Loneliness is a big problem that I originally blogged about in December. In a recent article in Psychology Today the psychologist Karin Arndt focuses on the fear of loneliness, especially among women.
It seems to be largely the fear of being alone that makes it so difficult for people to bear, and turns being alone into loneliness. Just as being upset about being sad turns sadness into depression. This may be modern phenomenon.
We are probably more intolerant of such negative states than any previous age. The result is that they hit us harder. If only we could be more accepting of being alone, or being sad, they would not hit us so hard. In that sense our current problems about loneliness seem to be problems of perception and attitude as much as anything.
The loneliness crisis is also, in part, a relational crisis, linked with how we form and use social connections and what we expect from them. In this age, we expect a lot from social relationships, and set high standards for them.
That change is seen clearly in how we approach marriage. Previous ages were more likely to see a marriage as a social norm. We now expect a much higher level of intimacy and affection from marriages. That makes us more inclined to be dissatisfied, not only with marriages, but with many other kinds of relationship, because they don’t come up to our high standards.
Another consequence is that we don’t bother with many of the relationships that are actually open to us because they don’t come up to our high standards. That can leave us alone more of the time, feeling dissatisfied about that, and feeling ‘lonely’. We seek refuge in online relationships, but that seems to be a bad strategy as online relationships don’t alleviate loneliness in the way that the presence of another person can do.
It also seems to me that loneliness is in part a spiritual problem. Our not knowing how to be alone with ourselves comfortably and constructively is perhaps a symptom of our headlong movement away from religion and towards secularity. Religion has its heart spiritual practices of meditation or prayer for which we need to be alone. Religion values being alone, and teaches us how get the best out of it.
The present crisis of loneliness is, in this sense, a crisis arising from our lack of religion. However, the relationship between religion and loneliness is complex and depends on what kind of religion you are looking at. Overall, religion tends to protect against loneliness, and especially so if you think of God as being helpful. However, a sense of an angry God can leave you even more lonely than if you had no belief in God at all.
So I am suggesting that loneliness is in part a problem of our own making, and that we need not be as lonely as we are. My advice to the lonely is (i) embrace being alone and use your alone time to look after yourself – mentally and spiritually (ii) embrace and enjoy the wide range of different relationship that may be open to you (iii) don’t overlook what spirituality and religion can teach you about how to benefit from time alone and with others.