Why is loneliness such a big problem?
Nobody wants to be lonely. The word conjures up an image of a barren existence, and is particularly associated with those at either extreme in life: children who find it hard to make friends, standing solitary in the school playground, or perhaps the elderly, widowed and largely forgotten, with only the company of daytime quiz shows and the occasional phone call or visit from children or grandchildren.
It sounds awful, doesn’t it? But while we might have memories of loneliness in childhood or vague fears about what the future might hold when we are in our 80s or 90s, surely there is no place for loneliness among professional adults? We have our jobs, our friends, our families, our colleagues. Social media is a major part of our lives, and there’s always someone to chat to on Facebook if we are home alone.
So why is loneliness such a big problem in the 21st-century world, and what can we do about it?
To get to grips with the problem of loneliness, we first need to be clear about what we are talking about. Look in your dictionary – or to take the modern-day equivalent, ask the Enlightened One: Wikipedia – and you will be told that it is a state of solitude. But that’s not quite right. Solitude is being alone, and that’s something many of us enjoy in this frantic world. You can certainly be alone without feeling lonely.
Loneliness can better be described as a state of mind. It is that feeling of emptiness, isolation and disconnection. Ironically, we can sometimes feel lonelier when we are in the company of others than when we have solitude. A soldier might feel terribly lonely when sent out on a posting, despite being surrounded by comrades, as could an employee working in a busy office.
So, if loneliness is a state of mind, the real question is what causes these feelings?
It is easy to blame the apparent increase in loneliness on changing social habits. We all know we spend hours every day looking at our mobile phones, and we are as likely to text a family member in the next room via an instant messaging platform as we are to open our mouths and talk to them. All this is true, and doubtless has its role to play, but there are some triggers for loneliness that predate WhatsApp and Snapchat, and we should not overlook them.
The death of a loved one, the break up of a family member, changing jobs or moving to a new area are examples of life events that can cause a fundamental change in our day-to-day patterns. They leave us feeling disoriented and unable to interact with the person who has died, left us or is no longer at the next desk or in the house around the corner.
Loneliness can also be brought about by internal factors. That poor kid we pictured earlier in the school playground with no friends can easily grow up into someone who feels just as lonely in adult life. He or she might function perfectly well and hold down a good job but suffer from inner doubt and low self-esteem. The result? Feeling isolated and chronic loneliness.
It is interesting that in our age of online social interaction, there is more discussion and awareness of loneliness. The government has even introduced a Ministerial Lead for Loneliness as a direct result of the recent recommendations from the Jo Cox commission. Is this because, as some would have us believe, the digitalisation of the world is making it a lonelier place?
It is an interesting argument. Those who live alone or work from home might find their only real opportunity for social interaction is at the supermarket checkout or in the bank. Of course, today, they are more likely to be greeted with a machine than a human assistant.
This assumes they venture out for their shopping at all, of course. Now, we have the convenience of being able to do anything and everything from home, including earning and spending our money. It’s efficient and it beats sitting in traffic burning fuel. But it can get lonely.
Unfortunately, banks and retailers are not going to reverse the wheels of progress to provide lonely customers with someone to talk to. For this reason, it is laudable that there are charity organisations working tirelessly to address loneliness among the more vulnerable members of our community.
That gives us a glimmer of hope that our own old age will, perhaps, not be as bleak as the picture we were painting earlier. But it doesn’t help the less obvious but equally damaging type of loneliness that is becoming ever more pervasive in the workplace.
Loneliness is not a new phenomenon, but the modern environment makes it a greater risk than it has been before. The fact that we are all talking about it is a step in the right direction, but it behoves us all to be aware of one another and reach out that hand of human interaction whenever we can.
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