How it started, how it’s going: the origins of modern day loneliness

How it started, how it’s going: the origins of modern day loneliness

Chapter 81

Most of us have felt it. Whether the trigger is a Friday evening home alone, an unwitting scroll on social media or even a night at a party full of acquaintances, the odd pang of loneliness – however infrequent – is an increasingly unavoidable consequence of the modern age.

But what do we really mean when we say loneliness? Nowadays, we’re usually referring to a feeling of emptiness – a lack of emotional connection or a longing for social contact that leaves us dejected and uncomfortable. But that hasn’t always been the case. The word ‘lonely’ first came into use in the 1600s, when it was used to describe something as solitary in the most literal sense. For about 200 years, we used it primarily to refer to objects – think trees and clouds (as the famous poem goes) – rather than people.

It wasn’t until 1811 that lonely took on the meaning we’re familiar with today. Before then, living without others had been practically quite difficult. Lifestyles, living conditions and religious attitudes were such that people constantly existed in close proximity to each other. Solitude wasn’t a common state, and when it did happen, it was usually passing. But the nineteenth century pressed on, capitalism and securalism took hold and privacy became a luxury – something to pay for, to cherish, a marker of superiority.

How it started, how it’s going: the origins of modern day loneliness

Before the twentieth century, it’s thought that about five percent of households contained just one person. Fast forward to 2020, and that figure climbed to well over a quarter. Thanks to fast-growing urbanisation, rising divorce rates, longer lifespans and ever-increasing tech, living alone has become not just possible but normal in today’s society.

That in itself is no bad thing. Many of us thrive in solitude – relishing time to ourselves and enjoying space away from crowded social gatherings or workplaces. Today’s loneliness, however, is more than just the physical reality of being alone. You don’t need to be on your own to feel lonely, no more than you need to be surrounded by people to feel connected or contented. The loneliness we see dominating headlines, damaging the health of older and younger generations alike, and even precipitating the appointment of a Minister for Loneliness back in 2018 runs deeper, and its causes grow more complex as society evolves and shifts.

Right now, nine million people in the UK are battling loneliness. In England, 45 percent of adults feel occasionally, sometimes or often lonely – which equates to a staggering 25 million people. The projected cost of this sense of alienation to the UK economy amounts to £32 billion every year – and when you consider that the health impacts of feeling lonely are equal to smoking 15 cigarettes every day, you can begin to see why. Loneliness can increase the risk of mortality by 26 percent. It makes things like depression, anxiety, high blood pressure and heart disease more likely, with older people historically worse affected, but young people catching up fast.

How it started, how it’s going: the origins of modern day loneliness

So what is it about our modern ways of living that drives what’s arguably the second-biggest epidemic of a generation? There’s no one-size-fits-all answer, but alongside our growing tendency for solo dwelling, factors such as the rise of social media and our ageing population certainly have a part to play. Every case of loneliness is different, just as thoughts, emotions and experiences vary person to person. The feeling is often triggered by a life event – illness, financial problems, bereavement and redundancy to name just a few – but it’s the conditions we live in that seem to exacerbate it more than ever.

The escalating prevalence of social networks feels like an obvious place to start. Despite what its industry would tell you – that social media’s easy, algorithmically-enhanced connections help people forge stronger relationships – we know it’s not always that simple. Never before have we carried such tiny, always-on windows into the highly curated ‘best’ of other people’s lives in our pockets. We fill our spare moments with scrolling, making involuntary comparisons with others’ friendships, achievements and lifestyles.

The modern-day, social psychologist definition of loneliness delineates it as the gap between the social connections you’d like to have and those you actually feel you do have – a sense of longing that seems close to the social-media-born concept of ‘fomo’ that’s come about in the past decade. There’s also widespread acceptance of several different types of loneliness: the psychological (do I have a friend?); the existential (do I have a place in the universe?); and the societal (do people look forward to seeing me?). While social media can of course be a positive, productive tool for keeping in touch, it can’t come close to answering those questions in any robust way.

Social media’s danger lies in its ability to create the illusion of closeness, reality and connection, while in fact only providing fleeting simulations of those things. We know that its use becomes counterproductive as soon as it starts to replace interaction altogether – leaving users to fend for themselves in social media’s performance and status orientated spaces. Studies have shown that young adults who use social media heavily are twice as likely to experience social anxiety, and even gone as far as linking negative social media experiences to a marked increase in perceived isolation.

When the pandemic and all its accompanying lockdowns hit in 2020, loneliness took on a whole new collective significance. Unable to meet up physically, many of us relied heavily on technology to stay in touch – to keep our relationships alive and prevent deeper feelings of isolation taking hold. Loneliness skyrocketed in this strange new reality, but this time, we were in it together.

One of the biggest challenges of loneliness is that it begets itself. We avoid it in others and we fear it in ourselves – a recent study found that 42 percent of millennial women are more afraid of loneliness than of a cancer diagnosis – and a state of loneliness makes us less likely to do the crucial reaching out we need. We are embarrassed by our loneliness because we worry it makes us inadequate or reveals some deep-rooted deficiency of character – when in reality the most powerful first step in combatting the epidemic is to talk about it. To acknowledge our experiences of loneliness in all their many forms, and find solace in what we share.

Social isolation made life beyond difficult. It starved us of new connections, obliterated our ‘weak ties’ (chats with the local coffee shop owner or supermarket cashier) and forced us into the volatile world of social media, sometimes against our will. But the conversation around loneliness has been well and truly kicked into touch, and by listening to, talking about and learning more about the causes, impacts and experiences of loneliness, perhaps we can begin to understand the solutions better too.