What Is Loneliness?
Webster’s Dictionary defines loneliness as a state of solitude or being alone. But I believe loneliness to actually be a state of mind. It causes people to feel empty, alone and unwanted. People who are lonely crave human interaction, but their state of mind makes it difficult to socialize or make connections with others.
Loneliness is not about being physically alone. Instead, loneliness is the perception of being alone. A new employee might feel lonely despite being surrounded by colleagues and bosses. A soldier might experience loneliness upon returning home after being deployed abroad. Or a new college student may perceive being alone, despite being in the keg line at a frat party.
The state of loneliness is an emotional one, in which a person experiences a powerful feeling of emptiness and isolation. It is more than the feeling of needing company or wanting to do something with another person. Loneliness is a feeling of being cut off, disconnected and alienated from other people. The lonely person may find it difficult, or even impossible, to have any form of meaningful human contact. People who are lonely often experience a subjective sense of inner emptiness or hollowness, accompanied by those feelings of separation or isolation from the world.
How did I get so lonely?
People can experience loneliness for many reasons, and many life events are associated with it. The lack of friendships during childhood and adolescence, or the physical absence of meaningful people are causes for loneliness or the seeking of extreme degrees of isolation. At the same time, loneliness may be a symptom of another social or psychological problem, for example, chronic depression, for which professional help should be sought.
Many individuals experience loneliness for the first time when they are left alone as an infant. It is also a very common consequence of divorce or the breakup of any important long-term relationship. In these cases, it may stem both from the loss of a specific person and the withdrawal from social circles caused by the event, as well as the associated sadness. Loneliness can also be attributed to low self-esteem. People who lack confidence in themselves often believe that they are unworthy of positive attention. This can lead to the aforementioned states of isolation and chronic loneliness.
Grief also can lead to loneliness. Leaving home and going to college is an example of an event that will trigger a grief response, homesickness, both possibly resulting in loneliness. It may also occur after the birth of a child, when a spouse devotes all of his/her attention to the new baby while the other spouse grieves the loss of their adult companion. Loneliness can occur within marriages or close relationships where there is anger, resentment, or where love cannot be given or received. Other contributing factors include situational variables, such as actual physical isolation, say, after moving to a new location, and/or a divorce.
According to the results of a study of 5,000 people, loneliness is contagious. It can spread much like the flu. Loneliness can spread through groups of people via negative social interactions. More will be discussed on this topic in my future posts.
John Cacioppo, respected loneliness researcher, suggests that loneliness is becoming rampant in the United States. When polled as part of a 1984 questionnaire, respondents frequently reported having three close confidants. When the question was asked again in 2004, the most common response was zero confidants. Experts believe that it is not the quantity of social interaction that combats loneliness, but that it is the quality of such interactions. 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, with the emphasis on close friends.
This trend is unfortunate. Are we lonelier as an outcome of our computer-generated, social-networking circles, or video game dependence, with their resulting sacrifices of good friends for just peripheral acquaintances or online social relationships? I will expand on this in my next post.
Research gathered for this post came from a blog hosted at About.com, featured in the education section entitled: Loneliness: Causes, Effects and Treatments for Loneliness by Kendra Cherry, accessible at http://psychology.about.com/od/psychotherapy/a/loneliness.htm.
More information was received from the John Cacioppo, J.H. Fowler & N.A. Christakis book: Alone in the crowd: The structure and spread of loneliness in a large social network. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. As well as the Boston Globe interview with John Cacioppo by Daniel Askt, (2008, Sept. 21). A talk with John Cacioppo: A Chicago scientist suggests that loneliness is a threat to your health. The Boston Globe is found online at www.boston.com/bostonglobe/talk with John Cacioppo. And the You Tube video of a TED talk with John Cacioppo, accessed at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_0hxl03JoA0.