In 2017, then British prime minister Theresa May appointed Tracey Crouch to the newly created position of Minister for Sport, Civil Society and Loneliness. Crouch became the head of an interdepartmental working group, whose recommendations included advice to GPs, non-governmental organizations and postmen. Among their social prescriptions, as Ralph Leonard has detailed, were “cookery classes, walking clubs and art groups … to help tackle the feeling of isolation.”
Karl Lauterbach, a health expert in Germany’s SPD party, has also called for the appointment of a commissioner for loneliness, preferably within the Ministry of Health. In this, he was joined by Markus Weinberg, from the CDU party. US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has also declared an “epidemic of loneliness.”
Scientists at the Brain Dynamics Laboratory of the University of Chicago have recently began work on an anti-loneliness pill, which will use pregnenolone, a neurosteroid formed from cholesterol, to reduce or even eliminate the feeling of loneliness. Scientists at the University of Sydney are testing a synthetic particle called SOC-1, which causes a fall in oxytocin levels and increases willingness to make social contacts. Scientists at the University of California are researching the use of beta-blockers to reduce the stress caused by loneliness.
But, despite these efforts, loneliness remains an elusive phenomenon. Complete isolation—of the kind attempted by Christopher McCandless, who gave up everything to live alone, as retold in the book Into the Wild—is hard to achieve. In searching for the essence of loneliness in the dissertations of intellectuals who have probably never experienced it, we find only simpering accounts, similar to the fallacious tales of tourists who have paid to stay on a desert island or in a monastery for several weeks, and now brag about this achievement to their friends and tart it up with smartphone photos. By vicariously participating in loneliness, we destroy its meaning.
We inherited our fear of loneliness from our ancestors, for whom life beyond the group was dangerous. Recluses were too likely to become prey for them to successfully pass on their genes very often. The company of others, then, is almost as basic a human need as food or shelter.
We fear loneliness, but we also admire it. There is no contradiction in this. Our admiration for those who single-handedly sail around the world, climb the most difficult mountains, trek across vast deserts or accomplish other improbable exploits has its source precisely in our fear of loneliness. The self-imposed solo struggle against the forces of nature seems almost superhuman to us.
Extreme fear of being alone—monophobia—is a disorder that paralyses normal functioning. Sufferers are incapable of functioning on their own. Deprived of company, they experience panic attacks and may be gripped by a fear of death.
Western society has declared war on loneliness—a war it is unlikely to win. As in every war, many of the actions taken are acts of propaganda whose main aim is to demonize the enemy. For the purposes of propaganda, social scientists deliver the figures that are expected from them: an enormous amount of correlational data that says nothing about cause and effect, with over-simplified research results based on self-reporting that trivialize the phenomenon.
The success of this propaganda is such that everyone now believes in the existence of an epidemic of loneliness. Some even draw a certain satisfaction from the conviction of being on the right side in fighting this epidemic.
But, if we examine the figures carefully, it turns out that the increase in elderly people living alone is down to the simple fact that the number of elderly people in general has increased globally and will doubtless continue to rise, if only because medical progress and increases in welfare services are extending life expectancy. The percentage of elderly people who live alone varies between 5% and 15%, just as it did ten years ago.
Most articles on loneliness shock their readers by citing a few scientific articles on the rising loneliness, our changing perception of loneliness throughout life and correlations with various health indicators, but it’s difficult to find data comparing the state of affairs several decades ago with the present-day situation.
When we carefully examine a headline like “Loneliness Is as Lethal as Smoking 15 Cigarettes per Day,” we find that the data behind it comes from a report by Jo Cox, who cites a meta-analysis published by Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Timothy B. Smith and J. Bradley Layton. The comparison between loneliness and smoking is nowhere to be found in the report. It shows that loneliness is linked to a 26% annual rise in the risk of death—only half that caused by an increase in smoking from one to four cigarettes a day. However, this did not stop the journalists of the New York Times from disseminating this false information.
The word loneliness, as used in the media, also embraces the concept of social isolation: a situation in which we are deprived of social contact with others. But loneliness can also mean voluntary isolation or it can imply the feeling of a lack of connection, despite a rich social life. Sometimes, the word lonely is used to describe those who do not have a romantic partner. Of these meanings, social isolation is the one that we find most threatening.
Most research into loneliness does not look at actual social isolation, however but at a feeling. As a result, somebody who on the day she was questioned did not receive a single like on Facebook might say that she is very lonely—as might somebody who has not had close contact with anybody else for a couple of weeks. The findings of such surveys can therefore be completely at odds with the initial statements relating to the effect of loneliness on health and longevity. For example, since 2012, Denmark’s inhabitants have counted as one of the happiest and longest lived populations in the world, according to UN research, but they also have one of the highest percentages of lonely people in Europe: 30% according to Keming Yang’s book Loneliness: A Social Problem.
All this data charts correlation, not causation. The fact that lonely people often live shorter lives does not necessarily mean that loneliness affects health. Perhaps people with poor health have less energy and fewer resources to make and maintain contact with others or perhaps others wear them out. Perhaps they die earlier because of their poor health—not because of loneliness, which may be a consequence—not a cause—of illness.
The opposite of loneliness is too many relationships: especially disadvantageous one. Too much intense contact with others can lead to serious health problems and—in many species of animals—also to death. Biologists attribute this phenomenon to intraspecific competition.
Some people also suffer from professional burn-out: especially those, such as teachers, educators, social workers, psychologists, doctors, bus drivers, nurses and customer service personnel, who have an excessive number of social contacts. An effective medicine for burn-out syndrome is to take up a job that involves fewer relationships.
Bad relationships have a particularly negative effect on health. Other people are the cause of the strongest negative emotions that we experience. It is they who cheat and disappoint us. Today’s external environment poses no threats comparable to the dangers caused by what other people can do to us. Jean Paul Sartre was right: “Hell is other people.”
In 2019, Philip Hayland’s team at Trinity College Dublin researched 1,839 adult Americans between the ages of 18 and 70 and found that the quality of their relationships had a far greater influence on their mental health than their number. The mental health of those with many toxic relationships turned out to be far worse than that of those with very few relationships altogether—those whom we generally call loners. Other research has shown that the risk of heart disease increases considerably for women in bad marriages and arterial hypertension is more frequent among couples who assess their marriage negatively. Further research has shown that single people who considered conflict avoidance to be important felt at least as happy as partnered people. Research has also shown that negative relationships with others can have a decidedly deleterious effect on health.
This data is also merely correlational and we should not therefore conclude that loneliness protects against hypertension, say. But this research should give us pause.
Research has shown that loneliness improves concentration and cognitive functions and is conducive to self-development, identity consolidation and heightened creative processes. This is probably why some of the most famous writers have been hardened recluses.
The heroine of one of Bohumil Hrabal’s stories relates that her father liked the company of intelligent people—that’s why he spent most of his time alone. This somewhat misanthropic insight is backed up by research. In 2016, evolutionary psychologists Satoshi Kanazawa and Norman Li asked 15,000 people how they spent their free time. It turned out that intelligent people often preferred loneliness to company. There are several possible explanations for this. Perhaps intelligent people perceive that the evolutionary fear of loneliness has no justification in the present day and have freed themselves from its influence. Or perhaps spending time with family and friends often conflicts with their life goals and may therefore seem like a waste of time. Or perhaps the highly intelligent are averse to company because they have only a small chance of meeting somebody equally intelligent and those who are less clever usually annoy them.
An even more complex picture emerges from The Handbook of Solitude. Psychologists Robert J. Coplan and Julie C. Bowker invited more than 60 scientists to participate in its compilation. These scientists were researching loneliness from psychological, sociological, neuropsychological, neurobiological, developmental and clinical perspectives, and examining the phenomenon at various stages of life and in various environments and contexts. The authors emphasise that loneliness can help us gain insight into ourselves, can have therapeutic effects and can help us deal with political and social pressures. One of their most paradoxical conclusions is that those who have experienced loneliness are able to form better and more lasting relationships than those who have not. Thus, ironically, loneliness can immunize us against future social isolation.
So, we are not facing an epidemic of loneliness, but of monophobia—a fear of loneliness—whose symptoms we incompetently treat by increasing and intensifying contact with others. Increasing longevity, changes to family models and other processes are causing an increase in the number of those who are socially isolated. Some of these changes greatly improve our quality of life: such as the fact that many of us can afford our own apartments, which was unthinkable half a century ago. As Ralph Leonard notes:
For the first time in human history, increasing numbers of people are living on their own and settling for singledom. The number of single-person households in Britain has risen by 16% to 7.7 million over the two decades from 1997 to 2017 … Similarly, in the United States, there are 35.7 million single-person households, comprising 28% of all households. In 1960, single-person households represented only 13% of all households.
The number of single-person households in the UK is projected to hit 10.7 million by 2039, according to recent data from the Office for National Statistics. No Minister of Loneliness can change that.
Our problem is not loneliness but a lack of ability to cope with being alone. A sensible therapist treating a patient for monophobia should not try to help him find company, but teach him how to cope with the lack of other people in his life. Battling loneliness by intensifying his contacts with others will weaken his organism and deprive him of the resilience that might ensure that he learns to cope with loneliness, rather than trying to stifle it by switching on the radio, television, Facebook or other sources of cheap fodder for the brain.
There is a place for loneliness and for the joy of being alone. A world without social isolation is a utopia—and not even a desirable one.