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Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Aloneness and Loneliness: Peace of Mind or Unhealthy Contagion?

"Only the lonely
Know the way I feel tonight
Only the lonely
Know this feeling ain't right

"There goes my baby, there goes my heart
They're gone forever, so far apart
But only the lonely know why I cry, only the lonely
Oh, only the lonely, only the lonely"

"Only the Lonely" by Roy Orbison

Oh, yes. We all know the feeling. The sinking heart, the queasy stomach, the aching mind -- the forsaken hurt is nearly unbearable. Yet, two words could be used to describe the cause of the painful effect. I think people can be "alonely" or "lonely." Some are both. Let me explain.

Actually, aloneness and loneliness are classified as two different feelings.

Aloneness involves isolation and separation or "being away from others."

On the other hand, loneliness is "a feeling of social disconnectedness in which a person wishes that he or she had better social relationships." It is generally classed in psychological terms as a period of heightened cognitive discomfort and uneasiness from being oneself.

We all wish to be alone at certain times in our life. For instance, we require solitude to develop peace of mind. It can fuel our spirits. Being alone is both a need and a tonic in today's fast-paced world. We may seek privacy to restore our energy as the stillness of solitude provides us with much-needed rest.

In fact, being alone can actually strengthen our attachments as it gives us freedom and satisfies our will to be individuals. In that manner, it can actually allows us to connect to others in a far richer way.

Psychologist Ester Buchholz, author of Call of Solitude, says ...

"'Alone' did not always mean an absence of others. The word was coined in medieval times, and originally signified a completeness in one's singular being. In religious terminology, 'solitude' typically meant the experience of oneness with God."

(Ester Buchholz. "The Call of Solitude: How Spending Time Alone Can Enhance Intimacy." Psychology Today. January 01, 1998)

One way "alone time" is fueled is by experiences that put us in contact with nature. Computer life can also be important for providing solitary time as we employ technology for stimulation, knowledge, news, and relationships. Even employing pursuits that alter states of consciousness  -- anything from ritualized pathology to institutionalized religion -- can allow us to find peace in "alone time."

However ...

Loneliness also seems be a familiar risk of aloneness.

Loneliness is felt by a wide range of society on a regular basis: there is no one reason which causes the feeling or emotion of loneliness, but it is commonly associated with depression and a lack of a social life. Loneliness reflects a discrepancy between the current quality of our social relationships and the desired quality of our social relationships.

Even though loneliness is universal and part of the human condition, becoming too isolated from community and connection makes us sad and depressed.

We don't even have to be isolated from others to experience loneliness. Buchholz explains ...

"People inside a tight-knit nuclear family can be just as unknown and lonely as those living on their own. Attachments are not automatically fulfilling relationships. In some cases, attachments are maintained only at the cost of extreme personal compromise: people speak of being shackled and held hostage in a relationship. Certainly there are well-made marriages, but if we are primarily social animals, why would bonding prove so arduous?

"Most people seek balance through finding someone or something that will keep them in the world with peers and alone in contentment. 'Alone time' and together time require smooth segues in order to avoid conflict."

Loneliness is both complex and unique to each individual. It has no common cause, and it is a state of mind. Kendra Cherry, author and psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, says, "People who are lonely often crave human contact, but their state of mind makes it more difficult to form connections with other people... It is the perception of being alone and isolated that matters most." 

(Kendra Cherry. "Loneliness."

John Cacioppo, a University of Chicago psychologist and one of the top loneliness experts, contends loneliness is strongly connected to genetics. Other contributing factors include situational variables, such as physical isolation, moving to a new location and divorce. The death of someone significant in a person's life can also lead to feelings of loneliness. Loneliness can also be a symptom of a psychological disorder such as depression or simply attributed to low self-esteem.

Past research has found that lonely people tend to act more shy, hostile, anxious and socially awkward. They also tend to interpret social interactions differently, often seeing certain behaviors in others as a form of rejection or dismissal.

(Kendra Cherry. "Loneliness Can Be Contagious."

Loneliness varies with age and poses a particular threat to the very old, quickening the rate at which their faculties decline and cutting their lives shorter. But even among the not-so-old, loneliness is pervasive.

A Contagion of Loneliness

Studies have found that loneliness may actually be contagious! In a ten-year study, researchers examined how loneliness spreads in social networks. The results indicated that people close to someone experiencing loneliness were 52-percent more likely to become lonely as well.

Psychobiologists can now show that loneliness sends misleading hormonal signals, rejiggers the molecules on genes that govern behavior, and wrenches a slew of other systems out of whack. They have proved that long-lasting loneliness not only makes you sick; it can kill you. 

(J. Bryner, "Loneliness spreads like a virus." Live Science. December 01, 2009)

Judith Shulevitz, science editor and chief science writer of The New Republic, wrote that "emotional isolation is ranked as high a risk factor for mortality as smoking. A partial list of the physical diseases thought to be caused or exacerbated by loneliness would include Alzheimer’s, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, neurodegenerative diseases, and even cancertumors can metastasize faster in lonely people."

(Judith Shulevitz. "The Lethality of Loneliness." The New Republic. May 13, 2014)

Read the entire article by clicking here:

In the late 1950s, world-famous German psychiatrist and contemporary of Sigmund Freud, Frieda Fromm-Reichmann, whose essay "On Loneliness" is considered a founding document in this fast-growing area of scientific research, figured that loneliness lay at the heart of nearly all mental illness and that the lonely person was just about the most terrifying spectacle in the world.

Aloneness and Loneliness Now and In the Future 

Life is certainly perilous as our healthy state of mind requires time alone and sustained, loving contact with others. Census studies put the percentage of American adults who lived alone in 2008 at 15 percent. This figure is increasing. Around 1900, a few percent of Americans lived by themselves; in 1960, 6% did; and now the figure is much higher.

Without some intervention, loneliness promises to get even worse. In a 2013 essay for The New Republic about the consequences of loneliness for public health, Judith Shulevitz reported that one in three Americans over 45 identifies as chronically lonely, up from just one in five a decade ago. “With baby boomers reaching retirement age at a rate of 10,000 a day,” she notes, “the number of lonely Americans will surely spike.” 

(Judith Shulevitz. "The Lethality of Loneliness." The New Republic. May 13, 2014)

It is startling that people report having almost no close confidants When polled as part of a 1984 questionnaire, respondents most frequently reported having three close confidants. When the question was asked again in 2004, the most common response was zero confidants.

Since experts believe that it is not the quantity of social interaction that combats loneliness, but that it is the quality, this trend is very disturbing. Most experts agree having just three or four close friends is enough to ward off loneliness and reduce the negative health consequences associated with this state of mind. 

(D. Askt. "A Talk With John Cacioppo: A Chicago Scientist Suggests That Loneliness 
Is a Threat to Your Health." The Boston Globe. September 21,2008)

Why are more people choosing solitary living? Claude S. Fischer, American Sociologist and professor of sociology at the University of California, offers these reasons why:

* Living alone is largely what Americans do who live long enough to outlive their spouses. In 2009, one-fourth of those who lived alone were women 65 and older. The evidence strongly shows that the elderly prefer to live alone when they physically and financially can. The elderly are, for example, more likely than young people to tell pollsters that old people living with their adult children is not a good idea.

* Another, smaller component in the expansion of solo-living is the delay of marriage since about 1960. More Americans are waiting longer to marry.

* A third, yet smaller, component of the solo-livers are the divorced – especially divorced men. (Divorced women typically live with children.) Here, we start to get larger proportions of people in single households who would prefer not to live alone. But the divorced, especially the men, do not stay divorced long, a couple of years or so on average, although longer for women. 

(Claude S. Fischer. "Alone or Lonely?" Made In America. August 11, 2010)

My Take

So, at a deep level, loneliness research forces us to acknowledge our flexibility in the face of present-day social forces. Isolation can be beneficial or devastating. So little is known about the state of mind that sustains loneliness that we must guard against depression and seek various outlets for meaningful social interaction in order to live with dignity and happiness.

The present state of affairs reminds me of the popular Beatles song of the 1960's "Elenore Rigby."  Little did Lennon and McCartney know things would be much worse in 2014.

Which also, by the way, reminds me of the charge for people to befriend those in need. Whether it's a child in a single-parent household or a senior in a nursing home, we must concern ourselves with doing our part to insure that aloneness contains as little loneliness as possible. The ramifications of a trend toward loneliness continuing to increase more and more are unthinkable.

As another Beatles' lyric would beg, "Help, I need somebody. Not just anybody." I hope this entry delineates the difference between just being alone and suffering debilitating mental and physical illness due to loneliness. Every deserves to have time alone but no one deserves to be eternally lonely.

"All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?"

From "Elenor Rigby" by the Beatles

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