As an only child, I was often asked by adults with concerned voices, “Don’t you get lonely?” I was never lonely, but I was often alone. I discovered that being alone can be a wonderful thing. Never needing to negotiate what to do next and free to decide where to go and how to get there. The freedom can be liberating.
Loneliness is very different. This word describes a feeling of emptiness and isolation. It happens when the amount and quality of social contact you have is less than the amount and quality that you want. Some moments can trigger these feelings. It might be the time when you arrive home to find an empty, quiet house after being out with good friends. Or, when you see or do something and have no one to share it with. Sometimes you might even feel this way when there is someone sitting right beside you.
Because loneliness isn’t about being alone, it’s about feeling isolated, and it doesn’t matter where you are and who you are with. On a Monday morning at work when colleagues are chatting about their fun weekends and yours wasn’t exactly a barrel of laughs, loneliness can hit you like a slap you in the face.
Twenty-first century society hasn’t exactly helped.
Feelings of loneliness can result from losing someone you were connected to. And in this age of shorter relationships, more frequent divorces and less secure employment, our connections disappear with increasing regularity.
Even the simplest of communications are disappearing from our lives. In the endless quest of corporations to grow profits, it’s now more cost-effective to replace human interactions with technology-driven transactions. We can take a trip to the shops, buy our groceries, visit a bank and top up our car with fuel all without speaking to another soul.
For many, the pub or bar used to be a local gathering place, where conversations with strangers were held over a beer or three. Jump to 2018 and not only is drinking less socially acceptable but stick your nose into any bar and most of the patrons will have their eyes glued to a slot machine, not deep in conversation.
Our modern wonders of mass communication sometimes seem to only tell us more bad news faster and with added horrific smartphone-recorded footage. All of a sudden everyone else seems like a potential mass murderer, rapist or some other type of criminal. It might feel safer to be isolated!
Then, just as we think we are starting to cope with this less sociable society, holidays light a spark to loneliness for the alone. Media is plastered with images of happy families and shared experiences at Christmas and Easter, and let’s not even mention Valentine’s Day!
So how successful are we as a society at managing our increased alone time? We might not seem to be managing very well at all , but at least there are signs that we’re beginning to notice. In 2017, the former Surgeon General warned that loneliness in the United States had reached epidemic proportions. In the UK, they have even appointed a Minister for Loneliness.
Unravelling the isolating impacts that have inadvertently resulted from society’s “progress” might not be all that easy. But feelings of loneliness are more than the result of the environment in which we live, they are a state of mind.
And that’s good news because it’s possible to influence and even control your state of mind. Because loneliness is more than just being alone, and understanding its nature is a step forward.