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The Unbearable Shapes of Loneliness

By Dr Anthony Lewis

Anthony is Chair of Windsor Humanists and former Chair of the South Central England Humanists Network. In this article, he explores existential, emotional, and social loneliness. They arise when there is a disparity between our desired and actual social connections. Loneliness can negatively impact our mental health. The antidote is for us to reach out to others and respond to those in need with kindness and empathy.

Most of us will experience loneliness at some stage in our lives. It’s part of the human condition. As a social species, we have to co-operate with each other in order to survive and prosper. Loneliness is a complex emotion we feel when there’s a mismatch between our required level of connection with others and the actual level of interaction that we are currently experiencing. The desire for connection varies enormously from person to person, and the type of connections we seek varies throughout the different phases of our lives. These variations typically depend on both our immediate life situation and our personal life experiences and cultural backgrounds.

Loneliness Affects Everyone (Source Unsplash+)

The absence of connection, when there is a gap between our perceived needs for social interaction and the reality of our ongoing lives, can have a profoundly negative impact on our mental health and wellbeing. According to the charity Samaritans (which provides a free UK helpline for people feeling emotional distress), loneliness and isolation are key drivers for experiencing suicidal feelings. In 2022, there were 5284 recorded suicides in England and Wales, 74% being male. The charity Campaign to End Loneliness highlights that in 2022 just under 50% of us felt lonely occasionally, with about 7% of the adult population of Great Britain, or nearly four million people, suffering chronic isolation, feeling lonely most of the time.

Feelings of loneliness can be caused by unavoidable catastrophes, such as the isolation that can result from severe illness or disability, but also by transient life events such as a young person leaving home to go to university. The impact of loneliness can vary enormously from situation to situation and its severity differs widely from person to person. There’s no single way to deal with it, because it comes in many different shapes and sizes. For example, the loneliness felt after the death of a lifelong partner is very different to that felt by a mother immediately after childbirth, at home with a young baby to look after: or the loneliness we feel when starting a new job in a new town versus the culture shock of moving to a new country where there are very different societal norms.

Types of loneliness (Source: Campaign to End Loneliness)

Three general types of loneliness are recognised in psychology: existential, emotional and social, each with different root causes and characteristics, which can be addressed and assuaged in different ways. Let’s look at each in turn.

Existential loneliness

Existential loneliness is an unavoidable consequence of being alive and existing as an embodied and sentient being. We all have an awareness of reality mediated through our bodily senses. This creates for each of us a separated conscious experience of the world and ourselves. All of our lives are book-ended by our non-existence, and all of us have to face the brutal realisation that we are all rather insignificant in the greater scheme of things. Coming to terms with our own mortality is a lonely endeavour and a path we all have to tread at different stages in our lives, but especially as we get older. It is an inevitable and inescapable part of the human condition.

Existential Loneliness (Source Unsplash+)

This conscious realisation that our embodied existence is contingent, and our eventual demise is a certainty, is a scary thing for all of us at a deep psychological level. As a result, we construct mental models about reality to help us navigate and survive in what is often an indifferent, lonely and dangerous world. Some of these mental models evolve into more formal belief systems that help us to orient ourselves and others. Some belief systems, such as religions, postulate a supernatural dimension to reality to explain the mysteries of existence, for example belief in a god or some other higher power. They try to ameliorate our existential torments through promises of redemption, re-incarnation and an eternal afterlife. Non-religious belief systems such as humanism argue that reality is what we can observe, and they use science, evidence and reason to understand the universe and the mysteries of existence.

“The unexamined life is not worth living.” Socrates

What is clear is that all of us need an underlying philosophical basis to our lives, whether religious or non-religious, to assuage our existential loneliness and maintain our mental stability, and to help us find meaning and constructive purpose in our lives (as explored in my previous article Kissing your Own Elbow). Modern medicine has demonstrated that periods of solitude and connection to nature are important, both for our mental and physical health, and to help us deal with the uncertainties of daily life and our interactions with others. Most belief systems have developed various methods of mindfulness to help us find solace when contemplating the ultimate mysteries of existence. These include practices such as prayer, meditation, chanting, ceremonies to mark key life events, and related artistic and ritualistic endeavours. Such customs can help us to develop a deeper awareness of our own mortality, and the courage to face the brute absurdities of existence, so that we can then focus on making the most of our lives for ourselves and others.

“We are the cosmos made conscious and life is the means by which the universe understands itself.” Professor Brian Cox

Owing to the pace of our busy, social-media driven lives we have, perhaps, lost awareness of the critical importance of contemplation for our overall mental wellbeing. The ancient Greek philosopher Socrates argued that “The unexamined life is not worth living”, as recorded in Plato’s Apology. More recently, astronomer and humanist Professor Brian Cox has claimed that “We are the cosmos made conscious and life is the means by which the universe understands itself.” In other words, we are what makes the universe conscious through developing our own deep awareness and personal connection to the world around us. There is a yearning in all of us to connect in different ways with the natural world and other living things, including other people. Doing so can help to alleviate, to some extent, our own personal feelings of existential loneliness and disconnection. But through my own journey and life experiences,  I’ve come to accept the harsh truth that any definitive or ultimate insights into existence will likely always remain elusive and unknowable, given our limited cognitive abilities.

Emotional loneliness

Emotional loneliness probably cuts the deepest for most people. This is experienced when we lack sufficient meaningful relationships with the levels of attachment and trust we need in order to maintain emotional stability. Our ability to connect emotionally with other human beings, and our capacity for intimacy and affiliation, depend critically on our upbringing and our underlying temperament and disposition. Nature and nurture are now assessed as having equal impacts.

As a social species, we find that the processes of understanding ourselves and others are extremely complex. They require us to have sufficient awareness of our own internal emotional states and motivations. At the same time, we have to be able to observe, “read”, and understand the behaviours and motivations of others. Unravelling and understanding the reciprocal emotional impacts we all have on each other, at the same time as managing our own internal feelings and responses, forms an enormous part of what defines us as individuals. There’s a complex interplay between how we relate to, and manage our interactions with, other people and this helps to determine our individual personalities and characters. Emotional loneliness occurs when there is a malfunction, for whatever reason, in this continuously-evolving and dynamic process of social interaction and forging of close emotional bonds between ourselves and others.

“...authentic intimacy is central to the human psyche... and it provides us with a profound sense of somatic contentment.”
The importance of meaningful relationships (Source: Unsplash+)

Modern psychiatry and genetics have demonstrated that our emotional intelligence and resilience develop through the dynamic interplay between our internal emotions and our interactions with other human beings as we mature into adulthood. Neuroscientists estimate that 80% of brain capacity is used to manage our emotions and social connections and they have identified “mirror neurons” which allow most of us us to instinctively feel the emotions of others. Anthropologist Robin Dunbar has demonstrated through studying early hominids and other primates that our brains are cognitively limited to maintaining about 150 close relationships – the so called “Dunbar Number”. Building and maintaining complex social skills places a heavy burden on our physiology and cognition, and it required both the evolution of language and the invention of fire and cooking to provide the necessary communication abilities, nutrition and energy requirements.

Our familial bonds and our closest friendships are, for nearly all of us, the most important and enduring aspects of our lives. The existence of these relationships is fundamental to our sense of self-worth and overall feelings of emotional wellbeing. To love and be loved provides us with a deep sense of belonging, significance and psychological contentment. Finding a lifelong partner and “soulmate” by “falling in love” to forge a bond for life and then, possibly, to have children, are perhaps two of the most rewarding experiences life has to offer. Such authentic intimacy, within families and with our close circle of friends, is central to the human psyche and our mental stability because it provides us with a profound sense of visceral and somatic contentment. When these bonds are broken or if we have not developed the capacity to forge such close relationships, perhaps due to previous traumatic experiences or our own temperament, it can leave us feeling bereft and very alone.

Relying on other family members and friends that are still close to us can help us recover from such periods of loneliness. But sometimes, if our isolation becomes chronic or systemic in our lives, we might need to reach out to counsellors or psychotherapists to help us understand what is blocking us from forming emotionally healthy relationships. I had psychotherapy in my early thirties after several fraught gay relationships, and the guidance and insights I gained helped me enormously to develop a healthier sense of myself and an improved ability to understand others, although my friends and family often remind me that I still have a lot of work to do in this regard!

Social loneliness

The nature of our affiliations and experiences of social loneliness varies throughout the different phases of our lives. As children, our lives are focussed around family and school, and so feelings of loneliness are usually related to family issues such as parental divorce, abuse, or being ostracised or bullied at school. During early adulthood we pass through the difficult process of socialisation when we leave the family environment to start work or continue education at university. Do any of us ever forget how we felt on our first day at college or work when we entered the world of adults, and found ourselves on our own for the first time? Some surveys report that 40% of young adults in the UK feel lonely some of the time at this stage in their lives.

The importance of group activities (Source Unsplash+)

During our adult years our social world expands enormously as we increase the number of our personal contacts through the normal churn of friendships and professional networks. Typically, loneliness during adulthood is linked to experiencing difficulties in our close relationships, such as going through divorce or when our professional life goes through a crisis, for example, when we are unexpectedly isolated through redundancy. Also, many parents can experience an “empty nest” feeling when their children leave home. Towards the end of our lives we will all, inevitably, experience a narrowing of our social circle through bereavement and deteriorating health and our social lives will, by necessity, narrow to our closest family and friends.

“...a life lived virtually... in self-imposed solitary confinement... can leave us vulnerable to all sorts of online manias, social contagions and exaggerations.”

The isolation and loneliness many experienced during the Covid lockdowns demonstrated how important face-to-face human contact is to us as a social species and to our overall mental wellbeing. Unfortunately, the pandemic has hugely accelerated the trend for many to socialise and work increasingly at home and online. Without the anchor of real world friendships, a life lived virtually can leave us vulnerable to all sorts of online manias and social contagions (including suicidal ideation) and increasing polarisation and disconnection from civil society, especially for the young. This self-imposed solitary confinement has resulted in a 25% increase in anxiety and depression worldwide according to the World Health Organization.

However, social loneliness is usually episodic or transient, and it is perhaps the easiest type of loneliness to deal with, unless we are physically prevented from socialising by severe physical illness, disability or debilitating mental conditions such as social anxiety and psychopathy. Most of us can switch off our computers and get involved with a whole array of different organisations and groups to widen our social circle, connecting with people outside of our family, close friends and work colleagues and finding shared interests, hobbies, politics, volunteering, cultural pursuits, community endeavours, sports, the arts, further education and so on. The list is endless and it spans the whole gamut of human activities, including getting involved in your local humanist group (or setting up a new one).

Reaching out to one another

It’s clear that loneliness comes in many shapes and sizes, and our experience of it varies depending on our individual psychological temperament and disposition. We will all experience loneliness in various ways throughout the different phases of our lives, owing to the vicissitudes of human existence. There is an overall pattern and rhythm to a human life. Early on we are focussed on making connections with other human beings through the process of socialisation as we mature into adulthood. Later in life, this is followed by the experience of increasing loss through bereavement and a narrowing of our social circle as we age.

The bonds of friendship (Source: Unsplash+)

It’s worth noting that men and women tend to experience loneliness in different ways. On average, men are more vulnerable to emotional loneliness because of their greater focus on looser social friendships based on activities and sports. Women, on the other hand, tend to develop closer and more meaningful emotional relationships and so they often have more support around them when they do experience periods of loneliness. In addition, the paucity of an online virtual life and living through social media has helped cause an epidemic of all three types of loneliness, and of mental conditions such as social anxiety. These self-imposed solitary confinements are seriously disrupting civic society and the socialisation process, especially for the young across the developed world.

“A warm embrace is like an essential ‘psychological vitamin’ for the human psyche.”

The best antidote to all types of loneliness is, of course, human contact. The remedy is simple, but it may be difficult to find in practice. It requires each of us to reach out when we ourselves are feeling lonely, and also to respond to others when they are in need of human contact. Kind gestures such as a smile, or just saying hello to a stranger, can have an enormous impact on someone feeling isolated and alone. The Samaritans provide some helpful tips on their website on how to appropriately approach someone. In addition, for those we already know, a timely phone call or appropriate physical contact such as a hug can be a powerful way to let someone know they are not alone. A warm embrace is like an essential “psychological vitamin” for the human psyche. Such little acts of human kindness can be transformational for all of us. They are an acknowledgement that we have been “seen” by another human being who cares.

Useful links

Wikipedia Loneliness

Samaritans England Suicide Data for 2022 Humanistically Speaking Finding Meaning to Our Lives Kissing your Own Elbow

COVID-19 pandemic triggers 25% increase in prevalence of anxiety and depression worldwide World Health Organization

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