A Holistic Approach to Loneliness

A year ago, Cigna posted its U.S. loneliness index which reported “epidemic” levels of loneliness in America. Interestingly, some groups were shown to be particularly susceptible to loneliness. Within the class of Americans with different occupational statuses (retired, employed, ‘homemakers,’ students, and unemployed), students and the unemployed had the highest average loneliness scores. Within the class of generations in the U.S. (Gen Z, Millennials, Gen X, Baby Boomers, and the Greatest Generation), a trend was found showing loneliness to increase with each younger generation, starting with the least lonely Greatest generation and ending with the most lonely Gen Z.

As a member of Gen Z, the label of being a part of the loneliest generation is tough. Upon my hearing it, the idea becomes mixed in with all the other traits I associate with my generation: tech-savvy, connected (online), emotionally confused, and burdened with high expectations. Out of these few mentioned traits, already two of these don’t seem to mix: How are we so lonely if we’re so connected? Perhaps these traits are actually consistent, and just happen to manifest in a paradoxical way. Or perhaps they are inconsistent and show some confusion we have about the generation. But this is loose-talk: It sounds as if I am asking how it can be that the entire generation of Gen Z has the property of loneliness and that of online-connectedness, when these properties are fundamentally opposed. Really, we cannot strictly assign a behavioral trait to an entire generation, and it is silly to talk of ‘loneliness’ and ‘online-connectedness’ as if they are fundamentally opposed. I point out the flaws of this attractive question to highlight that the topic on Gen Z is more complex than what can be expected out of any simple, ill-formed question, and deserves more than simple answers. But rather than talk specifically about Gen Z, I want to talk about loneliness in general. Because as different as cultures across generations or cultural spheres may be, some aspects of loneliness are well shared and concern us equally.

    A particular aspect of loneliness that concerns many of us is our aversion to it. As with mental illness, we decry and veil it although it lives with us. So I make a first point to address this: Loneliness is not always something to be chased away. It is not even possible to eternally suppress it. This implies at least a pragmatic point for our accepting loneliness: If one necessarily cannot fight loneliness sometimes, what is the point of her trying to fight loneliness always? I do not want to discuss philosophical implications if we take strictly the proposition that one should not always attempt to suppress her loneliness. But less technically, we should not have such an instinctively hostile attitude towards loneliness. Better, we might first accept it is a part of the human experience and try to see it for all its virtues and vices. On the side of virtues, we might say, as philosopher Lars Svendsen said, loneliness is a chance for contemplation. Perhaps it is a necessary reprieve we must sometimes experience to augment our gratitude for those who support us, the condition of whom we will acknowledge once our reprieve has ended. And perhaps it can be a motivator for us to change damaging factors in our lives.

    But aside from the flattering poetry with which we can praise loneliness, we must turn to the reasons we despise it if we are to even attempt to sufficiently understand it. Firstly, it’s bad for our health. A review of the scientific literature on loneliness concluded “Current evidence indicates that heightened risk for mortality from a lack of social relationships is greater than that from obesity,” and comparable with other “well-established risk factors for mortality.” It also recommended adding social isolation and loneliness to lists of public health concerns. Aside from its link to increased mortality, the sensation of loneliness negatively affects our lives in more obvious ways, as we can all verify. Among its characteristics are anxiety, sadness, and perhaps jealousy and anger.

    The view I want to present shows loneliness as something that is necessary, sometimes rewarding, but also obviously complicating. That is, I invite the reader to consider it holistically. I think a holistic view offers a fine framework on which to approach deterrents of loneliness: It encourages one to find solutions not desperately, and offers more fulfillment in both one’s success and failure to suppress loneliness. If that is established, we can start to look for solutions.

To start, there are certain things which correlate well with feelings of loneliness that can be addressed, many pertaining to general and mental health. This view was implicit in the making of the study by Cigna, a health company. It found links between loneliness and the balancing of work, sleep, family time, and exercise. There are also links between the frequency of one’s having personal interactions and her loneliness. One noted statistic is that among those who self-identified as being in fair or poor health, 31% experienced daily in-person interactions, compared with 58% of those self-identified as being in good, very good or excellent overall health.

The research also highlighted some bright spots that will be instrumental in driving change. It showed that individuals who are less lonely are more likely to have regular in-person interactions, are in good overall physical and mental health, have found a balance in their daily activities, and are employed.

    Because individuals who were not content with their relationships scored 13 points higher on the loneliness score than those who were content, we also find a simple yet important reminder that not any in-person experiences will do. They should be meaningful and positive. This fits with the phenomenon of emotional contagion, which predicts that if we spend time around negative people, we feel similarly negative. Conversely, if we spend time around positive people, we feel similarly positive. We can learn from this by finding more meaningful interactions and removing existing toxic relationships.

We can also change our mindsets, which may be leading us to loneliness. Sociologist Phillip Slater argued (in his 1970 book, The Pursuit of Loneliness) that America’s valuing of independence and its loneliness were “rooted in the attempt to deny the reality of human interdependence.” It’s a compelling idea which seems to fit well with my personal observations. Especially during one’s younger years when she must form her own identity, ‘independence’ and ‘individualism’ are alluring buzzwords. I have a personal viewing platform to see this from my own college. I think as Slater suggests, an extreme individualism is often at the root of loneliness, and it runs on our egos. Perhaps we say we are happily alone as a justification of our failing to make meaningful connections, or because we are afraid, or simply lazy to find connections. Or perhaps it is sometimes a strange rebellion to prove to ourselves or our parents that we’re intrinsically worth something. Maybe loneliness is just built into our culture, and we feign values of individualism simply because we know no other way of living. Whatever pathways we can imagine to connect our attitudes to our loneliness, it is fair to say they are obstacles to our health and well-being. Taking individualism for example, there is a sense in which it is a fine attitude, that we should live by the cliché, “just be yourself.” But when taken in a way that suggests we should isolate ourselves from others because we are self-sufficient, such an interpretation is obnoxious and self-harmful.

    So there are two broad ways we can consider how to chase away loneliness: We can change aspects of our lives that statistically correlate with our having feelings of loneliness, and we can change our mindsets which may lead us to loneliness. But even with some indications on how one might chase away loneliness, if he does want to chase it away, his knowledge is meaningless without action. His failure to act is captured in Phillip Slater’s “toilet assumption”: the tendency to believe our issues will go away if we ignore them. While the topic of motivation is beyond the scope of this article, I can mention the barebones of what one should hear. The reader will notice these are clichés, as my point to say, all the information we need to act is already out there, and it’s been said a million times: We have the power to change ourselves; no one will do the work for us; and As Nike’s motto goes, “just do it.” More seriously, some of the steps to deter loneliness are manageable, as listed above. And once that is known, it is extraneous to receive feelings of passion for fighting loneliness, or really accomplishing any goal, if one feels he should do it. It should be expected of him to just do it, or take steps to allow him to do it. This is probably the most compelling advice that could be told to me: You have ideas on how to not be lonely. You don’t want to be lonely. So do something with your ideas (or do something to get ideas, etc.). Rather than live in the pursuit of loneliness, we can try to find happiness in the pursuit of each other.