Over the last twenty years, more and more studies measuring the effect of loneliness suggest it is an important public health
concern. For example, there is evidence that the risk of developing and dying from heart disease can depend on the strength of
one’s social network of friends and family, and that being recently widowed can increase one’s odds of dying. And for people
with Alzheimer’s, even at more severe levels of the disease, cognitive function remains higher in those who have larger social
After offering some examples of loneliness, this article touches on some emerging themes and issue, such as problems of defining
the multidimensional nature of loneliness, some of the evidence that is driving its rising profile as a public health concern, how it
differs from solitude, and lastly itemizes suggestions about how to overcome and cope with it.
Examples of Loneliness
Most of us at some point in our lives have experienced loneliness. For some it’s temporary, perhaps triggered by particular events
or transitions, while for others, it seems to be a permanent fact of life.
Ever since his wife died, just two weeks after their 60th anniversary, 84-year-old Bert has been practically housebound. If asked,
he says “Oh, I’m OK, a neighbour pops in now and again, and kindly helps with shopping”. He cleans the house and makes his
own ready meals in the microwave. But lying in bed at night, or when he sees her hairbrush on the dressing table, or looks up
from reading the newspaper ready to share a thought, he is overwhelmed with emptiness.
Joan is 19 and half way through her first year at university. “Everyone says their years at university were the best time of their
life, they made lots of friends, went to parties. But for me, it’s not like that. I am quite shy and find it hard to mix. I feel lonely
and apart. I hardly see my housemates.”
These two examples describe how loneliness can arise from either the loss of connection to others, or being unable to form new
Emily White, author of the book “Lonely: Learning to Live with Solitude”, also gives examples in her blog of how certain times of year can intensify loneliness:
“Thanksgiving can be a lonely time. Or, more accurately, the notion of everyone else getting together with loved ones can bring
loneliness raging to the fore, leaving you feeling marginalized, isolated, and suffocating with feelings of disconnection.”
However, she is also critical of society and media’s role in marginalizing aloneness:
“Valentine’s seems to have emerged not just as a day to celebrate all things romantic, it’s become a day of getting hysterical about
the risks associated with loneliness.”
Perhaps one of the most widely cited literary examples of loneliness are to be found in the 20th century novel “Of Mice and
Men” by Nobel Prize-winning American author John Steinbeck who recounts the poignant tale of George Milton and Lennie
Small, two migrant field workers caught up in the Great Depression in California, who struggle to find their place in the world,
and through their itinerant life, come across people with similar struggles of their own.
Most of the plot unfolds on one ranch, where George and Lennie meet characters like Crooks, a black worker who lives in
enforced solitude, Candy, an older man whose only friend is an ancient dog, and a pathetic young woman who is merely referred
to as “Curley’s wife”.
The only thing that keep these characters going is their dream of escaping to a better life. George a cynical, intelligent man, is not
lonely for most of the story, but becomes lonely when he loses his best and only friend, Lennie, a big, physically strong and
mentally disabled man who comes across as too innocent to fear loneliness, although he shares George’s dream of buying a little
plot of land where they can keep their own animals and be their own bosses, and is quick to anger when Crooks suggests George might abandon him.
Crooks is a black stable hand with a crooked back who, because of the colour of his skin, is forced to live in solitude, away from
the other men. He has an abrasive sense of humour, and comes across as bitter and proud. He wants to be friends with Lennie
and proposes he come and live with him and George and hoe the garden when they get their plot of land, but he also taunts
Lennie with tales of men he has seen come and go with empty dreams about owning their own plot of land.
Curley’s wife is bored and lonely and dreams of becoming a film star: although she is married, her husband doesn’t love her and
she doesn’t love him, and being the only woman on the ranch, she tries to make friends with the working men. Candy is an aging
worker with an old dog that gets shot by another ranch hand in a supposed act of mercy that Candy thinks he probably should
have done earlier but kept putting off, fearing the loss of his only companion. He worries about being lonely in old age, and
persuades George and Lennie to let him join their plan of buying their plot of land, which could be made possible because he has
Over what is only a short episode in the lives of these characters, Steinbeck skilfully portrays various aspects of loneliness, a
condition that an increasing body of scientific and medical literature is also beginning to see as having many dimensions.
Solitude, where people voluntarily enter into a state of being alone, is not the same as loneliness, which is more about “finding
oneself” alone, or as Booth describes it, as a state where people feel “desperately lonely for reasons even they may not fully understand”.
Voluntary solitude can be a healthy antidote to living in a world full of noise, an opportunity to retreat from the “busy-ness” of
interactions that characterize modern life.
In his book “Solitude: A Return to the Self”, Anthony Storr, a practising psychiatrist and Oxford scholar, emphasizes the link
between solitude and creativity, and solitude and “profound and healing psychological experiences”, which take place inside the
person, and are only distantly related to being connected with others.
Storr challenges the idea that human relationships are the “touchstone of health and happiness”. He supports the idea that what
goes on in the mind of the individual when he or she is alone, especially when the imagination is engaged, is equally important to
those who are capable of creative achievement.
Storr suggests that creative endeavours are traditionally defined in terms of what supports the community, but this is misleading,
and overlooks those fields and interests that are necessarily individual pursuits.
Childhood loss and bereavement, depression and “repair”, have shaped temperaments in adulthood that have led to some of the
greatest poetry ever written, and he gives some English poets as examples.
And in old age, which Storr designates the “Third Period” of life, there is a natural waning of emotional dependence on others and
a shift of focus to internal concerns, again resulting in creativity, and he cites composers and novelists as examples.
Booth agrees, and says solitude may “be sought for deep growth experiences such as meditation, visualization,
listening to music, and other forms of ‘doing nothing’ “.
Another point that Booth makes is that you can still be lonely and have lots of connections with others. It is the quality of those
connections that matter: “some lonely people have sufficient interactional networks and are, nonetheless, lonely because they are
dissatisfied with those networks”.
This is like another idea that is being increasingly questioned: that people who are single are lonely compared to people who are
A study by psychologists from Lafayette College and the University of Miami shows that single people over 40 who have never
married can be just as resilient as their married peers. The study challenges the idea that marriage is always best for your
Lead author Jamila Bookwala, associate professor of psychology at Lafayette, said in a statement reported by Newsweek in
December 2009 that:
“When single people feel control over their lives and can rely on themselves, they can have especially high levels of
But the married people who reported being very self-sufficient weren’t necessarily happy about it, whearas the single people on
average, felt relatively happy about it, she said.
Bella DePaulo, a visiting professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara, who wrote the book “Singled Out: How
Singles are Stereotyped, Stigmatized and Ignored and Still Live Happily Ever After”, told Newsweek that:
“I think that it’s finally coming into our understanding that single life has changed and that it’s possible to live a complete,
satisfying life as a single person”.
It also seems that a problem with the early research on singletons was that they were often grouped together with widowed and
Dealing with Loneliness
So, if we find ourselves in a state of loneliness, and we know it is not “voluntary solitude”, what can we do about it?
The UK mental health charity MIND, offers these suggestions for overcoming loneliness, which they say is possible if you are
really determined to work at it:
Be prepared to give it time and energy, for instance to thinking about the reasons for it and the positive steps you can
Learn to be alone and relaxed in your own company: focus on who you really are and what you want to do. This may
involve facing some difficult feelings, which are maybe the reason you keep seeking the company of others.
Learning to face yourself may change how you relate to others: for example, it may lead to less “hunger” after relationships,
and more ability to give.
Learn to be with others: for instance, learn how to say “no”, set boundaries in relationships, and express your feelings, wants
and needs. Assertiveness and social skills training can be helpful.
Don’t make big changes: try things one small step at a time and don’t get intensely involved with one person.
Try small interactions first: strike up a light conversation with a shopkeeper, or a person on the bus.
Join a local interest group, or start a class on a topic you enjoy.
Volunteer for something.
They also suggest that talking to a counsellor or psychotherapist might be a safe way to explore and understand problems, and
find the courage and support to deal with situations that feel defeating. Such talking therapies can help people for the first time
build self-acceptance and confidence, and from there find out that relating to others can be enjoyable and satisfying.
And if none of these suggestions seem to fit what you are looking for, don’t despair, because as Emily White says in her blog,
despite some attempts by the media to portray loneliness as “some sort of freakish, dangerous disease state”, it’s not. Loneliness,
says White, is “part of being human”:
“It’s what some of us came into the world with a predisposition for. It’s something we have to manage and struggle our way
through, but not anything to become alarmed by”.
She says there is no need to be silent about loneliness, and the shame and self-blame it creates.
“There’s nothing wrong with loneliness, and we need to start acknowledging this through a wider and more open discussion of the
state,” she adds.
Sources: Ray Hainer, “Loneliness Hurts the Heart”, health.com, 21 Jun 2009; Jaap Spreeuw and Xu Wang, “Modelling
the short-term dependence between two remaining lifetimes”, actuaries.org.uk 27 March 2008; D A Bennett et al, “The
effect of social networks on the relation between Alzheimer’s disease pathology and level of cognitive function in old people: a
longitudinal cohort study”, Lancet Neurology May 2006; Emily White’s blog, www.lonelythebook.com/loneliness-blog/;
John Steinbeck, “Of Mice and Men”, Penguin Modern Classic 1993, Kindle edition; Jennifer Senior “Alone Together: Is Urban
Loneliness a Myth”, New York Magazine, 23 Nov 2008; James Lynch “A Cry Unheard: New Insights into the Medical
Consequences of Loneliness”, Bancroft Press, June 2000; Victoria Stern, “Loneliness May Lead to Serious Illness, including
Cancer”, Scientific American, 29 May 2008; “The reason loneliness could be bad for your health”, The Economist, 24
Feb 2011; US Census Bureau “Families and Living Arrangements: 2005”; Age Concern, 2008 “Being socially excluded and living
alone in old age. Findings from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA).”; Rosemary Bennett and Mary Bowers,
“Loneliness: the silent epidemic sweeping through Britain”, The Times, 31 December 2009;
http://scienceofloneliness.com; MIND.org.uk (website page: Diagnoses and conditions: Loneliness); Richard Booth “Loneliness
as a Component of Psychiatric Disorders”. Medscape General Medicine 2(2), 2000; Kenneth M. Cramer and Joanne E.
Barry, “Conceptualizations and measures of loneliness: a comparison of subscales”, Personality and Individual
Differences, 27 (3), Sep 1999; Anthony Storr, “Solitude: A Return to the Self”, HarperCollins, 1989; “Single and Loving It,
Even During the Holidays”, Newsweek, 22 Dec 2009.
Written by: Catharine Paddock, PhD