My counselor recently asked if I thought I was lonely. I'd been doing virtual visits with him for the past year, maybe once a month, for depression. It had never occurred to me to think of myself as lonely.
My first reaction was to deny it, but I kept my mouth shut. Was I lonely? I'd admit to being a loner, not having close friends, and often preferring to be alone, but was I lonely? A part of me wanted to dismiss the idea, but this guy had made good suggestions for dealing with grief after the death of my wife seven years ago.
As a hobby writer of speculative fiction, I love to research character personalities and story ideas, so I was intrigued. I knew the word's dictionary meaning but wasn't sure it applied to me. Or did it? As a kid, I spent most of my time by myself working on projects like learning to use a camera, processing film, printing pictures, making short movies, building model airplanes, target shooting, and riding my bicycle – a lot. They were solitary activities, and that's why I liked them. I spent time alone, but did that mean I was lonely?
Well, I researched loneliness and was surprised. It is judged to be rampant and on the rise. Doctors and mental health professionals are very concerned. In the United Kingdom, it is recognized as a severe problem. They have a minister of loneliness! The BBC recently conducted a survey called the Loneliness Experiment. Fifty-thousand listeners worldwide responded – 45,000 of them said they were lonely. The depth of the problem they described was stunning. Elsewhere, an article in the prestigious Swiss MDPI journal found that, as loneliness in poor children rose, their physical and mental well-being dramatically deteriorated. Here in America, it is estimated that 25% of us experience some form of profound loneliness. On May 3, 2023, Dr. Vivek Murthy, Surgeon General for the United States, issued an advisory on loneliness and isolation, saying the mental, social, and physical effects of loneliness are on par with the ill effects of smoking, drug abuse, and obesity.
The dictionary definition of loneliness is sadness because one has no friends or company. The BBC survey showed that the number of people present didn't determine whether a person was lonely. It is an inner feeling. The lack of being closely and emotionally connected to someone else, a community, or maybe an organization caused loneliness. Interestingly, the BBC experimenters asked respondents to describe the opposite of loneliness. The top five replies were: 1. Being connected, 2. Contentment, 3. Happiness, 4. Friendship, and 5. People who care. In the past few years, I've made an effort to call up acquaintances for lunch or a beer and connect or reconnect with people I know. I've tried joining a writing group. I hadn't felt very contented or happy. It was one reason I talked to a counselor. Even as a young boy, I'd developed coping skills that involved distractions. It's not the equivalent of contentment or happiness, but I found it filled the void.
As for friendship, the lonely people involved with the BBC experiment were asked what they wanted in a friend. Once again, the BBC whittled it down to the top five responses. The lonely respondents said a friend should be: 1. Trustworthy, 2. Understanding, 3. Supportive, 4. Sincere, and 5. Loyal. The participants, who didn't describe themselves as lonely, were much less demanding, listing fun-loving, generous, and open as the traits they looked for in friends. The survey folks wondered if lonely people set the bar for friendship too high. Perhaps it was a reason why they had difficulty finding friends. Couple that with the discovery that about 10% of lonely people are unable to trust others – possibly because they have been bullied or discriminated against – and it suggests that high standards and trust issues might be stumbling blocks to finding friends.
Unfortunately, I found only loose suggestions for remedies. Loneliness is a complex issue involving many factors, including but not limited to unemployment, poverty, lack of early childhood bonds or attachment to parents, and mental health and personality disorders.
Two surprises in these studies were that lonely people were considered just as empathetic as non-lonely people (perhaps more so), and youngsters, teens, and young adults were counted as the largest population of lonely people. They feel it with the most intensity. Some literature I read assumed that senior citizens suffered in more significant numbers. Though old folks like me certainly have their share of troubles, the newer loneliness information says the young are experiencing loneliness far more. The BBC report proposed that seniors who have lived with loneliness have developed coping methods, whereas loneliness may be new to younger folks and appear more daunting.
The BBC came up with a list of the top ways to alleviate loneliness offered by the lonesome participants. Again, there are five: 1. Find distracting activities or dedicate time to work, study, or hobbies (two thumbs up for this suggestion). 2. Join a social club or take up new social activities and pastimes. 3. Change your thinking to make it more positive (easier said than done, but, for me, speaking to a counselor was a good start). 4. Start a conversation with anyone (people can surprise you with their willingness to talk). 5. Talk to friends and family about your feelings (I suggest you chat with close friends and family members about your feelings before using it as an icebreaker with a stranger).
This article is just a tiny peek at the literature I found about loneliness. (Find the links in the online version of this story at www.LongfellowNokomisMessenger.com.) If you've read this far, you might feel you are in the loneliness category. I hope the resources I've listed help. If you aren't lonely, you might look out for friends and acquaintances who are. Talking about loneliness and accepting it is challenging. A friendly word from someone, a shared cup of coffee, a phone call, or a walk together can mean a lot to a lonely person. Just listening is a good thing. Depression, anxiety, and several other mental health issues have courses of treatment and prescription drugs. Loneliness has only recently been seen as a mental health problem. Solutions so far seemed to be connecting with others.
Curiously, the BBC asked lonesome people what they felt were the least helpful remarks from well-wishers. The BBC came up with six top items! What folks suffering from loneliness said not to tell them were: 1. Try dating. 2. Go online and look for friends. 3. Go out to social events. 4. Get out more. 5. Join a group. 6. Take up exercise.
Oddly enough, many of the suggestions offered by the lonely as ways to alleviate their loneliness were the same bits of advice they didn't want to hear from others. I often find myself in the same predicament. Perhaps my counselor is right about me.
Terry Faust is a longtime Longfellow resident, writer and photographer. He owns Wee Weathervanes.
BBC Anatomy of Loneliness: The Loneliness Experiment: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m0000mj9/episodes/player
Dr. Murthy’s Advisory on Loneliness and Isolation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B8pa506BFk4
MDPI Article: Loneliness, Social Support, Social Trust, and Subjective Wellness in Low-Income Children: https://www.mdpi.com/2227-9067/10/9/1433
No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here