The Problem of Loneliness


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by Jayaram V

Summary: Loneliness is an acute social and psychological problem. This essay is about the problem of loneliness, its causes and remedies.

Loneliness is a huge problem in today’s world. According to a survey conducted by Cigna Insurance Company in 2018, nearly half of Americans reported sometimes or always feeling alone or left out. 27% Americans or one in four felt as if they were rarely or never understood by others, and two in five felt that they had no meaningful relationships and they were isolated from others.

The survey also showed that nearly half the Americans had no social interaction with a friend or a family on a daily basis. One in five, or 20%, felt that they were never close to anyone, and there were no people to whom they could talk. Social media interactions did not help them to get rid of such feelings. The same was true with regard to single parents who had children. Even though they were living under the same roof, they felt lonely.

Loneliness may arise from living alone or from solitary life. People who lived with others were less likely to feel loneliness than those who lived alone. The same was not true with regard to single parents and guardians who lived with their children. Loneliness was more acute among them even though they had some sort of family interaction. People in the age group of 18 to 22, or the so-called millennials, were said to be the loneliest, with acute health problems caused by loneliness.

The causes of loneliness

What are the causes of loneliness? Some people prefer to be alone or left alone? Does that mean loneliness is a choice? Sometimes it is, but in most cases that choice is made due to many factors. The causes of loneliness are predominantly internal or psychological, while social, cultural and situational factors also play an important role.

Fear, low self-esteem, introversion, inferiority complex, depression, anxiety, shyness are a few important psychological reasons. Traumatic experiences, absence of trustworthy friends, feelings of guilt and shame, excessive criticism from friends and family, distrust, and the death of a close friend, spouse or family member may also induce people to prefer loneliness and remain aloof.

Certain social and economic factors also contribute to loneliness. For example, cultural and linguistic differences may make it difficult for people to interact with others and thereby choose isolation. Financial loss, loss of status or reputation, family problems or loss of a job may induce feelings of depression and negativity and cause people to avoid social interaction.

Wars, prolonged social and political unrest, dictatorship and suppression of individual rights may create an environment of fear and distrust, making it difficult for people to develop meaningful and trustworthy relationships. Geographical conditions, extreme climate, poverty, absence of communication channels, etc., may also increase the risk of loneliness as people are forced to live isolated lives with little scope for social interaction. Cultural practices such as purdah, discrimination may also lead to it.

Age seems to play some role. However, a national survey conducted in 2010 by AARP revealed that loneliness was less likely among people who were 45 years or older than among younger adults. It was also less among married people with higher income, while those with poor health were likely to be lonely. Age seems to be a relevant factor among older people in the age group of 60 and above.

For example, senior citizens and old people in many countries live in a kind of self-imposed exile as they feel abandoned or ignored by their own family members or if they lose their spouses and find no one with whom they could establish a close relationship. Data on loneliness collected from workplaces showed that certain professions such as that of lawyers, engineers and scientists do not facilitate much social interaction and thereby potentially increase the risk of feeling lonely.

Religions do not induced loneliness, but they may motivate people to live alone or minimize frivolous, social interactions and learn to cope with loneliness. For example, in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, those who renounce worldly life and take up the life of a recluse or a monk have to live in seclusion, away from public life. They are supposed to live austerely to experience aloneness as a part of their transformative practice. The solitude which people experience due to such cultural or spiritual causes should not be equated with the loneliness which arises from the factors which we have discussed before. The latter one is a behavioral problem and requires suitable remedy.

Loneliness does not necessarily arise from physical isolation or solitary confinement. For example, the problem does not equally afflict all prisoners. In contrast, some people may feel lonely even when they have friends or when they lead an active social life if they feel that they cannot relate to others or cannot be understood by them.

Those who engage in social interaction against their will due to the compulsions of their profession or due to social or family pressure may also feel unhappy and lonely as they consider such interactions meaningless or artificial. Family relationships also play an important role. People who come from dysfunctional families and broken homes tend to experience loneliness more than those who come from healthy families.

Divorce, living abroad, living far away from other family members, living in urban areas where people seem to be preoccupied with themselves may also create social and psychological barriers and force people to live isolated lives. Extreme trauma, such as the death of a dear one can force people to go into temporary self-exile and avoid outside contact. Loneliness is prevalent across many cultures and communities irrespective of their social or financial or other conditions.

Prolonged loneliness, which arises when one feels trapped by intrinsic or extrinsic factors, is a painful experience. It lowers self-esteem and makes it difficult for the people involved to rationally resolve their problems as it is believed that those who suffer from loneliness do so because of preconceived notions and irrational thinking.

The problem of loneliness need to be approached with compassion. No one is completely free from this problem. Loneliness is a universal malady, it may be more acute in some, but everyone suffers from it to some extent at some point in life. Therefore, everyone can relate to it and understand it.

If you are one of those who frequently experience it, the solution must begin with yourself. Whatever is causing it, you must address it with an open mind. You have to learn to take initiative and increase your communication and social interaction. Find opportunities to go out and talk to people or find work that facilitates social interaction and keeps you busy.

American Psychologist, Carl Rogers believes that to enjoy a good life one must be open to experience, live in the present moment, trust in oneself, take responsibility for the choices made and regard oneself and others in positive esteem. Lonely people have problems in all these areas. Hence, they live and think not according to their experience but their preconceived notions about themselves, the world and others.

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