Loneliness Can Be a Companion, Too


Susie Rushton – The Independent

When does pleasant solitude tip over into loneliness? At what point does pottering about the house turn painful and tinged with blue thoughts? For me, there’s a clear time frame.

I can happily spend 72 hours without human interaction. People: I don’t need them. Not when there’s that back issue of the New Yorker I’ve been trying to read for days, not to mention a mound of ironing and the second half of a Curb Your Enthusiasm DVD. And that’s before I’ve even begun staring into space, or looking out the window … the possibilities are endless.

Of course, the amount of solitude we enjoy is to a degree personal preference. I know some oddballs who could easily manage a week without seeing anybody else, whose psychological makeup, in fact, requires they have regular periods in social quarantine; others (for the sake of argument let’s call them big babies) might only last an hour on their own at home before trotting off to the nearest Starbucks for a chat with strangers in the coffee queue. Either way, keeping one’s own company, having time to hear clearly the internal monologue – forget Virginia Woolf; it’s just a posh term for thinking about food, or whether it’s time for a nap – is a far from unhealthy state. Lonely? Perhaps. But it feels good.

Bad loneliness, though, is something else. Bad loneliness is a profound sense of isolation, a feeling that isn’t even fixed by seeing friends and family. It’s a detachment felt in one’s soul, and it is increasing in the age of long-distance social networking, punishing working hours and a high divorce rate, according to a report by the Mental Health Foundation. The pressures of modern life are creating an “epidemic of loneliness”, resulting in, as the Daily Mail put it, “an Eleanor Rigby generation”. More than one in 10 people in Britain describe themselves as “often” lonely, with the 18-34 age group most fearful of loneliness. Women are more likely than men to report depression as a result of the loneliness. It is tempting to say that humans have always felt lonely, that it’s a natural sensation. Even at its worst it is usually a passing phase, frequently sparked by a major life change such as a new job, a house move or separation from a partner. But the report goes on, “once loneliness becomes chronic, it is difficult to treat”, and the result, as you might expect, is depression and drug and alcohol abuse.

Indeed loneliness – the bad sort – is indistinguishable from mild depression. And yet it isn’t really taken seriously, partly because it exists on a variable scale of experience. Associated with the unlovely and the outcast, there’s also embarrassment to admitting you’re lonely, which might account for the gender difference in this report, men being generally more reluctant to admit to any illness, physical or mental. What’s curious about these findings though are the sufferings of youth; 18- to 24-year-olds are twice as likely to feel lonely as those over 55. Is it really the fault of Twitter, Facebook and Bebo? If bad loneliness is about feeling disconnected from others, social networking could be a useful tool to stay in touch with friends.

I wonder if younger people really do feel lonelier, or if it’s just that they haven’t yet learnt to tolerate the feeling, eventually turning it into a positive. Nobody should have to cope with chronic loneliness, but accepting it is a feeling which does arise is something we do as the years pass – which is lucky, since there’ll be plenty of scope for loneliness when one’s friends are all dying of old age. Maybe I’ll even finish watching that Curb DVD.



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