Why I Don't Believe Loneliness Is an 'Epidemic' That Needs to Be Solved
The past few years have seen podcasts, magazine articles and books about the problem of loneliness in our society. Now former Surgeon General of the United States, Vivek Murthy, has written a piece for Harvard Business Review about the perils of loneliness, especially as it relates to the workplace.
I won’t take up the thrust of Murthy’s argument in the use of the workplace in handling loneliness. However, I do find reason to offer a critique of his notion that loneliness is a problem that needs solved.
To the contrary, my experiences with loneliness have solidified my self-reliance. They have also given me strength and caused me to appreciate the relationships I have. While it seemed unbearable at times, I would go through it again as it taught me much about myself.
Studies show there are health risks associated with loneliness and I don’t doubt that. I also won’t deny the importance of human connection.
Similarly, I don’t deny the problems of loneliness for the elderly and ill. I live in a building with many senior citizens and am concerned for their health and well-being. Last year my neighbor fell and was on the floor of his apartment for over a day. I am thankful he had a connection to a friend with whom he speaks on a regular basis and who noticed he hadn’t heard from my neighbor.
Murthy strikes a different tone with loneliness. He states: “…to truly solve loneliness requires the engagement of institutions where people spend the bulk of their time: families, schools, social organizations and the workplace.”
But why is loneliness a problem to solve? In labeling loneliness as such, it suggests it’s wrong. Doing so can only create feelings of guilt when individuals seek bonds but don’t find them. I would argue the existentialist view is correct: loneliness is inherent in all our lives from the time we are born until the time we die. Some may see that as sad and depressing, but as Michele Carter wrote, loneliness is “an ineliminable feature of our species.”
It’s likely the issue is more in how we see loneliness itself. As one article stated, “…studies have shown that lonely people have incorrect assumptions about themselves and about how other people perceive them.” Coping skills found in cognitive behavioral therapy can help us accept loneliness as part of the human experience. We could also learn to readjust our assumptions about ourselves and others.
I write about all of this from a great amount of personal experience. After completing graduate school in 2005 I took a job at a university library for 10 months. This school was home to brilliant professors and undergraduates who came from prestigious backgrounds. Meanwhile, much of the library staff were locals, many without a college education. I found myself unable to identify with either group.
I worked afternoons and evenings in the basement, growing despondent with my lack of immediate friendships. There was a protracted suffocation that came with the work. These items weren’t listed on the job description. A darkened basement, relative silence, interactions with people the likes of whom I tried to relate but failed. (Was it me? Was it them? I never found an answer, but did find guilt for thinking if I only did a little better, I could find bonds.)
That was me, desperate for connections and friends that were few and far between. The most immediate ones were shallow and meaningless — a few random souls whose names I can no longer remember.
At the end of that school year I moved to Seattle. I had friends there and knew its vibe matched the excitement I wanted. I packed all my belongings into my black Toyota Corolla and made a clean break with my miserable loneliness.
Yet in hindsight it was in those months I found myself. When one is at their loneliest — and ensconced in depression — all the following experiences are delicious riches.
Those 10 months showed me the importance of reaching out to the friends I do have scattered all around the world. That time also revealed to me the strength I have to handle life on my own. I did what I had to survive: took up writing projects, walked a lot, read, did yoga and watched movies. The sadness did not crush me. The loneliness did not make me despair forever. And through that time I began to learn the coping skills I might need should the loneliness come again (and it did).
Today I have a fortitude for being alone. I’ve been in a relationship for many years and love my partner. Yet I’m also comfortable with feeling disconnected from friends and family to the point of, at times, being uncomfortable.
It was not easy but the tie I forged with myself that year is amongst the most important I will ever know. Thus, loneliness isn’t, as Murthy would suggest, entirely an epidemic that needs solved. Rather it is for many of us a lived experience from which we can learn a great deal about ourselves.
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