One of the issues that struck me during the lockdown was the human experience of loneliness. Even before this pandemic hit us, loneliness was such a common human experience that we could even call it a 21st-century epidemic. As human beings we share a fundamental similarity despite differences in language and culture. We all yearn for love, acceptance and understanding. We need intimacy and a sense of self-worth. We also need to know that we are valued by others. The lack of meaningful human contact is so painful that people go to great lengths to fulfill their need for it. Yet the thing is, like anger or anxiety, loneliness is normal. We all experience it at times and it is a useful signpost. In the same manner that anger tells us that something is wrong or unjust and gets us to solve the problem, loneliness is telling us that we value connection and that we need more meaningful connections in our relationships.
I have had the experience of meeting many young people who have struggled in silence with loneliness and the research has confirmed that it is a common phenomenon with millennials being one of the loneliest generations (Ballard, 2020). Observing the current times, it certainly seems that the Generation Z might struggle a similar kind of social poverty.
It seems that there are some emotions that we can talk about quite easily but there is a lot of stigma and shame around loneliness. Not many find it easy to admit they are lonely. It feels like a failure or weakness to do so. I think that Western culture has something to do with it. We live in a society that values independence and popularity. We buy into the social media culture by putting up unreal images that we are doing wonderful things with our life. We even count and display ‘likes’ as if this confirms that life is amazing. Yet loneliness is a vulnerable state as it signals that we probably need to share more of ourselves to get the connections we want, but we may be afraid that we may not be likeable. We also fear rejection which may cause us to withdraw. But as a quote I once read about loneliness reminds: “We sometimes think we want to disappear, but what we really want is to be found.” (LDep/boldomatic.com)
What is loneliness?
by traumatic events. Loneliness is particularly painful when we have people around but still do not feel a connection with them.
We are social creatures and loneliness is our natural signal of distress to warn us that something important is missing. These may include meaningful relationships with other people and opportunities for love, human connection and support. African cosmology speaks of Ubuntu – The phrase “Umuntu Ngumuntu Ngabantu” or “I am, because you are” is how we describe the meaning of Ubuntu. It speaks to the fact that we are all connected and that one can only grow and progress through the growth and progression of others. This is a powerful principle that captures the essence of our need to remain part of a community.
Loneliness is not simply the condition of being on one’s own but it is the condition of feeling alone—feeling disconnected from others, feeling that no one cares, as if one is not part of a community or family or group. The feeling of loneliness can be present even if we know that people do care and that we are part of a community. Loneliness is part of being human. It is a painful and frightening condition that impacts our emotional and physical well-being. The key to combating loneliness is to increase our opportunities for meaningful social connections. These connections happen in the physical or virtual world. The pandemic actually forced people to reach out virtually more so than ever before.
In his book “Together – The Healing Power of Human Connection in a sometimes lonely world”, Dr Vivek Murthy suggests four key strategies that will help us not only to weather this crisis personally, but also to heal our social world far into the future.
Spend time each day with those you love. Devote at least 15 minutes each day to connecting with those you most care about.
Focus on each other. Forget about multitasking and give the other person the gift of your full attention, making eye contact, if possible, and genuinely listening.
Embrace solitude. The first step toward building stronger connections with others is to build a stronger connection with oneself. Meditation, prayer, art, music, and time spent outdoors can all be sources of solitary comfort and joy.
Help and be helped. Service is a form of human connection that reminds us of our value and purpose in life. Checking on a neighbor, seeking advice, even just offering a smile to a stranger six feet away, all can make us stronger.
As we continue to make advances in technology, we risk becoming more and more isolated from each other as more and more of our interactions are online rather than face-to-face. If we experience this social distancing as loneliness, we are likely to experience other mental and physical health problems as well. If and when we feel we are neglected, forgotten or not important to others, rather than avoiding this feeling or fearing the social stigma we will experience if we share our feelings, it is important to pay attention to this natural signpost and address our emotional needs as a serious health matter. Especially at times like this, it is important to take a proactive approach and to find a good friend, deepen a friendship with an acquaintance, join a group of people who share like interests and actively work to live in community. You may also try a session of personal or group counselling which will provide you with a confidential and safe space to explore your emotions and find ways to connect more meaningfully with yourself and then with others.
This is such an extraordinary and difficult time due to COVID-19. I know that I will remember this time for the rest of my life. The social distancing has contributed to greater levels of loneliness in society but I think that we have a choice about whether we contribute to this “social poverty” or whether we use this time to strengthen our social connections.
From my own experience during this time, I’ve realized that I not only miss being physically present with my close friends and family, but I miss basic normal interactions with colleagues and students at university, at the supermarket, at gym. The other day, there was someone who waved vigorously at me and I couldn’t recognize the person behind the mask but I waved back vigorously and enthusiastically, simply appreciating the need for connection with another person.
When I think about the experience over the past few weeks, I know that I have not been giving the time or even the quality of time to my friends and family that I want to be giving, and I want to recommit to doing better. And I can start right now. I can take some simple steps that can help me strengthen my connection with other people despite being physically distanced.
It helps to eliminate distractions when we’re talking with others. I’ve been absorbed in my own busy life, but it is such a powerful experience when someone listens to you and they’re fully present in conversation. I believe that is such a precious gift to someone, to give your full attention, being able to share with them openly and to be present fully with them. You begin to realize that five minutes of that kind of engagement can often be more fulfilling and more healing than 30 minutes of distracted conversation.
I have a neigbour who is living on her own and I realized how important it is to be of service to people who are forced to be alone due to lockdown measures. I think the time of COVID-19 presents an opportunity for all of us to find ways to serve others. Service could be checking on a neighbor to make sure they’re doing okay or calling a friend whom you know is struggling-it takes a small fragment of time in the day.
There are many ways in which we can serve, and this is a particular moment where if we look around us, we’ll realize that all of us are going through challenging times, that all of us are hurting in some way and are struggling to make sense of not just what’s happening now, but also the uncertainty of what lies ahead. So in an environment like this, simply reaching out to others to check on them, simply giving them the gift of our attention and presence, can be acts of service that ultimately strengthen our connection to others.
- Ballard, J. (2020) Amid COVID-19, Millennials are (still) the loneliest generation. https://today.yougov.com/topics/relationships/articles-reports/2020/05/01/loneliness-mental-health-coronavirus-poll-data
- Caputi , T.L. MPH (2020) Lonely in Lockdown? Psychology Today. Posted Apr 06, 2020 https://www.psychologytoday.com/za/blog/behavioral-health-matters/202004/lonely-in-lockdown
- Louise C. Hawkley, L.C; & Cacioppo, J.T. (2010) Loneliness Matters: A Theoretical and Empirical Review of Consequences and Mechanisms. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3874845/#
- Murthy, V.H. (2020) Together – Loneliness, Health and What Happens When We Find Connection. Harper Collins, New York.