Loneliness – A human experience
Remember: the time you feel lonely is the time you most need to be by yourself.
Life’s cruelest irony.”
― Douglas Coupland
Loneliness is not an illness, but a feeling of ‘nillness’. It is the distress that results from discrepancies between ideal and perceived social relationships. To attempt to categorize it as normal or abnormal is at best subjective, and at worst, reductive.
As an individual grows older, he or she is faced with the inevitable loss of loved ones and contemporaries. Adjustment problems result from the death of a mate with whom one may have shared many years of close companionship, retirement from a loved job, children going away to college, disease, ill health and so on. Social interaction takes a back seat at this point. An attitude of self-pity or an inward centering of one’s interests may alienate family and friends alike. In many instances, the person becomes increasingly rigid and intolerant and is unable to make effective use of the opportunities for meaningful social interaction that still remain.
The previously healthy, socially active, confident individual is no longer able to contribute productively and to feel oneself as a vital and needed part of the human enterprise. In essence, they progressively destroy the person’s links with the world and feelings of living a meaningful existence.
The Difference between Loneliness and Boredom
An important distinction should be made here with regard to one’s perception of time. Boredom is when one is unable to constructively utilise available time. It may even be a result of exercising one’s choice to not engage in activities happening around oneself. Boredom can be removed by a mentally stimulating or entertaining activity, and not necessarily by someone’s presence.
Loneliness however, is an experience of isolation. It has an emotional not an entertaining component, brought out by a lack of human contact and the helplessness to want or understand the importance of such an exchange. It may be accompanied by feelings of ‘invisibility’ and rejection. There is no choice in being lonely like there is in enjoying a solitary nap. Rather, loneliness is the distressing feeling that occurs when one’s social relationships are perceived as being less satisfying than what is desired.
Foundations of loneliness
One theory of loneliness holds that a dearth in specific requirements of social relationships contributes to specific types of lonely feelings. For example, lack of engagement in a social gathering is associated with feelings of social loneliness such as aimlessness and exclusion. The absence of a reliable attachment figure such as a parental figure is associated with feelings of emotional loneliness such as anxiety, desolation, and insecurity.
However, more recent studies have shown that not all such lonely feelings are intrinsically associated with certain relationships. Marriage, for example, serves a broad social integrative function that diminishes feelings of both social and emotional loneliness, especially for women.
Another theory holds that loneliness arises from social skill deficits and personality traits that impair the formation and maintenance of social relationships. Social skills research has shown that loneliness is associated with increased self-focus, poorer partner attention skills, a lack of self-disclosure to friends, especially among females, and less participation in organized groups, especially among males.
Personality research has shown that loneliness is associated with shyness, neuroticism, and depressive symptoms, as well as low self-esteem, pessimism, low conscientiousness, and disagreeableness.
Benefits of loneliness
Loneliness is aversive, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. An evolutionary conceptualization of loneliness holds that the aversive feelings are adaptive because they motivate the repair or replacement of social connections. Social connections result in feelings of cooperation and pride in work which further enhance the survival of the parents and, consequently, their children are more likely to survive to reproduce.
On a lighter note, the movie ‘Home Alone’ by John Hughes shows the adventures of Kevin McCallister, an eight-year-old boy who is mistakenly left behind when his family flies to Paris for their Christmas vacation. Kevin initially relishes being home alone, but soon has to contend with two would-be burglars. It depicts the fun and bright eyed optimism that children experience when their parents leave them alone at home for a while.
There are a few ways to enjoy aloneness:
- When alone, be selfish and undisciplined for a while, to counterbalance the pressure of maintaining your impeccable social persona.
- Get creative- Carl Sandburg wrote, “Shakespeare, Leonardo de Vinci, Benjamin Franklin and Abraham Lincoln never saw a movie, heard a radio or looked at a TV. They had loneliness and knew what to do with it. They were not afraid of being lonely because they knew that then the creative mood in them would work.” So attack the blank canvas that is your mind.
- Learn to rely on yourself for more things. Set the table for dinner, do your own laundry, make your own jewellery. The world is your stage and it’s waiting for its favourite actor!
The Impact of Loneliness
When loneliness takes over someone’s life, they become trapped in a feedback loop of negative expectations, interpretations, and interactions. The challenge is reframing and redirecting social perceptions so that a sense of meaningful social connectedness can be established or recovered.
Loneliness has been associated with alterations in the functioning of the cardiovascular, endocrine, and immune systems. In younger adults, loneliness has been associated with early markers of disease processes such as changes in blood pressure, whereas in older adults, loneliness has been associated with frank disease and dysregulation across multiple physiological systems such as cancer. Clearly, the costs of loneliness are too great to ignore.
Cleansing the Shadows
- Learn to adapt to change – We all get lonely. It doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with you. People are particularly prone to loneliness during major life transitions. If you’re changing in ways such as exploring new alternatives and paths for yourself, you’re bound to get a little lonely as you look for people who share your new interests and thoughts.
- Get involved in activities – Take up charity work, join the local gym or enjoy new hobbies. Getting a pet has proved to reduce feelings of tension and loneliness by 60%. Indulge in activities that release ‘good’ hormones and make you feel better about yourself. Remember to enjoy the activity you are pursuing now and enjoy the present.
- Be thankful – Despite the changes in your life and world, appreciate the things you have been given and recognise that hard work goes a long way in securing a happy future.
- Take action to make contact – When you decide to come out of your aloneness, you make the first move rather than waiting for someone to rescue you. Accept the risks and effort that are required. Action means more than just ‘going out’. Make an effort to converse and socialize. Most importantly maintain a positive attitude. Be confident, happy and assertive. Don’t be ashamed or afraid to seek professional help.
Man may be a social animal but loneliness is part of human experience. Don’t despair if the loneliness threatens to overcome you. Talking about it to others always helps.
If you are experiencing loneliness, why not talk it over with a professional counsellor who will create a safe space for you to discuss your thoughts and feelings, and in time learn social skills.