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Loneliness is an emotional state in which a person experiences a powerful feeling of emptiness and isolation. Loneliness is more than just the feeling of wanting company or wanting to do something with another person. Loneliness is a feeling of being cut off, disconnected, and/or alienated from other people, so that it feels difficult or even impossible to have any form of meaningful human contact. Lonely people often feel empty or hollow inside. Feelings of separation or isolation from the world are common amongst those that are lonely.
Loneliness should not be equated with being alone. Everyone has times when they are alone for situational reasons, or because they have chosen to be alone. Being alone can be experienced as positive, pleasurable, and emotionally nourishing if it is under the individual's control. Solitude is the state of being alone and secluded from other people, and often implies having made a conscious choice to be alone.
Distinction from solitude
- See also: Loner
Loneliness is not the same as being alone. Many people have times when they are alone through circumstances or choice. Being alone can be experienced as positive, pleasurable, and emotionally refreshing if it is under the individual's control. Solitude is the state of being alone and secluded from other people, and often implies having made a conscious choice to be alone. Loneliness is therefore unwanted solitude. Loneliness does not require aloneness and is often experienced even in crowded places. It can be described as the absence of identification, understanding or compassion.
In their growth as individuals, humans start a separation process at birth, which continues with growing independence towards adulthood. As such, feeling alone can be a healthy emotion and, indeed, choosing to be alone for a period of solitude can be enriching[How to reference and link to summary or text]. To experience loneliness, however, can be to feel overwhelmed by an unbearable feeling of separateness at a profound level. This can manifest in feelings of abandonment, rejection, depression, insecurity, anxiety, hopelessness, unworthiness, meaninglessness, and resentment. If these feelings are prolonged they may become debilitating and prevent the affected individual from developing healthy relationships and lifestyles. If the individual is convinced he or she is unlovable, this will increase the experience of suffering and the likelihood of avoiding social contact. Low self-esteem will often trigger the social disconnection which can lead to loneliness.
People can experience loneliness for many reasons. The first experience of loneliness for most people is the first time they are left to themselves as a baby. If none of the child's actions will lead to the presence of a carer, the experience of loneliness has been established. Moreover, this experience is then connected to a feeling of being helpless.
All kinds of life events seem to be related to loneliness. Loneliness is a very common response to divorce or the breakup of any important long-term relationship. Loneliness can be a response to a specific situation or event, such as the death or extended absence of a loved one. Loneliness may also occur after the birth of a child, after marriage or after any minor or major life event.
Loneliness, perhaps ironically, occurs frequently in heavily populated cities; in these cities many people feel utterly alone and cut-off, even when surrounded by thousands or even millions of other people.
Loneliness can also result from low self-esteem or from being valued for shallow external reasons that have little or no connection to the person inside.
Some say that loneliness has become a major problem of modern times. At the beginning of the last century families were typically larger, and very few people lived alone. Today however, the trend has reversed direction: over a quarter of the U.S. population lived alone in 1998. In 1995, 24 million Americans lived in single-person households; by 2010, it is estimated that number will have increased to around 31 million.
It's not just a problem of more people living alone. Familial connections are much more tenuous than they used to be. Nowadays, it is not at all unusual for family members to be separated by hundreds or even thousands of miles.
Learning to cope with these changes in life patterns is essential in overcoming loneliness.
Loneliness as the Human Condition?
Some existentialist philosophy views aloneness as the essence of being human. Each human being comes into the world alone, travels through life as a separate person, and ultimately dies alone. Coping with this, accepting it, and learning how to direct our own lives with some degree of grace and satisfaction is the human condition.
However, other existentialist thinkers argue the opposite. Human beings might be said to actively "engage" each other and the universe as they communicate and create, and loneliness is merely the feeling of being cut off from this process.
Effects of Loneliness
Chronic loneliness (as opposed to the normal loneliness everyone feels from time to time) is a serious, life-threatening condition. It is a major risk factor in artery erosion, high blood pressure, and stress-related conditions such as heart disease, hypertension, and stroke.
Loneliness can play a part in alcoholism, and in children a lack of social connections is directly linked to several forms of antisocial and self-destructive behavior, most notably leaving school early (dropping out), along with hostile and delinquent behavior. In both children and adults, loneliness often has a negative impact on learning and memory. It can have a devastating effect on sleep patterns, and thus on the ability to function in everyday life.
Various studies have revealed that loneliness is implicated in a wide range of medical problems, some of which may not be symptomatic for years. One particularly remarkable finding, from a survey conducted by John Cacioppo who is a psychologist at the University of Chicago, is that doctors say they provide better medical care to patients who have a strong network of family and friends than they do to patients who are alone.
Among many other negative effects of loneliness, one of the most important is depression.
It is often posited that loneliness is "the only disease that can be cured by adding two or more cases together."
Often, people mitigate loneliness by interacting with others via the Internet. However, it is widely believed that purely online relationships are no substitute for in-person relationships, an opinion based at least partially on the fact that a person's true identity is very difficult to determine on the Internet.
To the extent that loneliness is caused by depression, it may be helped by similar treatments, such as various forms of psychotherapy, pharmacotherapy (anti-depressant medications), or both.
Another treatment for both loneliness and depression is pet therapy, or animal-assisted therapy, as it is more formally known. Some studies and surveys, as well as anecdotal evidence provided by volunteer and community organizations, indicate that the presence of animal companions -- dogs, cats, and even rabbits or guinea pigs -- can ease feelings of depression and loneliness among elderly people in nursing homes, for example. According to the Centers for Disease Control, there are a number of health benefits associated with pet ownership: In addition to easing feelings of loneliness (because of the increased opportunities for socializing with other pet owners, in addition to the companionship the animal provides), having a pet is associated with lowered blood pressure and decreased levels of cholesterol and triglycerides.
- University of Florida Counseling Center, "How to Deal with Loneliness," based on an audiotape script developed by the University of Texas, Austin. 
- Meysa Maleki, "Loneliness," Counselling and Learning Skills Services, University of Toronto. 
- The Pfizer Journal: Perspectives on Health Care and Biomedical Research, "Loneliness and Isolation: Modern Health Risks." 
- Hara Estroff Marano, "The Dangers of Loneliness," Psychology Today, August 21, 2003. 
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