09 Oct The Illness of Isolation
It’s a blessing if you can harness it and be inspired while revelling in it. If not, it is the root cause of persistent restlessness and emptiness. – Om Swami
Former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy says the most common pathology he saw during his years of service “was not heart disease or diabetes; it was loneliness.” When I googled the loneliness, I got about 6,48,00,000 results in 0.35 seconds! Loneliness, I read, is an experience that means our current close relationships don’t meet our needs. Metaphysically we may be taught that we are born alone and die alone but the acceptance of this is difficult. This is because as human beings, we are hardwired for socialization. It’s the way that we learn to speak, think, express emotions, feel secure, and become cultured.
Feeling lonely is not unusual. Professor of psychology at the University of Rochester, Harry Reis says “It’s perfectly common for people to experience loneliness when their social networks are changing, like going off to college or moving to a new city.” Which means that loneliness can creep up whenever we feel alone, unwanted, or isolated; and if it impedes our sense of being connected or chips away at our sense of belonging, then it has become an existential malady.
The fact is that one’s wellbeing dramatically drops once feelings of isolation become a regular pattern. There is no small number of people in both developed and emerging economies who feel lonely or isolated. Loneliness is a true emotional pandemic: in one poll, nearly half of people in the US say they are “sometimes” or “always” feeling alone (46 per cent) or left out (47 per cent). Loneliness has become such a concern in modern life that Britain has appointed its first minister of loneliness, Tracey Crouch. Crouch told the HuffPost that a couple of particular cases she had come across since taking up the post had resonated with her. One was a professional who had moved to London for a good job but felt “incredibly lonely because she gets up, she goes to work, and then when she gets back there’s nothing.” She also mentioned one of her constituents, an older man whose wife had died years ago, who, although he felt extremely lonely, was unable to articulate that loneliness until he could put it into words: “The announcement [that he was feeling terrible from his wife’s loss] helped him identify that he was lonely and he wanted to know if there were any projects locally that he could get involved in.” (HuffPost)
It is also interesting that despite society being more connected than ever in a digital sense, it is people of the millennial generation that feel loneliest. Crouch says: “One of the possible causes of loneliness, particularly among young people is the advent of digital connectivity. We have one of the most digitally connected generations and yet what we are seeing is an increase in loneliness.” However, Crouch also points out that apps and mobile technology can be harnessed to connect lonely people, such as a service connecting and facilitating communication between young mothers, who often feel isolated after giving birth. (HuffPost)
So what can we do about all this? Not surprisingly, the currently recommended treatment revolves around establishing social relationships. For older adults, joining the local senior centre is a wonderful way to get involved in activities and meet people. What about volunteering? Senior volunteer programs are always looking for older adults who will deliver meals, do mailings and a variety of other activities. It is surprising how small things can also be helpful.
A simple phone call once a day from an adult child is an opportunity to share things from the day or about grandchildren. Even better, video conferencing via computer is easy and cheap. You can actually talk to and see your children and grandchildren who might be on the other side of the country. Studies in long-term care facilities found that pets can also reduce loneliness.
Thich Nhat Hanh expresses this in one of his memoirs about his mother:
Walking slowly in the moonlight through the rows of tea plants, I noticed my mother was still with me. She was the moonlight caressing me as she had done so often, very tender, very sweet . . . wonderful! Each time my feet touched the earth I knew my mother was there with me. . . . From that moment on, the idea that I had lost my mother no longer existed. All I had to do was look at the palm of my hand, feel the breeze on my face or the earth under my feet to remember that my mother is always with me, available at any time.
We came across this piece that gives more insight on Loneliness.