Jul 3rd 2024

The loneliness myth: what our shared stories of feeling alone reveal about why you can’t ‘fix’ this very human experience

by Sam Carr

 

Sam Carr  Reader in Education with Psychology and Centre for Death and Society, University of Bath

 

If you could take a pill to “cure” your loneliness, would you take it? The so-called “loneliness epidemic” has been widely reported and commented upon across the world in recent years, affecting young and old.

There have even been numerous urgent calls by governments and policymakers to address it. However, it should also be noted that some researchers have questioned whether we really have the credible data to back up such claims.

But even if there were enough evidence of a loneliness epidemic, I think it’s important to consider what that would mean about loneliness itself. For example, would it mean we should strive to eradicate it from our individual and collective lives, as we would a virus or disease?

Psychologist, James Hillman had concerns about what I like to call the “loneliness-as-pathology” perspective. He said “solutions” like Prozac, or even socialising in “recovery groups” can reflect the idea that we should “abolish” loneliness.

But what if, as Hillman went on to argue, loneliness is an inevitable part of being human? Wouldn’t we be trying to “cure” something that’s as much a part of our journey as death itself? He put it this way:

If loneliness is an archetypal sense built into us all from the very beginning, then, to be alive is also to be lonely. Loneliness, therefore, will come and go as it chooses in the course of a lifetime, quite apart from our efforts to deny or avoid this reality.

In different ways, I have spent most of my career researching loneliness. I’ve carried out hundreds of interviews and observed the plethora of ways it can show up in people’s lives, from childhood and into deep old age.


This article is part of Conversation Insights.
The Insights editors commission long-form journalism, working with academics from many different backgrounds who are engaged in projects aimed at tackling societal and scientific challenges.


Numerous case studies of human suffering have led me to believe that loneliness may not be so much a “single feeling” but simply a label we give to a medley of human experiences and unsatisfied appetites that revolve around a sense of disconnection that may well be inevitable from time to time.

In my recent book, All the Lonely People: Conversations on Loneliness, I presented an array of examples of the different ways in which loneliness can present. The conversations are drawn from a range of projects and interviews I’ve conducted over the years, that each offer a glimpse of a particular shade of loneliness. I have given my interviewees pseudonyms to protect their anonymity.

Jake: the loneliness of childhood

As with adulthood and later life, encounters with loneliness are frequently a part of children’s lives. Sometimes they are brutal encounters and sometimes more subtle or fleeting.

Jake’s story is an example of one of the more extreme shades of loneliness that can take hold in childhood. He was ten when he participated in a study a colleague and I conducted about children’s experiences of foster care. Jake was removed from his parents due to abuse and neglect in early childhood. He had been in seven different foster homes and nobody had yet shown an interest in permanently adopting him because of particularly challenging and complex behavioural issues. He was living in a foster home with Trudi, his foster carer, and her dog Zak. Jake told me:

Maybe I would feel safer if I were, like, adopted or something, but I’m in foster care, see, which is why the social worker comes around and checks on me, ’cos they, like, own me, or something. The problem is that nobody wants to adopt me so I can live there all the time without having to move to new homes.

Jake’s loneliness stemmed from a complete lack of belief or faith in loving, caring, adults. He simply hadn’t found a loving family or a place to call home, a secure base upon which to anchor himself. Understandably, he’d given up trusting adults and no longer allowed himself to get close to them.

But I learned from Jake’s story that, even against the odds, we can find unlikely pathways out of loneliness. Jake’s pathway was his relationship with Zak, the family dog.

I don’t mind being really close with Zak, ‘cos he won’t get rid of me. I do feel really safe with him … I think he’s my friend because he wants to be and not just because he has to be.

Zak was a six-year-old golden retriever. He was calm, gentle, and had a sort of caring wisdom about him that some dogs exude. We quickly realised that Zak’s role was paramount in helping Jake to feel less alone in the world and in helping him learn to trust Trudi.

A boy and a dog in a park.
Jake’s relationship with the family dog was key in dealing with his loneliness. Shutterstock/Sergey Nivens

Jake opened up to us about the important role Zak played as the only living creature on Earth who could help him feel less alone, especially in relation to his lack of control over having a place to call home.

I used to hide in the living room with Zak when there was a knock at the door. I used to worry it was the social worker coming to take me away. I didn’t feel safe without him and, when I was with him, just holding his ears, I felt relaxed and I wouldn’t have the big thumping feeling in my body.

Jake told us that he often felt afraid and alone at night, and the intensity of his feelings frequently prevented him from sleeping. He described how, one night, he had wandered into the dark hallway in his pyjamas and peered through the banisters into the kitchen below. He saw Trudi’s silhouette. She was doing the washing up and Zak was sitting beside her.

Trudi had been talking to Zak. Jake hadn’t found it odd that she was talking to the dog – after all, he talked to Zak more than anyone. Zak was, in fact, the only one he really trusted. It wasn’t the fact she was talking to the dog that made his heart thump. It was what she said that was so powerful, for him. What he heard made him feel a deep thumping in his body; his heart was pounding so hard that he almost shook.

Trudi had told Zak that she “liked having Jake around”. She said that she thought he was a “lovely boy” and that she “hoped he would be around for a long time to come”.

“Nobody has ever said that about me.” Jake said. It excited and terrified him in equal measure to think that Trudi felt that way about him. Jake had never experienced what it felt like to be wanted before. He had never experienced the sense that someone wanted him around, cared about him, or liked him. And, strangely, hearing it in secret, eavesdropping in the hallway, made it all the more credible.

Trudi wasn’t saying it to make him feel better. How could she be? She didn’t even know he was listening. But what she said to Zak that night shook the lonely little boy’s world and opened him up to the idea that it just might be possible to be wanted in this world.

Alex: the loneliness of adolescence

Compared to Jake, Alex was a 13-year-old teenager living in a relatively privileged home in the sense that he had a loving family and a stable home environment. In our conversation, he talked about what might be considered a more “everyday” experience of loneliness which stemmed from the fact that he was afraid to reveal himself to the world.

He said that he often tried to hide, to blend in, to melt into the background, and as a consequence of not being seen he experienced a sense of loneliness.

When I was little, I was the exact opposite. I could say whatever I liked, and I didn’t care what people thought of me or whether they liked me. I don’t know where it all started. But it did. I’m scared that people won’t like me if I show them who I am.

“OK, so, how does that connect to your feelings of loneliness ?” I asked him.

“Because nobody really gets to know me. Nobody really knows who I am,” he answered. “That’s a bit lonely, isn’t it? There are so many opportunities where I could share things about myself, but I don’t because I don’t think they’d want to know.” He offered me a recent example from his school life.

Lone teenager listens to music on a hill.
Alex was too shy to reveal too much about himself to his classmates. Shutterstock/mooremedia

He was in an IT lesson and his teacher had set the class an exercise that involved telling the rest of the class what kind of music you liked, via a PowerPoint presentation. Pupils had to state their favourite band or artist and explain why they liked it. He said:

It was so hard for me to actually say what I liked that I told her I never listened to music. I lied to her so that I didn’t have to say what I liked. She ended up telling me what she liked, and I put that on my PowerPoint and didn’t have to reveal anything about myself.

I asked him if he knew, at the time, what his favourite sort of music was. “Of course, I knew,” he replied definitively. “I like stuff, lots of stuff, but I just couldn’t risk telling people because I was so afraid of being judged”.

Will: the loneliness of heartbreak

Sometimes, loneliness inevitably stems from an obvious experience of loss. For example, I talked to Will, a 21-year-old man, about the loneliness he was experiencing in the aftermath of a recent heartbreak.

“I’m telling you, she became someone else in the space of a week. Cold. Callous. Unresponsive.” He told me.

“And I feel like I metamorphosed from someone she loved into a traumatised nuisance that she would rather see the back of, because it simply made her feel guilty and bad about herself to even look at me.”

“You’ve seen the film Ghost, right?” He looked at me for confirmation.

“Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore, 1990?” I replied. “Yes, I’ve seen it a few times.” Satisfied with my response, he nodded and continued.

Will was a bit of a film buff and in the course of our interview various film plots offered him metaphors that helped articulate how he was feeling. “Well, then you’ll know the plotline of that film, which really sums up how I feel right now. It’s the whole part where Patrick Swayze is murdered and becomes a ghost. And the woman he loves, Demi Moore, simply can’t see him any longer – he’s invisible to her because he’s a ghost and, in a literal sense, I suppose, he is dead to her – and there’s this whole sad plot line where he is no longer visible to the woman he loves.”

“That’s exactly how it feels to me, as though I suddenly turned into a ghost and Melissa just … stopped seeing me. Does that sound crazy?”

It didn’t sound crazy to me. I remembered the times in my life when partners I had deeply loved had suddenly stopped seeing me as someone they loved too and transitioned into a person I no longer recognised, almost overnight.

Will’s story raised some of the unique features of loneliness often associated with something like heartbreak. The psychologist and therapist, Ginette Paris, has suggested that we resort to metaphor when we are trying get to know the unfamiliar. People have used metaphors such as “being blotted out of a masterpiece and replaced as easily as I was painted in” or “being lost in a harsh, barren desert” to describe heartbreak.

The Jungian analyst, Aldo Carotenuto, once wrote that when someone breaks our heart there is an immediate collapse of a psychological order. We lose who we were for our lover, who we were with them, and who we were to them. Every relationship is different, so nobody else can ever really know exactly what it’s like to lose what you’ve lost. It’s an experience for which there are no reference points in the external world. And what could be lonelier than that?

Ray: the loneliness of losing someone to dementia

There are phases of life that seem to create unique clusters of circumstances that give rise to particular types of loneliness and disconnection. My colleague, Chao Fang from the University of Liverpool and I have written extensively about our efforts to listen to older people’s experiences.

Our work has identified that, if we live long enough, we are more likely to experience a series of inevitable losses that often bring about a profound sense of loneliness. These may be the loss of meaningful long-term relationships, our health and fitness, or our careers, roles, and identities. Each person’s experience of these losses is unique.

Elderly couple on a bench
Dementia can lead to extreme loneliness for the caring spouse. Shutterstock/Volodymyr Martyniuk

Ray, for example, was 78 and had been married to Pam for most of his life. “We’ve been married over 50 years, you know – well, 54 to be exact – but Pam has dementia now. That’s why we moved to this retirement community,” he told me.

From this point in the conversation, the essence of Ray and Pam’s loneliness started to reveal itself. “This was supposed to be the community for us, for her,” he told me, “the place where she could hold on to the things she loves”.

As he spoke, I began to appreciate just how hard it must be for him to come to terms with the fact that he was slowly losing his wife, watching her become increasingly alienated from the world around them.

“Pam used to belong to a book group – it was such an important part of her life,” he continued. “Well, at first, she laughed about it, but now she cries at the same time. You know, she taught all those children, over, gosh, goodness knows how many years teaching … 35 years teaching, and she taught all those children to read and write – and now she can’t even read herself, and she can’t write.” As he said this, I noticed a tear rolling down his left cheek.

“It’s so cruel to her that she is no longer able to do the things she earned a living doing … that she loved doing.” He stared off into space and I waited for him to gather himself. “So, she belonged to a book club,” he continued, “well, she’s tried the book club here, and she gets so … how best to describe it? Frustrated. Because she can’t complete a sentence. Frustrated. Because she hasn’t been able to read the books. The font size is too small,” he said, incredulously.

“There are all these little things that gradually rob her of the things she loves. We’ve tried audiobooks, but she falls asleep as soon as she starts listening to the thing.” Ray then said something that touched me.

In some ways, I just feel she’s a bit like a leper, really, because no one actually wants to get close to her.

He started to cry. “She’s a lovely girl, lady, old lady … you know?” He wept openly then.

I feel very lonely … Shall I tell you what the real hell of it is? It’s just sitting here, like you’re already mourning somebody you’ve lost, yet you’re still living with them – it’s sad, but it’s true.

Ray had identified a key feature of spousal loneliness that has been associated with dementia – that the onset of loss and grief begins a long time before their spouses actually die.

Learning to live with loneliness

Stories of everyday loneliness like these are valuable because they help us to appreciate that loneliness has many guises and isn’t really a universal phenomenon. When somebody tells us they feel lonely, we know almost nothing about their experience until we have heard the story of their loneliness and the unique circumstances that give rise to it. The feeling is really just the tip of the iceberg. Stories help us to discern what loneliness looks like and how it is lived.

Stories of loneliness can also help us to appreciate that it is a part of most people’s journey through life. We all have stories like these inside us, whether we have shared them or not. Perhaps accepting this reality makes more sense than seeking to pathologise what may be an an inevitable human experience.

In fact, we may do more harm than good by stigmatising and pathologising loneliness, creating a sense of shame around it that forces people to compartmentalise the experience, mask it, or drive it underground.

Of course, this is not to say that we should take loneliness lightly. It is a challenging and difficult part of life. But this is where stories come in. In stories, we have the opportunity to share our loneliness with others, unburdening ourselves, and no longer keeping our loneliness exclusively to ourselves. An essential component of the suffering in loneliness is often the fact that we are alone with our loneliness. In my experience, stories of loneliness hold great value for both listener and storyteller, fostering empathy, compassion, and connection.

Ultimately, the answer to loneliness may well be found in learning to live alongside it, as opposed to denying its existence or seeking to eradicate it.


 

For you: more from our Insights series:

To hear about new Insights articles, join the hundreds of thousands of people who value The Conversation’s evidence-based news. Subscribe to our newsletter.

Sam Carr, Reader in Education with Psychology and Centre for Death and Society, University of Bath

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Browse articles by author

More Essays

Jul 16th 2024
EXTRACTS: "Trump joins tens of thousands of Americans treated for non-fatal gunshot wounds each year. Such experiences can shatter people’s assumptions that they are living in a safe, understandable and controllable world, leaving them feeling unworthy, unsafe and unsure. As a result, survivors of non-fatal gun violence face increased risks of depression, anxiety, substance use and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD can feel overwhelming." ---- ".... some trauma survivors experience post-traumatic growth. They may develop greater empathy, stronger relationships, deeper spirituality and find new meaning in life. After being shot in 1981, the then president Ronald Reagan’s trauma seemed to deepen his sense of empathy and humility. He felt God had spared him for a reason, spurring him to reduce nuclear tensions with the Soviet Union."
Jul 15th 2024
EXTRACTS: "Artificial sweeteners such as sucralose are not metabolised by the human body so they are excreted – this is what makes them low-calorie sugar alternatives. And that’s where the environmental problem begins. Current wastewater treatment plants are unable to remove these sugar mimics, meaning they end up in our environment – in our water, rivers and soil." --- "Forever chemicals are increasingly present in our streams, rivers and oceans – most notably per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) that don’t degrade. PFAS are synthetic chemicals found in many consumer products, including skincare products, cosmetics and waterproof clothing. PFAS can remain in the human body for many years, and some present significant risks to our health – potentially causing liver damage, thyroid disease, obesity, infertility and cancer."
Jul 3rd 2024
EXTRACTS: "Psychologist, James Hillman had concerns about what I like to call the 'loneliness-as-pathology' "---- "....Hillman went on to argue...: 'If loneliness is an archetypal sense built into us all from the very beginning, then, to be alive is also to be lonely. Loneliness, therefore, will come and go as it chooses in the course of a lifetime, quite apart from our efforts to deny or avoid this reality.' "
Jul 3rd 2024
EXTRACT: "How can we be at least 15 times richer than our pre-industrial Agrarian Age predecessors, and yet so unhappy? One explanation is that we are not wired for it: nothing in our heritage or evolutionary past prepared us to deal with a society of more than 150 people. To operate our increasingly complex technologies and advance our prosperity, we somehow must coordinate among more than eight billion people."
Jun 25th 2024
EXTRACTS: "What’s interesting about the entire Russia-North Korea showy display of camaraderie is China’s response: silence. China has misgivings about how things are unfolding, which reports suggest prompted Chinese president Xi Jinping’s call to Putin to call off the latter’s visit to Pyongyang. Obviously, Putin didn’t heed Xi’s request." ----- "The Sino-Korean animosity dates back centuries and took shape when Korea was a vassal state of imperial China. Unfortunately, this animosity extended to modern times when Mao Zedong decided to station Chinese troops in North Korea even after the conclusion of the Korean war, and when Beijing did not aid Pyongyang in its nuclear ambitions. It didn’t help either that the founding leader of North Korea, Kim Il-sung, was suspected of espionage and was nearly executed by the Chinese Communist party in the 1930s."
Jun 19th 2024
EXTRACT: "Ultra-processed foods (such as packaged snacks, sugary drinks, instant noodles and ready-to-eat meals) often contain emulsifiers, microparticles (such as titanium dioxide), thickeners, stabilisers, flavours and colourants. While research on humans is limited, studies on mice have shown that these ingredients alter the gut microbiome (the community of microorganisms living in the intestines) in several ways. These many microbiome changes can in turn affect the way the immune system functions."
Jun 9th 2024
EXTRACT: "Alzheimer’s disease can be split in two subgroups, familial and sporadic. Only 5% of patients with Alzheimer’s are familial, inherited, and 95% of Alzheimer’s patients are sporadic, due to environmental, lifestyle and genetic risk factors. Consequently, the most effective tactic for tackling Alzheimer’s is preventative and living a healthy lifestyle. This has led researchers to study risk factors associated with Alzheimer’s."
Mar 8th 2024
EXTRACT: "This study suggests that around 10% of people diagnosed with dementia may instead have underlying silent liver disease with HE causing or contributing to the symptoms – an important diagnosis to make as HE is treatable."
Jan 28th 2024
EXTRACT: "Health disparity is a powerful weapon in the savage class warfare otherwise known as neoliberalism. (In 2020, the RAND Corporation did a study of the transfer of wealth over the last several decades from the working-class and the middle-class to the top one percent. Their estimate is a staggering $47 trillion – that is how much the “upward redistribution of income” cost American workers between 1975 and 2018.) Neoliberalism is a brutal form of labor suppression, which uses health as a means of maintaining and reproducing a condition in which wealth is constantly being redistributed upwards, and the middle-class is kept in a constant state of fear of sinking into the ranks of the poor. Medical expenses are the leading cause of bankruptcies in America – and that’s according to the American Bankruptcy Institute. The ballooning costs of healthcare serve to maintain a system marked by morally unacceptable health inequity and injustice."
Jan 28th 2024
EXTRACT. "But living longer has also come at a price. We’re now seeing higher rates of chronic and degenerative diseases – with heart disease consistently topping the list. So while we’re fascinated by what may help us live longer, maybe we should be more interested in being healthier for longer. Improving our “healthy life expectancy” remains a global challenge. Interestingly, certain locations around the world have been discovered where there are a high proportion of centenarians who display remarkable physical and mental health. The AKEA study of Sardinia, Italy, as example, identified a “blue zone” (named because it was marked with blue pen),....."
Jan 4th 2024
EXTRACT: ""Tresors en Noir et Blanc" presents 180 prints from the collection of the Musee des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris, also known as the Petit Palais.  The basis of the museum's print collection is 20,000 engravings amassed by a 19th-century collector, Eugene Dutuit, " ----- "This wonderful exhibition, the tip of a great iceberg, serves to emphasize how unfortunate it is that the tens of thousands of prints owned by the Petit Palais are almost never seen by more than a handful of scholars who visit them by appointment.  Nor is the Petit Palais the only offender in this regard,....."
Jan 4th 2024
EXTRACTS: "And that is the clue to Manet’s work. He paints painting, regardless of his subject: he paints the medium itself, it as if he is constantly reminding us that this is a painting," ..........."This is a new conception of painterly truth at play here, a new fidelity to truth. Manet is the Kant of painting because he initiates a similar kind of “Copernican revolution” – we do not see the world as it is but as we are. " -------- " Among the most remarkable but unfamiliar of Manet’s work on display are those depicting the bloody aftermath of the Paris Commune of 1871.There is no question regarding Manet’s condemnation of the Versailles government’s actions following the defeat of the Commune, when some 25,000 Parisians were gunned down, including women and children."
Dec 27th 2023
EXTRACT: "Think of our brain like a map. When we’re young, we explore all corners of this map, sending out connections in every direction to make sense of our environment. Before long, we figure out basic truths – such as how to secure food, or where we live – and the neurological paths that make up these connections strengthen. Over time, a network emerges that reflects our unique experiences. Regions we re-visit often will develop established paths, whereas under-used connections will fade away. ---- Conditions such as addiction, chronic depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are characterised by processes such as repetitive negative thinking or rumination, where patients focus on negative thoughts in a counterproductive way. Unfortunately, these strengthen brain connections that perpetuate the unfavourable mental state."
Dec 14th 2023
EXTRACT: "While no one was looking, France has become a melting pot of European peoples. Its neighbors have traditionally been welcomed, and France progressively turned them into French boys and girls in the next generation."
Dec 4th 2023
EXTRACTS: "Being rich is essentially about having more stuff in general, including bigger houses." "..... if SUVs had not become widely adopted largely as a status symbol for the global middle classes, emissions from transport would have fallen by 30% over the past ten years. For the largest class of SUVs, six of the ten areas of the UK registering the most sales were affluent London boroughs like Kensington and Chelsea."
Nov 11th 2023
EXTRACT: "By using these “biomarkers”, researchers have discovered that when a person’s biological age surpasses their chronological age, it often signifies accelerated cell ageing and a higher susceptibility to age-related diseases." ----- "Imagine two 60-year-olds enrolled in our study. One had a biological age of 65, the other 60. The one with the more accelerated biological age had a 20% higher risk of dementia and a 40% higher risk of stroke."
Nov 6th 2023
EXTRACT: "We are working on a completely new approach to 'machine intelligence'. Instead of using ..... software, we have developed .... hardware that operates much more efficiently."
Nov 6th 2023
EXTRACTS: "When people think of foods related to type 2 diabetes, they often think of sugar (even though the evidence for that is still not clear). Now, a new study from the US points the finger at salt." ...... ".... this type of study, called an observational study, cannot prove that one thing causes another, only that one thing is related to another. (There could be other factors at play.) So it is not appropriate to say removing the saltshaker 'can help prevent'." ..... "Normal salt intake in countries like the UK is about 8g or two teaspoons a day. But about three-quarters of this comes from processed foods. Most of the rest is added during cooking with very little added at the table."
Oct 26th 2023

 

In 1904, Emile Bernard visited Paul Cezanne in Aix.  He wrote of a conversation at dinner:

Sep 11th 2023
EXTRACT: "Many people have dipped their toe into the lazy gardener’s life through “no mow May” – a national campaign to encourage people not to mow their lawns until the end of May. But you could opt to extend this practice until much later in the summer for even greater benefits. Allowing your grass to grow longer, and interspersing it with pollen-rich flowers, can benefit many insects – especially bees. Research finds that reducing mowing in urban and suburban environments has a positive effect on the amount and diversity of insects. Your untamed lawn won’t only benefit insects. It will also encourage more birds, such as goldfinches, to use your garden to feed on the seeds of common wildflower species such as dandelions."