level of psychological and physical closeness in a relationship can be a minefield, with one partner’s idea of intimacy leaving the other feeling either pushed away or “crowded” and intruded on.
THE LONELINESS LIFE CYCLE
That need to be alone or connected also waxes and wanes over our lifetime. Generally young children do not like being alone and, when they are, they can experience a particular type of loneliness, feeling panicky, helpless, vulnerable – the kind of loneliness that can reoccur in adulthood when a relationship breaks down or in the wake of a bereavement.
Adolescents swing between an urgent, almost minute-to-minute need for the company of friends and a lot of solitary withdrawal. The kind of loneliness they encounter is marked by agitation, intense boredom, restlessness, inability to concentrate, the desire to be anywhere but where they are. They feel isolated, alienated, sorry for themselves, unattractive, stupid, ashamed, insecure. That type of loneliness can also reoccur in adulthood when people find themselves unwillingly alone or socially isolated.
We enjoy being alone more, using it for ourselves as time to reflect, take stock. As a consequence, we become more tolerant of other people’s need to be alone too.
Thankfully, by midlife, we learn to find a better balance between our need to connect and solitude. We enjoy being alone more, using it for ourselves as time to reflect, take stock. As a consequence, we become more tolerant of other people’s need to be alone too. Then, advancing into old age, bereavement, health and mobility issues take their toll on our emotional and social connections and we have to start dealing with loneliness in a more serious way again.
SOME PEOPLE ARE LONELIER THAN OTHERS
Even in the best-ordered lives, loneliness can strike. The breakdown of a significant romantic relationship or important friendship, divorce, becoming unemployed, moving to a new place where there are no other people of the same age or lifestyle – all are major risk factors for loneliness. But some of us are more prone to intense and prolonged loneliness than others. There is a genetic factor: proneness to loneliness is 50 per cent inheritable. If you inherit a tendency to react intensely to any separation or disconnection in a relationship, or to self-consciousness, shyness, self-doubt, worry and rumination, then you are more prone to loneliness. Loneliness can also be rooted in early life experiences, particularly the experience of early attachment. If your experiences left you feeling emotionally secure – loved, accepted and generally trusting of others – then you are unlikely to be prey to loneliness, except in a transitory way.
If, on the other hand you emerge from childhood feeling insecure about your own worth and cynical and distrustful about relationships, fearful of rejection, abandonment or exploitation, then you are at risk of developing the kind of defensive strategies that will all but guarantee loneliness: avoiding closeness and commitment or alternatively becoming too needy, too clingy, too demanding. One way or the other, the effect is to generate more negativity than positivity in interactions. You become hyper-vigilant for any sign of rejection and over-react. So, bit by bit, others move away from you – emotionally or socially, which in turn increases your insecurity and distrust. The perfect vicious cycle.
The best response is not to focus on the loneliness as a problem but instead take it as a strong and positive signal that, whatever the source of your loneliness, you need to find new ways to engage with others
So what can you do if you are experiencing more than the occasional bout of loneliness? Well, avoid the temptation to sit and think about it, to do nothing, to overeat, watch a lot of TV or drink your way to oblivion – the most frequent and maladaptive responses. Perhaps it will not surprise you to find out that spending money or going shopping (for women at least) is also a favourite strategy but has obvious limits. The best response is not to focus on the loneliness as a problem but instead take it as a strong and positive signal that, whatever the source of your loneliness, you need to find new ways to engage with others – just for the sake of connection, not as a way to find friends or a romantic partner.
So force yourself to join a club or to volunteer for something worthwhile. Set out to get more adept at connection. You don’t need to be very socially skilled to be genuinely interested in getting to know somebody – you just need to stop focusing on yourself, an unfortunate side effect of loneliness. Develop the art of active solitude – study or work on something that interests you and absorbs your attention in an enjoyable way. Listen to music (very effective if you put some thought into it). Take exercise. Read. More than anything, keep reminding yourself that things keep changing. New people come into our lives in the most unexpected way. You just need to be ready and open and interested. These simple strategies will work – if you persist.
And, OK, OK, the occasional shopping spree to splurge on something fantastic …
Dr Maureen Gaffney is Adjunct Professor of Psychology and Society in University College Dublin. Her book Flourishing (Penguin Ireland) is available in good bookshops.