Recent Research On Loneliness
"Without intensive ties which have genuine meaning, modern man maintains an essential anonymity in society...Associations often are on a contractual basis and the person is treated as an object or thing or commodity. The individual fulfills his role in order to attain a higher reward, not because there is intrinsic value in being one's self, but because there is an economic value toward which one is directed...In modern life, much social interaction is between surface figures or ghosts rather than real persons."
– Clark Moustakas, Loneliness
“During the last two decades, the number of those who had ‘no one to talk to’ has doubled. And despite Facebook, emails, cell phones, blogging, and text messaging, social isolation is at an all-time high.”
– From Addressing Loneliness: Coping, Prevention and Clinical Interventions, edited by Ami Sha’ked and Ami Rokach (Routledge, 2015)
Back in 2005, I published An Existential View of Loneliness, an excerpt from – and comment on – Michele Carter’s excellent essay Abiding Loneliness. My aim was simply to suggest that from a moral and spiritual point of view, solitude is perhaps essential, a catalyst for heightened self-awareness and an avenue for the attainment of wisdom. I noted that being alone brings us face to face with two of life’s most important questions: What is our existence really all about, and how should we use our freedom to define ourselves?
The article, it turns out, has been viewed tens of thousands of times. Of the more than 200 articles and excerpts published on this site over the last 15 years, “An Existential View” has consistently ranked in the top five or six of viewed pages.
Is this simply because there are many lonely people online, and they seek in philosophy some sort of salve for their troubles? Possibly, but I’d guess some show up seeking to validate a long-held suspicion, namely, that the loneliness they feel is somehow not their fault, that it is not suggestive of a failing of character, that in their heart they may even feel their solitary situation to be genuine or natural or “right”. They may wonder, with some justification, whether intimacy is not a cultural fiction – useful as fantasy to sell movies and magazine articles and romance novels, but unrealizable in practice, or at the very least, a complicated notion in an acquisitive, transactionalized, atomistic, mediatized world-culture such as the one we inhabit; one that, for all its strengths, is no longer optimal for communing.
This, of course, is merely one reading of loneliness. The condition is no doubt difficult and painful for untold millions who trudge along through life without friends, lovers, confidants, or even acquaintances, and who are driven more by the desire to find companionship than the compulsion to achieve enlightenment.
When I wrote the article, I knew the subject was hardly remote to countless writers, thinkers, poets and philosophers. So much of the literature of existentialism, for instance, has to do with the theme of the lonely person in an indifferent world, with the cruel incongruity between the individual quest for point and meaning on the one hand and the world’s obliviousness and impenetrability on the other.
What I didn’t know, or appreciate, is that there is a very robust academic literature on the subject. This I was made aware of only recently, with the debut of Addressing Loneliness: Coping, Prevention and Clinical Interventions, edited by Ami Sha’ked and Ami Rokach and published as part of Routledge’s “Researching Social Psychology” series.
The volume is a collection of 16 essays from scholars all around the world. Each chapter examines some aspect of the condition: e.g., loneliness as it is manifested in childhood and adolescence, in romantic relationships, on the job, in the later innings of life.
Among the scholars’ central findings: that social isolation is at an all-time high despite the pronounced growth of social media and the ubiquity of cell-phone use; that “increased use of the Internet leads to increased incidence of depression and increased loneliness” (p. 5); that educating children about the value of affiliation is crucial. As the editors note, “Children need to be taught…that togetherness, mutual support, caring for others, and being sensitive to social cues of distress that others project – and responding to them – are at least as important to our survival as humans and societies as are professional achievements, acquiring materialistic possessions, or gaining influence and power – all the ‘ingredients’ and values that seem to be so important in the Western world.” (p. 256)
The great achievement of the book is the way it seamlessly blends rigorous empirical research with pragmatic suggestions for coping and prevention, and pulls it all off in a spirit of humane concern and compassion. This is an enormously useful resource, not only for clinicians and scholars but also for university professors across many disciplines.
– Tim Ruggiero, July 12, 2016
II. Excerpts from Addressing Loneliness: Coping, Prevention and Clinical Interventions edited by Ami Sha’ked and Ami Rokach, published by Routledge (2015)
1. Americans are more isolated than they were previously
In the dawn of the 21st century, Americans are apparently far more isolated than they were previously. Less people report feeling close to their family or spouse or do not feel close to anyone. A growing number of people appear to have no one in whom they can confide, resulting in an increasingly fragmented society where social ties that were such an integral part of daily life in past generations are shrinking or disappearing altogether…
In today’s fast-paced, ever-changing world, when virtual reality replaces the real one for the younger generation, people have no time or energy for establishing a connection with anyone beyond the narrow frame of their own hurried lives in a culture that rewards nothing but the individual acquisition of power and money (Carter, 1995). During most of human history, people lived and died in one community (Lewis et al., 2000). In contrast, today’s society, especially in North America, is made up of people on the move: moving out of cities in order to get some green space and less polluted air; moving into cities to avoid long-distance driving; moving for employment, health, or financial reasons; or moving simply in search of a better place. Nearly 20% of Americans relocate each year, and up to 40% expect to move within the next five years.
– Excerpt from “Loneliness, Alienation, Solitude, and Our Lives,” by Ami Rokach in Addressing Loneliness, page 4.
2. Social isolation is at an all-time high despite online connectedness
During the last two decades, the number of those who had “no one to talk to” has doubled. And despite Facebook, emails, cell phones, blogging, and text messaging, social isolation is at an all-time high (McPherson, Smith-Lovin, and Brashears, 2006). People thus increase their dependence on technology and are less available to meet each other. Many lonely, alienated people flick on the television set for “company,” surfing from channel to channel. Television watching has become the Ativan of lonely, alienated, and socially disconnected individuals; watching television without intent, not knowing what they want to watch, and not caring much about what is on the screen. It is just comforting to have the TV on, and the background noise to fill the void…
It is clear that virtual connections and friendships are growing in popularity and in some instances replacing real ones. In fact Kraut, Patterson, Lundmark, Kiesler, Mukopadhyay, and Scherlis (1998) reported that increased use of the Internet leads to increased incidence of depression and increased loneliness.
– Excerpt from “Loneliness, Alienation, Solitude, and Our Lives,” by Ami Rokach in Addressing Loneliness, pages 4-5.
3. The fear of being alone is terrifying to those who are lonely
Who are the lonely? Those who feel disconnected, alienated, and all alone? How do they feel and behave? What are their characteristics? How do we know that we are lonely? Pappano (2001) observed about loneliness in the 21st century that “we are losing touch. And we don’t even realize it.” Stivers (2004) echoes this view and suggests that people’s desire to talk to people they hardly know, baring all on TV shows, and seeking crowds in shopping malls just so they are not alone is a clear indication that the fear of being alone is terrifying to those who are lonely.
– Excerpt from “Loneliness, Alienation, Solitude, and Our Lives,” by Ami Rokach in Addressing Loneliness, page 9.
4. Often it is the solitary who has the most substantial things to say
Merton (2003) observed that “very often it is the solitary who has the most to say; not that he uses many words, but what he says is new, substantial, unique.” Solitude may induce a sense of peace and security. It offers us an opportunity to discover within ourselves greater generosity, tolerance, and understanding (Feldman, 2003). True presence in the moment and mindfulness can also be achieved in silence and solitude when we can focus on being (Parse, 2007). Mahler (2003) observed that “Through the embrace of silence and solitude, we may enjoy the increasingly rare privilege of seeing things as they are, not as we wish them to be…and we can enjoy…a deeper understanding of the world we live in.”
– Excerpt from “Loneliness, Alienation, Solitude, and Our Lives,” by Ami Rokach in Addressing Loneliness, page 12.
5. When we withdraw into ourselves, we discover that emptiness lies at the bottom
Essentially, loneliness is narcissistic. That’s not a moral judgment. It simply means that when, under severe stress and anxiety, each of us strongly tends to withdraw within ourselves, to isolate, to self-protectively retreat back toward the womb, to the protective ambience of Freud’s “oceanic feeling”; when we try, we invariably discover that “at the bottom” of that descent, there is only “emptiness” and a sense of ultimate “meaninglessness” in terms of our individual human existence; one simply can’t go home again (Mijuskovic, 1979-1980). But we need the other self. We cannot survive psychologically without the other being. This is where trust and empathy come in. Trust can obviously only occur in the context of a relationship between two (possibly more) human beings; it consists of reaching out to another self-conscious creature, whether divine, human, or animal. It is grounded in the conviction that the other self will always respond to you as possessing intrinsic worth and value and never as a means to their own selfish or utilitarian ends. That is why lying and adultery are regarded as unforgivable sins.
But the best source of escape from loneliness is grounded in empathy (einfuhlung), which literally means “feeling into.” Originally, the term was used by Theodor Lipps as an aesthetic concept (Rader, 1960). One projects – pro-jects – goes beyond, transcends one’s feelings by inserting them into an aesthetic object, an actor, or a book. In the context of aesthetics, value is not an objective fact but rather the result of a free creation of the imagination, of fantasy, and thus belongs to the realm of intentions. It is inseparable from expression…since its spiritual source and content is derived from the sphere of the subjective mind and posited “outside” the self…Empathy means the disappearance of an unreconciled twofold consciousness of self and a separate, distinct other being. It dissolves any conflicts or misunderstandings and eliminates all competing desires so that only the one mutual, shared desire remains.
– Excerpt from “Cognitive and Motivational Roots of Universal Loneliness,” by Ben Mijuskovic in Addressing Loneliness, page 31.
6. Eight habits of meaningful living
1. Know and accept yourself, including your past, your dark side, and your mortality.
2. Achieve something with your life by working toward worthy goals, such as developing your potential and pursuing your calling.
3. Cultivate close relationships with loved ones and best friends.
4. Play a meaningful role in a group or in your community.
5. Engage in spiritual or religious practices, such as prayer and meditation.
6. Practice kindness and compassion daily.
7. Maintain a positive, optimistic attitude and positive feelings of joy and contentment.
8. Treat others with fairness and work toward a just society.
Astute readers will notice a built-in balance between achievement and acceptance, between self-interest and caring for others, etc. They may also notice the scope and depth of pursuing a meaningful life as compared to the self-centered pursuit of personal happiness.
There is now an increasing realization that shallow happiness and financial success cannot fill our inner emptiness or void if we ignore our deeper needs for meaning and spirituality (Haybron, 2014; Smith, 2013).
– Excerpt from “A Meaning-Centered Approach to Overcoming Loneliness During Hospitalization, Old Age, and Dying,” by Paul T.P. Wong in Addressing Loneliness, page 178.
Carter, B. (1995). Focusing your wide-angle lens. The Family Therapy Networker, 19(6), 31-35.
Feldman, C. (2003). Silence. Berkeley, CA: Rodmell Press.
Lewis, T., Amini, F., & Lannon, R. (2000). A general theory of love. New York, NY: Random House.
Kraut, R., Patterson, M., Lundmark, V., Kiesler, S., Mukopadhyay, T., & Scherlis, W. (1998). Internet paradox: A social technology that reduces social involvement and psychological well-being? American Psychologist, 53(9), 1017-1031.
McPherson, M., Smith-Lovin, L., & Brashears, M.E. (2006). Social isolation in America: changes in core discussion networks over two decades. American Sociological Review, 71(3), 353-375.
Mahler, R. (2003). Stillness: Daily gifts of solitude. York Beach, ME: RedWheel/Weiser, LLC.
Merton, T. (2003). New seeds of contemplation. Boston: Shambhala Press.
Mijuskovic, (1979-1980). Loneliness and narcissism. Psychoanalytic Review, 66(4), 479-492.
Pappano, L. (2001) The connection gap: Why Americans feel so alone. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Parse, R.R. (2007). The human becoming school of thought in 2050. Nursing Science Quarterly, 20, 308-311.
Rader, N. (1960). A modern book of aesthetics. New York: Holt, Rhinehart and Winston.
Stivers, R. (2004) Shades of loneliness: Pathologies of a technological society. New York: Rowman & Littlefield.
Coping, Prevention and Clinical Interventions
Edited by Ami Sha’ked & Ami Rokach
Published by Routledge
14th July 2015 | 268pp | Hb: 978-1-13-802621-6