The epidemic of loneliness is a powerful symptom of how modernity offends human nature. But do we understand what loneliness is?
On Tuesday we hosted John Cacioppo who has worked with colleagues across a number of US universities to develop a comprehensive understanding of the phenomenon of loneliness. These are the main points I took out of John’s book (co-authored with William Patrick) and his lecture to the RSA:
• There is a loneliness epidemic. The US states with the lowest proportions of people living alone are now higher than were the areas with the highest proportions a generation ago. In a twenty year period the average answer to the question 'how many close confidants do you feel you have?' has gone from nearly four to zero.
• Loneliness is associated with (in fact, it seems to cause) a wide range of pathologies including depression and ill-health.
• Loneliness is primarily subjective. Married people with lots of friends can be lonely. Some people can cope with solitariness much better than others. However, psychological and social processes mean that the subjective feeling of loneliness can lead people to become socially isolated.
• Loneliness is a useful emotion. It is hard wired into us; in prehistoric society it was dangerous to be alone, especially at night. Loneliness is like pain, a signal that there is something wrong to which we need to attend.
• We need to ask whether loneliness is a price worth paying for certain aspects of modernity and we each need to understand loneliness, its purpose, how to recognise it and how to stop it becoming chronic.
Watch the lecture, or even better buy the book. You will find yourself wanting to tell your friends about it, or maybe even make friends so you can tell them about it!