As the world recognizes a growing trend of loneliness and isolation, governments around the world are reacting, with the UK even at one point appointing its first minister for loneliness to address the issue. CNS photo/Thilo Schmuelgen, Reuters

Behind the mask of loneliness

By  Lydia Perovic, Catholic Register Special
  • September 16, 2023

Loneliness is creating headlines around the world, though not so much in Canada, even if we are part of the same trend across the anglo-world.

In the UK and the United States the increase in reported loneliness and its effects have been part of the national conversation for some time. In 2018, the UK’s then-government appointed the country’s first minister for loneliness, tasked with addressing the loneliness epidemic (the position did not last amid the turmoil of Britain’s short-lived post-Brexit governments, but the issue remains on the national radar). This year, the U.S. Surgeon General published a report titled “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation,” addressing the trends in social participation and community involvement and offering possible modes of redress.

On university campuses, researchers are busy looking at its causes and effects. 

One of those researchers is Dr. Sam Carr of Bath University in the UK, who recently completed a project on what loneliness means and how it manifests itself in the lives of people 80 and older in Australia and the UK. He and his team interviewed 80 people, and some of those conversations can be found in his upcoming book, All the Lonely People, out next spring. Other demographics are in the book too, including a foster kid, a refugee, as well as his own family.

“Our guiding question was what does it really mean for older people to say that they’re lonely? What kinds of loneliness exist?” said Carr. “I’ve realized pretty quickly after the project that everything I’ve ever studied — and that includes attachment, relationships — has touched on loneliness in some way in a lot of different populations. The book is an attempt to show that loneliness wears many different masks. All of us experience it, but for most of us there’s a different story that led to it.”

When asked what are the life situations in which loneliness is bound to happen, Carr says the biggest factor is loss.

“Loss of things that we can grab on to to sort of mitigate or allay loneliness,” he said. “A big one is the loss of relationship, whether that be through grief and death or through heartbreak and relational end. It could be loss of identity. ‘For my whole life I saw myself as a banker’ or whatever your profession was, and now that’s lost. It could also be loss of our bodies. We’ve found that those losses are often cumulative: in a space of a decade, you may lose your physical capacities, your friends, your partner, your siblings, your identity and that creates a sort of nuclear missile of loss.”

The relational absence, whether by loss or never having found one, is a really important factor. In some cases, Carr reminds us, a relationship can make you feel more lonely than not having one. So we presume a certain relational quality here.

“The next one might be meaning, and whether or not people managed to discover something in this world from which they derive meaning. That could be work. If you’re lucky enough to find work that is your bliss, the thing that lights you up. Some people do find that through work, some don’t and find whatever that may be through some other avenue. A side hustle or an activity that they really love.”

I was curious to know if there are material conditions that tend to lead to loneliness. Things like living in a large city vs. small, large building or small, etc.

“Yes, that’s important. There are lots of studies that will show that for example in general married people are less likely to be lonely than single people, although when you start breaking it down and really drilling into it it’s not that simple,” he said. “Typically they tend to be relational things, things like where you live, what kind of access you have to connections, do you have opportunities if you do live in an isolated area to make forays into urban areas and meet people, do you have good financial resources that enable you to do that... so you can identify things that might be a part of the equation. But it’s never generalizable — you get married and you’re immediately and permanently less lonely.”

Is having children the most reliable way to root oneself, I ask him. You sort of get to relive your own life through your kid’s growing up?

“I think they can give you meaning, yes. But I’ve also heard people say that being a parent and being over-identified with being a parent, has caused them to lose touch with other sides of themselves. ‘It actually made me feel isolated and lonely as a human being because it’s become all that I am: a parent. And that’s a lonely identity because I disconnected myself from other aspects of myself.’ I don’t think any of us can be just a parent.”

One of the interlocutors in the book is a young man addicted to online porn. Does the Internet ease human connection or make it harder?

“There are different stories,” he said. “I definitely know some people who have forged meaningful connections through screen-based interactions, for example. Whereas you can easily see that for some people it might be that the Internet becomes something they depend on for social connection, and they lose the capacity to do real life stuff. But it can work both ways. There are statements in the media about the Internet disconnecting our youth from real social relationships. I don’t know that we really have the evidence for that, to be honest. It will probably depend who you talk to.”

One of the things that stands out in All the Lonely People — and I’ve had a chance to read an advance copy — was the idea that loneliness for humans actually might be the default position. Whether contextual or existential, loneliness is highly likely to appear. For the luckiest among us, it can be alleviated to the point of us forgetting about it.

“It may well be that loneliness is a part of being human” said Carr. “And I’m not sure that curing it is really the answer. I’ve always been hesitant to use the word ‘epidemic’. Yes, sure COVID may have changed the nature of loneliness and got in the way of us connecting with each other, but I think humans will always be lonely sometimes.”

Robert Putnam’s thesis is that Americans have been decreasingly engaging in group settings outside the home, in hobbies like bowling, amateur sports and chess leagues, churches, book clubs, boards and committees, political parties.

“I do think we live in more atomized societies, at least those of us in the Americanized cultures of the anglo-sphere,” he concurs. “I have a lot of colleagues who work in Africa for example and they tell me that they don’t think there’s as much loneliness around in these communities. Older people are more plugged into family and also community; they seem to be more valued and more connected and more part of things; whereas for us, certainly in the UK, older people seem to become almost fringe members of the society as they retire.”

Do we stop making friends after a certain age?

“That’s something I’ve definitely observed among people in my life. When I was younger I was plugged into institutions: school, university, clubs, structures. It was expected that we would make friends and have the opportunities to do so, but when we start work… I think we’re so work-focused that all of that stops for adults.”

And exclusively family-focused too.

“Yes. You find yourself in your forties and wonder, where have my friends gone?”

(All the Lonely People is out in spring 2024.) 

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