When was the last time you felt lonely?
What brings you joy?
I would invite you to hold onto those thoughts for a moment.
As the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on our lives and livelihoods in 2020, another pandemic – infinitely more insidious and damaging – ravaged our hearts. Often referred to as the silent pandemic, loneliness as a social virus is unfortunately much harder to identify and inoculate against.
As I sit here in the sparsely decorated room that has become my home office for the past 11 months, I reflected on my own journey with loneliness and what it means to me. The result is a strong desire to share my reflections on a topic of vital importance. This may take the form of a long form essay, partly because the mere mention of loneliness continues to attract a certain stigma, and hence those that suffer from it are, by association, social misfits. The more fundamental reason is, because I could. If I am not the author of my own fate, at least I shall be the author of my own blog.
1. What is loneliness?
Literary definitions aside, loneliness is a highly subjective term and suggestive of a sliding scale of unmet needs and wants. “Loneliness” is loosely associated with objective terms such as “isolation”, however, where the latter describes a physical sense of aloneness, the former goes to the core of the quality of one’s connections. The adage of “you can be lonely on your own, or lonely in a crowd” is testament to the heighted sense of disconnection that we feel in the frenzied world around us.
On the face of it, what does a happily married, corporate professional leading a well-rounded life have to do with loneliness? In reality, I have struggled with various shades of loneliness throughout much of my childhood, and into my adult life. Low self-esteem, perpetrated by the poison of public taunts and my inherent inability at self-defence, has cast permanent dark shadows over the Great Emotional Walls I have erected. It wasn’t until Dr Vivek Murthy’s exposé on the multiple dimensions of loneliness did I realise that what I have been experiencing had validity beyond just hurt pride (Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World).
According to Dr Murthy, there are three dimensions of loneliness to reflect the particular types of relationships that are unfulfilled. Intimate or emotional loneliness is the longing for a close confidant or intimate partner, with whom you can be your true self. Relational or social loneliness is the yearning for quality friendships and social companionship and support. Collective loneliness is the hunger for a network or a community that shares your sense of purpose and pursuit. All three dimensions represent the full range of high quality social connections that we require in order to thrive.
Simply put, these are the three concentric relationship spheres that underpin our core spiritual wellbeing. Whilst a happy marriage and an outwardly successful career go a long way (and for that I am eternally grateful), loneliness comes with knowing that there are a very few who are genuinely interested in me and to whom I could turn. Unless, of course, it benefits them to know me.
Outside my immediate family, I could count on one hand, for instance, those that know I have recently endured my first surgery. No one as yet knows the reason for it. It is not that I wish to hide, quite the contrary, I wish for more than anything to be able to have a heart-to-heart conversation on the fragility of humankind. However, the occasion – or more to the point, the person – just never materialised. Friends who are buried deep under their own mountains of work-life imbalance, or colleagues who are only too eager to pounce on your weaknesses, hardly identified as sympathetic candidates.
For the umpteenth time, I realised I was lonely.
2. How is loneliness manifested?
Loneliness manifests itself in different ways, sometimes it is fleeting, at other times it feels bottomless and all-consuming. It is commonly a root contributor to superficial diagnoses of addiction and violence, or anger and withdrawal.
For me, the notion of loneliness is simple and can be easily self-diagnosed. It manifests itself as a visceral hookworm, winding its way into my system and shutting down my mental faculties as if flicking off a light switch. By the time it is done with me, I would succumb to utter mental depletion where only a sense of stupor prevails.
The saddest truism is that loneliness begets loneliness. The moment we lose our desire to connect and search for meaning is the moment we lose our ability to contribute to the broader conversations around us, from which meaning is then derived. To those who have everything, more will be given; from those who have nothing, everything will be taken. Loneliness is the ultimate vicious spiral.
3. Why does loneliness matter?
As it relates to work, studies have found that the pursuit of purpose trumps the pursuit of passion, by a fair margin. In his seminal research Great at Work: How Top Performers Do Less, Work Better and Achieve More, Morten Hansen found that people who were passionate about their jobs, who expressed high levels of excitement about their work, were still poor performers if they lacked a sense of purpose. In empirical terms, those who were high passion but low purpose came in at the 20th percentile, compared with 64th percentile for peers who demonstrated high purpose but low levels of passion. The reason for this is self-fulfilling. As we can already appreciate, it is our desire for a common purpose that binds and elevates us from our mediocre selves. If work is a recipe, the ingredient of Passion is individualistic and best served as a show-stopping garnish, while the ingredient of Purpose is a universal staple.
As it relates to life, the Harvard Study of Adult Development is one of the longest studies on adult life. For over 80 years it has tracked the happiness index of hundreds of men and their progenies. The results are illuminating. Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. The power of good relationships doesn’t discriminate against gender, race or cultural and religious beliefs. It buffers us from trauma, grief, and even some of the slings and arrows of old age.
So what brings us joy? The pursuit of connection and relational value is what brings us joy.
4. How do we combat loneliness?
Recognising the symptoms of loneliness as they apply to you is an important first step. Self-awareness is almost always the prerequisite for action.
The conscious act of reaching out is a close second. As we start from our innermost circle and work outwards, spending quality, uninterrupted time with those that we love provides fertile ground for the fruits of belonging and connection to grow. The desire to connect with our loved ones should come to us naturally and the positive emotional ramifications of this exchange can be lasting. It bolsters our resilience account when we eventually need to be adventurous and venture further afield.
Foster and experience friendships; noting the emphasis on experience as a verb. Most of us have friendships that are Instagrammable at best, and dormant at worst. If a friend doesn’t readily come to mind, try to rekindle old friendships, as they are often easier than cultivating new ones. Take the time to focus and be genuinely interested in each other, and give the other person the gift of your undivided attention for the duration that you are together.
Rumble with vulnerability and take incremental steps to build intimacy and trust. Whilst it is jarring to put our emotions at risk, we stand to gain nothing if we risk nothing at all. The ability to take the first step in exposing ourselves to the judgement of others is critical in deepening genuine engagement and rapport. The rush of oxytocin when someone tells us that they love us back, or when a friend confides a momentous secret, is evidence of the rich rewards of vulnerability.
Purge yourself from relationships that simply do not reciprocate. A common misunderstanding of loneliness is to surround ourselves with low quality relationships or friendships and hope that any interaction at all would be enough to energise us. Unfortunately, the opposite often rings true and such interactions can be soul destroying. Rather than pouring good energy after bad, it is important to assess whether the relationship is worth salvaging. Be specific about what you need out of the relationship moving forward and express it clearly. Don’t be afraid to ask for return. Make small demands for change, but make sure that they are enough to satisfy you.
The discourse around loneliness will no doubt reverberate beyond the sanctuaries of our own minds. As a society, we have come to define ourselves as who we are to others. The currency of relational value will hopefully teach us to invest in genuine, long-lasting connections that recharge, reinvigorate and reward us through rough seas and calmer waters.
If you identify with any of the above, I would appreciate hearing from you. If you are intrigued to pursue further reading, the below would be my recommended place to start.
- Vivek Murthy, 2020, Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World.
- Dan Heath & Chip Heath, 2017, The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact.
- Morten Hansen, 2018, Great at Work: How Top Performers Do Less, Work Better, and Achieve More.
- Eugene O’Kelly, 2005, Chasing Daylight: How My Forthcoming Death Transformed by Life.
- Jean-Dominique Bauby, 1997, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.
- Brene Brown, 2018, Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts.
- Robert Waldinger, 2015, TED Talk, What Makes a Good Life? Lessons from the Longest Study on Happiness.