Many people commonly associate it with old age, during a time in life when friends and companions have passed on and family members seem to have forgotten them. Developmental psychologists contend that it’s most common among adolescents who are attempting to form their own identity and have trouble differentiating from family and friends. Yet, if we are honest, it’s an experience that happens throughout life. For some it’s more pronounced. For others it is episodic. It may be more common in the midst of transitions. Or it may characterize long periods of one’s life. No matter how or when we encounter it, loneliness is a difficult experience for most people.
Loneliness is a complex and often an unpleasant experience of isolation. Sometimes, it’s associated with anxiety. Sometimes, it’s more of a dull, empty feeling or a sense of hollowness inside of oneself. Loneliness may be a familiar experience, but it’s hardly a welcome one.
Loneliness isn’t about the experience of being alone. A person can be alone, by oneself, and experience deep and meaningful connection. That’s the experience of solitude. I remember a colleague from years ago who would say, “Solitude is the experience of being all-one rather than being alone.” There’s something true about that play on words. Loneliness can be experienced in the midst of a group or even a crowd. Loneliness is about a sense of disconnection from others or things that could be meaningful.
Research on loneliness has shown that loneliness is not something imaginary but something to take seriously. The effect of loneliness on the brain is similar to the experience of physical pain and leads to elevated levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. Loneliness prevents a person from achieving sound sleep, which in turn can lead to a difficulty maintaining focus and stamina. Overtime, loneliness can increase a person’s risk for dementia or lead to heart inflammation. Loneliness has a negative impact for a person’s mental health, physical well-being, and spiritual life. Loneliness is a clear indication that something is not right.
In simple terms, the resolution of loneliness is the experience of connection. Human connections include physical touch, spending time with a trusted friend, or the experience of unity with something beyond ourselves found in prayer or spiritual practice. The experience of connection brings us back to a sense of calm and wholeness.
I believe that part of what makes loneliness particularly difficult is that people just don’t talk about it. Or, if we talk about, the experience is minimized and the lonely person is generally told to just get over it. By diminishing the value of a person’s experience of loneliness, the actual experience of isolation and disconnection from others is increased. In other words, a person just experiences deeper loneliness when they are told to not take it seriously.
Given the seriousness of the experience of loneliness, I was happy to run into a book by one of my colleagues in England, Eva McIntyre. Eva is the author of a delightful children’s book called, Where Is Lonely? The book tells the story of a child who meets an unlikely character, Lonely. Lonely has become irritable and grumpy because of loneliness. Yet, the little girl engages Lonely and in her determination makes a simple yet sweet connection with Lonely. In the process, a warm-hearted lesson is provided to children about the experience of loneliness and making connections with others.
Perhaps if more of us were given better examples earlier in life to live with the varieties of emotional experience we share, we would be happier and healthier people. I’d like to think that’s possible. Children’s books like Where Is Lonely? provide a way to teach lessons about emotions and human relationships as part of growing up and maturing.
For those of us not likely to read children’s books for ourselves, I think it’s helpful to honestly admit the experience of loneliness to ourselves and as well as to a trusted friend. Consider the ways you can make a connection with someone or something during times of loneliness. For your well-being, loneliness should be taken seriously.
© 2015, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.