The UK Campaign to End Loneliness report that at least twenty-five million people in England often or sometimes experience loneliness. This ‘epidemic of loneliness’ has severe costs – poor health outcomes, social isolation, misery, and much else. Lockdowns and other extreme social restrictions intensified this, with challenging long-term implications.
Politicians, charities, and academics all agree that measures must be taken to ‘tackle’ loneliness. In the UK the Government has a loneliness strategy and a range of organisations do good work to try to reduce loneliness and help those who are lonely. If this sort of work is to succeed, though, it must be based on a good understanding of the experience of loneliness. This turns out to be a difficult task.
‘Loneliness’ and ‘lonely’ refer to a diverse range of feelings and experiences. Loneliness is described as a feeling or a longer-term process or as a feature of the human condition itself – an expression of ‘the pervasive sense of isolation that haunts the human soul’, for a recent writer. Whatever we make of that sort of claim, we should acknowledge the diversity of experiences of loneliness. I may feel lonely when travelling for work, traipsing between hotels, never sharing a meal with anyone and talking only to staff who are only professionally pleased to see me. Still, that experience is temporary and contingent. I know the trip ends with a return home to my friends in the homely environs of my life.
In other cases, experiences of loneliness can have more complicated causes. Bereavement, retiring, an unwelcome loss of social confidence, moving house or the collapse of a friendship circle … all these can cause kinds of loneliness. Maybe certain friendships peter out overtime, or a once-close friendship comes to be reconfigured as the friend gets married and has children in ways that alter their priorities. We might also experience kinds of loneliness that aren’t really attributable to any identifiable series of causes. One blogger explains how she found herself thrown into an inexplicable loneliness:
"I woke up one day and knew something was different. It wasn’t the good kind of different, but the kind that makes you want to go back under the sheets […] I felt lonely and it was scary. I had an amazing family who supported me, a job I loved, colleagues I was happy with and wonderful friends. I had not been lonely in 21 years of my life and I could not understand what was wrong — and where."
She also emphasises that loneliness can coexist with a rich social world. People feel lonely within happy marriages – so-called ‘marital loneliness’. Some feel continuously lonely despite having many friends and meaningful life-projects. In these cases, we see a key difference between loneliness and certain emotions: an emotion has an object – ‘I am angry at the dog’, ‘I am sad about John’s death’. Loneliness does not have an object in this sense: no-one says ‘I’m lonely about…’
If we take seriously loneliness, then we should be attentive to its complexity, especially if we intend to take practical measures to address loneliness. Much of the advice to lonely people is bad advice, because it lumps together different kinds of experience.
If we take seriously loneliness, then we should be attentive to its complexity, especially if we intend to take practical measures to address loneliness. Much of the advice to lonely people is bad advice, because it lumps together different kinds of experience. I was told by an elderly friend with chronic loneliness of an article called ‘Ten Things Lonely People Should Remember’ which urged readers to ‘Remember It Is Only Temporary’.
Appreciating the diversity of loneliness must also include understanding the diversity of effects it can have on our social worlds. Loneliness obviously has close connections to solitude and isolation, but they are not the same. Isolation is the fact of one’s being without social contacts while solitude is the positive experience of being without social contacts. But the exact relationship of loneliness to social contacts is hard to spell out. Some prefer narrow accounts – the missing thing are certain kinds of intimate personal relationships, such as friendship or romantic love.
On a broader view, loneliness is the felt absence of social relationships or contacts. My everyday life includes ‘deep and meaningful’ relationships with friends and family, but also spontaneous incidental encounters with baristas, friends-of-friends I bump into around town, colleagues I see around the office. Social worlds usually have a big cast of characters. Some are ‘main characters’, others ‘walk-on’ parts, and others have background roles. During the UK’s first lockdown I was struck by the loss of these sorts of incidental interactions and their essential roles in the diversity and vitality of my social world. Minor characters can matter as much as the regulars.
The richness of our social needs is reflected in the diversity of our social relationships, not all of which are personally and emotionally intimate. We can be connected to people in lots of ways. Brief chats with fellow passengers on a train. Cheerfully working on a shared project with a colleague or friend. Love and devotion in long-term relationships that come to be definitive of our identities. Joining a club. Random conversations with the neighbours. All these supply us with goods – company, empathy, solace, warmth, wise counsel, fun, welcome distraction, chances to let off steam, opportunities to indulge interests, and much more.
During the UK’s first lockdown I was struck by the loss of these sorts of incidental interactions and their essential roles in the diversity and vitality of my social world. Minor characters can matter as much as the regulars.
A world offering few or no opportunities to start, sustain, and develop these different ways of socially connecting with people can be a very lonely world. Understanding that lonely predicament will involve distinguishing different ways of being lonely. It also means appreciating the many ways loneliness could affect someone’s world. Defining loneliness as ‘the absence of social relationships’ or as the unpleasant feeling that ‘one’s social needs are not being met by the quantity or especially the quality of one’s social relationships’ might be a good start. But these must be understood as starting points for more discerning approaches, sensitive to the diversity of experiences of loneliness and of our social needs. If being lonely can involve many things, then responding to it must involve many different kinds of responses.
Ian James Kidd
University of Nottingham