Woman seated alone in paddock facing away from camera

Lonely But Not Alone: The Modern Loneliness Epidemic

The terms Lonely and Loneliness are large and loaded in today’s world. Both the lonely and the non-lonely struggle to relate to the phenomena because it is uncomfortable and sometimes awkward to consider how otherwise healthy and ‘functional’ adults can feel lonely in today’s world. But the reality is that despite living in an otherwise hyper-connected and ‘switched on’ society, feelings of loneliness are at an all time high, with over one third of Australian adults saying in 2022 they felt lonely at least sometimes during the week. Rates for young people in particular experiencing loneliness are only increasing.

We struggle to make space for the conversation around loneliness because many of us don’t have the vocabulary to speak on such a difficult topic. In her essay on the phenomenon, Fromm-Reichmann explains that loneliness is such a traumatic experience for humans that we would simply rather not think about it at all, in the same way we might avoid thinking about other uncomfortable realities. However, our preference to compartmentalise the experience means loneliness is heavily stigmatised despite its prevalence.

 Just like hunger, loneliness is a survival instinct

This phenomenon has been around since humans first walked the earth. We have come as far as we have as a species because we are social creatures; together we are stronger than the sum of our parts. Many brain systems and emotional needs stem from this fact (including our attachment system), and loneliness is one of them.

Whilst many of us have internalised the idea that to feel lonely in this day and age is to be defective, a failure, or an outcast, the reality is that loneliness is an inherent human emotion we are all vulnerable to. It is a survival instinct just like hunger, though instead of reminding us to eat and energise ourselves, loneliness is communicating we need to seek companionship because we haven’t had enough of it to sustain us. In this way, like our hunger, our loneliness is telling us we are off balance.

Prolonged loneliness has the same adverse effects as smoking fifteen cigarettes a day

Loneliness is being taken increasingly seriously in academic circles, as research stresses our longing for company is not without its implications. In fact, it’s been proven it is objectively terrible for our health. Without doing a full deep dive in the depressing list of wellbeing factors that are negatively affected by loneliness, we can summarise by saying that prolonged loneliness lowers our immune system, cognitive functioning, blood pressure, diet, and sleep quality. One study even found that prolonged loneliness can affect our health to the same extent as smoking fifteen cigarettes a day.

While it may not be a diagnosable mental illness on its own, loneliness has a major impact on our physical and mental health because it is an essential human need just like food and water.

Contained within the individual body, loneliness is a private and painful phenomenon

Before you consider if you might be lonely, it is important to understand what loneliness is and is not. Loneliness is not a mental illness, a living situation, or relationship status. It is a subjective internal experience, which isn’t related to your objective physical environment. That is, you might not feel lonely while taking a bath or reading alone on the couch, but you might feel lonely on the train, at a party, or at work; all times when you’re actually surrounded by people.

It should also be stressed that feelings of loneliness manifest differently in individuals. For myself, I tend to experience is as a restless agitation and inability to concentrate. For others, it manifests in withdrawing, over or under eating, sleeping, and exercising. People may also try to cope with feeling lonely through excessive spending, substance abuse, or risky and destructive behaviour. However, loneliness researcher, Stephan Joppich, puts it very plainly: “you know you are lonely if you feel lonely”.

Pervasive and common as it is, it is this subjective quality that makes loneliness incredibly hard to observe and measure, because it is so private. There are several online tests you can do, but Joppich along with other researchers measure the presence and severity of loneliness via one simple formula:

Loneliness = Desired Connections – Perceived Connections

The formula describes loneliness as the gap between how much connection we want and expect to have, and how much connection we feel we actually have.

Why do we feel so alone?

Loneliness has been around for as long as we have, though it is only now experts are describing it’s prevalence as an epidemic in our modern world. There are a few causal factors to consider in understanding why this is such an issue in the contemporary moment.

Misconceptions and stereotypes

The first is one I mentioned earlier, which is the fact loneliness is profoundly stigmatised. It has an associated stereotype of the loner, recluse, or introvert who imposes the condition on themselves. This is a grossly false claim as feelings of loneliness have shown, time and time again, to manifest in marriages, families, share-houses, schools, workplaces, and friendship groups. It isn’t a preference, and it doesn’t have a preference.

The structure of our modern world

A second causal factor are the conditions of our modern world. I hardly need to mention the impact of pandemic lockdowns on loneliness, but even around this blip in time there is the insular home structure common in Australia; we are now more than ever used to living alone and in isolation. Author Alan Brookes warned in an Atlantic article that “emerging evidence suggests that we are in the midst of a long-term crisis of habitual loneliness, in which relationships were severed and never re-established.”

Changing values in connection

Finally, and perhaps the greatest cause for concern, is our change in values. We pursue friendships for the wrong reasons. Instead of searching for meaningful and genuine connections where we feel accepted for who we really are, many are keen on developing an expansive social network that is quantified in a person’s ‘followed vs following’ ratio on various social media platforms.

This widespread interest in superficial connections is a breeding ground for loneliness. Social status, frequency of views/shares, and social media presence are not the metrics for a good social life. Instead, we should be valuing the degree of vulnerability, depth of conversation, genuine empathy and generosity in our relationships; quality of relationships, not quantity. Our metric must change if we are going to address the loneliness epidemic.

Getting to know your loneliness will allow you to respond to it appropriately

When I am hungry (all day when working from home), I stand up and walk to the fridge, then the pantry, and assemble a snack. The same applies with thirst; when I feel parched I reach for my water bottle. This cue-response is what’s keep me alive, it’s what keeps us all alive. So, if loneliness is a cue we should be listening to in order to survive, you may be wondering what is the best response?

Mental health professionals believe the best first thing you can do is to ‘pay attention’, because awareness is the foundation for change. When you notice loneliness, be honest and ask yourself why, as this might give you a direction to work with. It could be you are spending too much time on social media, that you need to eliminate some toxic relationships in your life, or step out of your comfort zone and make a new friend.

Lonely people should be mindful of what professionals call the ‘negative social bias’

If you feel you need to enrich your social life, be careful of what mental health professionals call ‘the negative social bias’, which many lonely people are known to fall into when socialising. Lonely individuals are more sensitive to signs of rejection in a social environment, and they tend to use cognitive distortions like mind-reading and jumping to conclusions when evaluating a social setting. These distortions are not only negative, but they are not real, so it is important for those feeling lonely to be across the bias so they can overcome it when seeking out companionship.

We like to wear badges of resilience, but nobody should be going at it alone

Lastly, it is okay if awareness isn’t enough to restore your balance for human connection. If you find your feelings of loneliness have been persistent for a long time, are negatively impacting your quality of life, and continues to cause you pain and distress, then it is important you seek professional help. We need to lose the badge of resilience, and the idea we should be going at it alone. Humans were once a part of very close-knit tribes, so it is no wonder the state of the isolated modern world is making us feel lonely.