Do we oversimplify loneliness?


Loneliness, as a reality of modern day, fast paced, expectation loaded life is more common than ever and equally complex, layered and abstractin its causes and consequences. For factors other than biological,the sense of loneliness and number of people confessing to be in its grip has increasedover the last few decades. According to study in 2016 by Centre for Study of Developing Societies, in India alone, 12 percent of youth reported feeling depressed and 8% youth confessed to feeling lonely often.The sense of despair in the modern world is largely a consequence of changing social realities: weakening bonds, tech& social media penetration in our otherwise ‘well-guarded’ lives and consequent ironical feeling of social disconnect. From being soulfully ‘Poet’ricized  by Keats, Wordsworth, Wilcox and others to getting infamously recognized as one of the biggest Public Health Issue surpassing obesity, the meaning and manifestations of loneliness have undergone profound temporal changes.At times occasional and on other times,prolonged, the feeling is ‘Loneliness’ is as universal as it could get and cuts across all age groups and economic classes

For the longest time, Loneliness has been given spatial connotations that it stems from being ‘physically distant’ or ‘living alone’. However, this idea of loneliness may be overly simplified, with an even simpler yet flawed solution that ‘bring people back to living together to make people feel part of community and consequently feel less lonely’. In 2004, NSSO reported that 4.91 million in India were ‘living alone’ and ‘suffered from loneliness’, which seems to deliver the inference that ‘living alone’ is equated with ’loneliness’. This itself is flawed and inaccurate basis of measurement of loneliness not only because it restricts itself to ‘spatial isolation’ thus leading to possibility of underestimation of loneliness, but also it tends to make an obvious assumption that all people leaving alone are lonely.

However, the idea and feeling of loneliness is deeply profound and comes with inherent contradictions and complexities and is not as simplistic as it is assumed to be.Loneliness results as much from ‘emotional isolation’, which is much more ‘invisible and unobserved’ than ‘spatial isolation’. Emotional isolation may result from inability to express the deepest fears and thoughts for the fear of being judged and mocked at. The linear focus on ‘being and looking happy’ as a way of life most of the time can be inherently dangerous as it can trivialize the issues which fall outside the bracket of factors on which are conventionally believed to be determinants of happiness.Occasionally, those complex inner whirlwind of emotions may not even be comprehended.The singular importance put on ‘being happy’ can put the person at war with those inherent, complex, incomprehensible and hence unexpressed emotions, thus creating a sense of ‘loneliness’ even if the person is surrounded by the people and is ‘apparently happy’.And the manifestation of losing that war are dangerous.According to a study presented at EuroHeartCare 2018, ‘feeling lonely’ is a strong predictor of poor health outcomes than living alone, even while adjusting for other factors that effect health.

Thus, while bringing people to live together may be an important intervention to address loneliness as an ‘individual centric’ and ‘public health’ issue,but is certainly not enough. The solutions to the problem are as complex and mutilayered as the problem itself. There is a need to go beyond the conventional understanding of loneliness to devise appropriate socio-clinical interventions. Proactive and conscious efforts are needed toput in place a social construct that is deeply empathetic, sensitive, accepting and embracing so as to strengthen social bonds, encourage communication and build a system of adequate and appropriate medical and social care giving.Equally, the importance of refraining from restrictive measurement of loneliness and devising the ways to measure it more comprehensively and accurately without relying on obvious inferences can hardly be overemphasised.

Mridul Mehndiratta is a Doctoral Student in Department of Economics, Panjab University, Chandigarh.Email- [email protected]



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