We live in a lonely society — and it’s getting lonelier. The good news? We can do something about it.
In 1985, data showed that about a tenth of the U.S. population reported having no close confidants — no friends intimate enough to confide in when they felt happy or sad.
That’s no small percentage — but it’s also not the end of the story. Less than 10 years later, a study by sociologists from Duke University and the University of Arizona found that fully a quarter of Americans surveyed reported there was no one in their lives that they had a close enough relationship with to confide in.
The fact is, our society is a lonely one. The United Kingdom recently appointed a minister of loneliness. In February, The New York Times published a piece entitled, “Is Loneliness a Health Epidemic?” Psychological journals have devoted entire issues to the subject.
And, recently, clinical psychologist Kevin Vost, author of The Catholic Guide to Loneliness, spoke with Register correspondent Elisabeth Deffner about the current phenomenon of loneliness and what we can do to feel less lonely (and help others do the same).
Is loneliness inevitable?
At one time or another in our lives, the odds are very high that every one of us has or will experience it. It can be in your childhood, in your teenage years, in young adulthood, middle adulthood or older age.
Some of us may be very blessed and not suffer a serious loss until late in our lives; others of us deal with loss or separation very early in life. But at one time or another, there is a high probability that loneliness is going to impact every one of us.
And loneliness has always been with us. Some of the first words in the Book of Genesis are: “It’s not right for man to be alone.”
Loneliness is a human condition. But if that’s the case, why does it seem like we’re lonelier now?
Around the year 2000, Robert Putnam wrote a book called Bowling Alone, a really good, well-researched book about how we’re becoming more disconnected in terms of not joining things: political parties, clubs. We’re not part of a team, part of a group. We move across the country more; divorce is common.
One of the major things he did find is the introduction of television made people more and more likely to get their recreation by themselves. And the more televisions in a house, the less likely the residents were to make connections outside or even watch television with another person.
And that was only television! So how has the advent of omnipresent devices impacted our loneliness?
Other researchers have focused in on the newer technology — cellphones, social media — and they all seem to tie in. Not to say that these are evil things, but they are two-edged swords.
People can now connect with each other in ways that were unthought of just a few decades ago. Across the world, across the country, we are reconnecting with friends from decades past, and those are all wonderful possibilities. But at the same time, ironically, we see rises in reported loneliness.
We have this new category of “friend,” like a Facebook friend. We are letting more superficial relationships crowd out the real ones.
Truly. I’ve seen plenty of articles indicating that social media makes us feel lonelier — as though everyone else is out together having a good time, but not us; but I’ve also seen research that shows that social-media interactions can actually help you live longer … as long as your virtual friends are actual friends in real life.
Yes, and I also think something similar is happening with cellphones, especially for younger people. They’re making fewer and fewer phone calls and sending more and more text messages. People are feeling more and more uncomfortable about making a phone call, as though they’re going to be a bother! But losing that other person’s voice, their inflection ... we move from the real interaction. Remember that we are embodied souls: Bodies count!
And, of course, our spiritual sides can be deeply impacted by experiences of loneliness.
Absolutely. One of my richest sources [in writing the book] was The Sadness of Christ by Thomas More, which talks about the loneliness of Christ. Christ in his own humanity had his loneliness on the cross, in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Many of the saints do draw a lot of strength from solitude because it gives them a good opportunity to commune with God. We can have that sadness, that loneliness, but we do persevere because our ultimate faith in God carries us through. Faith, hope and charity carry us through.
Charity can be very consoling and inspiring — I think of the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas on the virtue of charity, based on the idea of charity as friendship with God. And St. Aelred of Rievaulx wrote a beautiful book called Spiritual Friendship, about the value of friendships formed in Christ.
For people who have meaningful, but not severe, loneliness, what can they do to break free of it?
If you are one of those people being lonely, be aware you are surrounded by lonely people, and reaching out to them could be the best thing for both of you. Even a small gesture to those people can make a difference.
Learning about the nature of loneliness itself can make a difference and make us think about it in different ways.
We can return to the sources of our faith and get guidance there. Be attentive to the saints and the periods of loneliness in their lives, how their relationship with God helped them bear with that. Those periods of loneliness gave them great spiritual strength — and some who were lonely reached out and then had a huge impact on the world, partly due to what they had suffered due to loneliness.
So there is light at the end of the tunnel. But what can people do while they’re still making their way through that tunnel?
A tradition of the saints I find really helpful: to look at the saints who were hermits or had periods of solitude, and remember that they grew. St. Patrick was a prisoner, and that’s the time he grew close to God — by himself.
Have you ever had times in your life that were very difficult periods, but years later you look back and thank God you went through that? That’s something to keep in mind for anyone who’s feeling serious loneliness.
God’s not going to let you bear what you can’t handle. There is support, and nothing lasts forever.
Elisabeth Deffner writes from Orange, California.
When Loneliness Becomes Severe
When you start to really dive into the subject of loneliness, it seems a little difficult to separate it from depression. In fact, psychologist Kevin Vost points out that an estimated 50% of people who experience significant loneliness will be depressed, and about half of those diagnosed with depression will have problems with loneliness.
So when does a lonely person need to seek professional help?
“If you have this loneliness, it’s persisted a long time, and you feel that it is seriously impacting your ability to function in life, or it’s pulling you into overall depression … mention it to your doctor,” says Vost.
But, he emphasizes, a greater number of people have meaningful, but not severe, loneliness. And, he adds, “That really is the kind of loneliness we can do something about.”
What is “meaningful loneliness”? You know you are feeling lonely — but it doesn’t prevent you from going about your daily activities. It doesn’t impact your work.
Severe loneliness, on the other hand, can be detrimental to your job performance and other areas of your life. Emphasizes Vost: “But that’s going to be a small percentage of people who are dealing with loneliness at this level.”