Episode 1. The Anatomy of Loneliness
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Loneliness. When we experience it, it’s as though we’re the only one on the planet that’s lonely. I guess that’s the definition of it because we feel all alone. But the truth is, that …
Loneliness. When we experience it, it’s as though we’re the only one on the planet that’s lonely. I guess that’s the definition of it because we feel all alone. But the truth is, that loneliness is a global pandemic. And it’s time we did something about it.
I was doing some research the other day on world populations. And discovered that the current world population is just a tad under six and a half billion (6.5 billion). Every second that ticks by sees that number grow by another 2.3 people. So in one year from now, there will be an additional 75 million people added to our number. By 2050, they’re saying there should be around 9.2 billion of us.
The most populous nation in the world is China, with just over 1.3 billion people. But what’s the least populous nation? It’s the Pitcairn Islands, and it has exactly forty-five (45) people in it. Amazing!
Yet, with the world population that’s never been higher, loneliness is running at epidemic proportions. There have never in all history been more people on the planet. Yet, as people we have never been more lonely. Doesn’t that strike you as odd?
My hunch is that it’s just as easy to feel lonely in China surrounded by 1.3 billion people, as it is to feel lonely in the Pitcairn Islands surrounded by just another forty-four (44) people. Why is that?
Well, it’s important for us to understand that loneliness is different to being alone. We all choose to have some time alone. One of the things I love to do on the weekend, is just read the paper over a cup of tea or coffee on Saturday morning. And you know something? As much as I love my darling wife and my beautiful daughter, I love to do that on my own.
So being alone is not loneliness. Loneliness is that feeling of being alone and being sad about it. It’s like a painful awareness of a lack of meaningful contact with other people. You feel empty inside, it’s like there’s a hole in your chest. You can be utterly desolate and lonely in a crowd and yet, be delivered from that loneliness by just one person. That’s the China/Pitcairn Island’s thing.
In the developed world, single person households have increased from 10% of all households in 1950 to around 30% today. So almost one in three households that you drive past or walk past only have one person living in them. The Boston Globe reports that 36% of people, over one-third, feel lonely. But have a listen to the impact, the statistical impact, of loneliness.
People who are isolated by health are twice as likely to die over a period of a decade as those who are not isolated. A study showed that the more isolated men are up to 25% more likely to die of all causes, at any age, versus non-isolated men. Isn’t that amazing? And the odds for women are up 33%.
Living alone after a heart attack significantly increases your risk of dying. People with heart disease have a poorer chance of survival if they are unmarried or don’t have a partner to assist them. Women who are alone and have breast cancer live half as long as those who do not.
What does that all tell us. What does that tell you?
Well, I think they’re compelling statistics and they point to a crisis of loneliness. Why are we so alone? I mean those figures tell us we need one another. We need other people around us. Being alone is a precursor to loneliness. Why? Well, the more money we have the more choices we have. Divorce rates are up for a whole range of reasons, but one of them is the fact that women can now be financially independent. They have a choice, whereas 50 or 60 years ago there was just no choice to divorce.
Single parents, well those numbers are up too, they have a choice to be single. In those circumstances, relationships become less enduring. The less we feel we desperately need each other for physical survival, well, the less enduring relationships become. Why not end a marriage? Why not terminate a long-term relationship?
You think of a subsistence farming community, I visited some not long ago in India. And what really struck me in the subsistence farming communities was people, by and large, people were well dressed; looked pretty happy, were pretty healthy even though they had very little. You go to the cities, however, where they don’t rely on each other in the same way to produce the food together so that they can survive, those people were not happy. They were not well connected. They were poorer.
And so there’s this amazing breakdown that’s happened over the last century as our economies have “developed” (I use that word in inverted commas!) where we tend to be far less connected. We use cars instead of public transport.
In the past, before people could read and write, we needed each other to learn. We needed each other to communicate; well we don’t anymore because we can read. We watch TV, we get isolated from one another. We use the internet.
A man who I really respect, a man by the name of Peter Webb, I heard him speaking at a conference once. I used to work with him in the Information Technology Industry. And he made the observation that every radical invention or development in communications technology has been designed to let us communicate from further and further away.
Just think about that for a minute; every invention in the communications industry has been designed to let us communicate from further and further away.
You think about it … before there were telephones and internet and satellites and all the stuff we have today, if you wanted to communicate with someone you had to see them face to face, or at least you had to be in earshot of one another. Then we invented letters and postal systems. Well, maybe it took two years for a letter to travel from England to Australia but it was an amazing invention. You could write and maybe months later someone would pick that up and read it, and you could communicate.
When two-way radio and telephone came along, all of a sudden you could talk to someone without the displeasure of having to look at their faces. Have you ever wondered why video-phones have never happened? Because we don’t want to see the person! We enjoy the fact we can talk without looking at them.
And now with email it’s even better because we can type something and tic-tac at different times of the day and night right round the world and be a long way apart and yet – communicate quickly.
And so the nature of our world is a slow downward spiral in community. It’s a gradual slide to isolation, punctuated by the odd critical life event, like divorce or death or retrenchment.
We have a misconception about loneliness. We think that being alone equals loneliness. I’m not alone therefore I shouldn’t be lonely. That’s simply not true. And sometimes we say, “Well it doesn’t effect me, I’m okay”. Are you? We often don’t use the label lonely but you stand back and you think about it, are you? If you go through a crisis like divorce and you see a happy couple enjoying each other, you feel lonely.
I heard the other day of a woman who was dying of cancer whose husband left her when she was in remission. And two of her best friends came over with their new baby and she said to them, “I don’t ever want to see you again, because I can’t bear to see you so happy.” And if it’s not a crisis, maybe it’s just a dull ache.
But stand back and really examine our hearts. Are we lonely?
Maybe, that guy’s right. Maybe, I am. Maybe, the pain and resentment and sadness I feel is because of no real connections.
Come on! If it hurts, are you lonely?
The rest of this week we’ll be looking at what to do about loneliness – from A Different Perspective. I really hope you can join me.