In a 2014 study, John T. Cacioppo and Stephanie Cacioppo define loneliness as ‘the perception that one’s social relationships are inadequate in light of one’s preferences for social involvement.” The rise of individualism and overwhelming dependence on social media play a significant role in this plague. Comparing our social lives to the ones of others seems inevitable.
“For far too many people, loneliness is the sad reality of modern life.” claims British prime Minister Theresa May who went on to appoint a Minister for Loneliness.
Social isolation has been proven to impact people’s lives in the most negative ways. It is a “health epidemic”. Not the mention the shame surrounding loneliness.
We all feel lonely at times, and no one is alone in this feeling. Here are some suggestions to understand loneliness.
LONELY CITY BY OLIVIA LAING
In her 2017 book, Olivia Laing draws examples of loneliness from both her own experience living in NYC and examines the lingering feeling of loneliness shown in the art from artists such as Edward Hopper or Andy Warhol.
Laing moved to NYC on her own after a breakup. Loneliness became engulfing, surrounded by city crowds she can’t reach or make contact with. She compares loneliness to both physical and psychological states such as hunger or depression.
Despite her pervasive feelings, she can only conclude that loneliness is a human experience. Loneliness is not shameful. It gives us a better understanding of ourselves. It is something we all go through from time to time and makes us more empathetic towards others. However, the stigma and the shame attached to it excludes people, maybe even more so than loneliness itself. It is what makes loneliness such an overwhelming, nerve-wracking experience. And this is what should be fought against, as she reminds us that ‘loneliness is personal, and it is also political’.
LONELY HOUR PODCAST
Julia Bainbridge is a writer and editor. In an attempt to break taboos surrounding loneliness she started a podcast, The Lonely Hour. What’s so delightful about her approach is that she talks to many different guests, delving into their experience of loneliness, and how it translated into their lives. Whether it is singledom, addiction, motherhood, living in the woods for 27 years or travelling solo, their experiences all share one thing: loneliness can be both a burden and a joy. She is a 30 something single woman living in New York City. In the same way Olivia Laing does, Bainbridge, by talking so openly about her feelings and the ones of her guests opens up a conversation to break the shame surrounding it. This podcast is so incredibly hopeful and vulnerable, reminding us that we are not alone in our loneliness.
SOLITUDE: IN PURSUIT OF A SINGULAR LIFE IN A CROWDED WORLD BY MICHAEL HARRIS
Michael Harris starts his book writing about Edith Bone. A woman who got sent into solitary confinement in 1949 in Budapest. After seven years, she was released, feeling seemingly as good as ever. She seemed to thrive in loneliness. Maybe solitude can be beneficial after all?
Harris draws a clear distinction between solitude and loneliness. The former is a ‘fertile state’, the latter a ‘failed solitude’, something we have to endure. He argues that true solitude away from technology and distractions spurs creativity, self-awareness and paradoxically strengthens our relationships with others. We become who we truly are, away from the pressure of conformity. And when we come back to the crowd, he claims, we become better company. Loneliness does not have to be a weight we carry around with us everywhere, if we chose to learn from it, we become free to be our true selves.
As the writer Maggie Nelson puts it: “I have been trying, for some time now, to find dignity in my loneliness. I have been finding this hard to do… It is easier, of course, to find dignity in one’s solitude. Loneliness is solitude with a problem.”
Painting by Lourdes Sanchez