The Paradox we call Loneliness


Loneliness is no abnormal phenomenon. It has existed across cultures, unhindered by borders on maps. A universal paradox based on the individual – a different feeling to each, with the same meaning to all. As Thomas Sturgeon says: “everyone’s an expert”, because sadly it’s felt by everyone at some point in their lives. 

Scientifically, it is defined as a state of mind, complex or simple, that causes one to feel unwanted and distressed. I find in everyday language, the idea of being “alone” is often interchanged with being “lonely”. In reality, this is not the case. While one can find solace in voluntary solitude, loneliness is not defined by a physical state. One can be surrounded by people, even those they love, and feel a state of loneliness and distress.

Confusingly, it is the awareness of being lonely that causes one to feel loneliness. This awareness can lead someone who feels lonely, to isolate themselves from those who might help. Prolonged periods in this state of social isolation can actually lead to Chronic Loneliness. This can cause deep rooted feelings of inadequacy, poor self-esteem and self-loathing, inhibiting one’s ability to connect on a deeper level.

The term “loneliness” or to be “lonely” itself arose only in the 16th century, when western culture moved away from collectivism and began focusing on the individual. During this period, feelings of loneliness were thought to be caused by physical isolation. When someone was in a lonely space far from society, such as forests and mountains, they would feel vulnerable to attacks and a lack of aid available.

The basis of this feeling, the effect fear of isolation has on survival, predates back to the Primates. It was around fifty-two million years ago, when the feelings associated with loneliness began evolving into what we experience today. During this time, belonging to an intimate social group was vital for survival. Isolation from this group, whether this meant being alone in the wild, or finding yourself among others who don’t understand you, meant a high-chance of death.

As a preventative measure, the brain developed a way to analyze the behaviors of those around the primate, allowing them to identify behaviors that foreshadow impending rejection and isolation. Should the brain identify these behaviors, it would stimulate a pain, “social pain”, to prevent exclusion; thus increasing the primate’s chances of survival. Similarly, when isolated, the body would stimulate a fight-or-flight response – breathing fast, increased heart rate, etc.

The former U.S Surgeon general Vivick Murphy, an expert in the matter, states that “ this hypervigilance in response to isolation became embedded in our nervous system to produce the anxiety we associate with loneliness”. This explains the fearful, defensive nature that can arise in cases of loneliness. Interestingly, Murphy argues that this behavior, stemming from loneliness, lies behind a number of common issues such as crime, violence, political apathy and numerous mental health issues. It is also this defensive nature that prevents a “lonely” individual from reaching out to others, allowing them to effectively isolate themselves further.

While these feelings and responses were helpful to the Primates, they are more harmful for modern society. Despite living in an interconnected community through social media and technology, studies have shown humans have become more isolated, deeply connecting with fewer people. A survey conducted in the US in 2019 showed 25% of adults between the ages of 18-27 reported having no close friends, and 22% had no friends at all, holding social media responsible.

Although the feelings and behaviors behind loneliness have remained similar to those of the Primates, the causes have evolved, adapting to the vastly different environment humans now live in. It is believed that a common cause of “loneliness” are psychological disorders, such as depression, and low self-esteem. Often these disorders can prompt an individual to believe they are unworthy of attention, causing them to self-isolate. It is usually these feelings that trigger “loneliness” to become chronic.

However, there are also factors such as a new variable or change, like moving houses, that can cause feelings of social isolation and loneliness. Additionally, some scientists attribute “loneliness” to personality factors, proposing that certain personality types, such as introverts, are more likely to fall into a state of loneliness than others. 

Despite loneliness being a relatively normal and universal feeling, it can have serious side effects when left unchecked. These side effects can be a mixture between psychological and physical effects, all equally damaging in the long-term. Studies have shown psychological effects to range from increased stress-levels and poor decision-making to decreased memory and learning linking to Alzheimer’s disease, as well as depression and suicide.

Similarly, more physical effects are shown to be premature aging through disruption of cellular processes, cardiovascular diseases and strokes. Like a lot of issues affecting mental health, loneliness can also lead to alcohol and drug misuse, less efficient sleep, less exercise and high fat diets. In fact, studies have shown in extreme cases, chronic loneliness can be deadlier than obesity or smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. 

Despite the normalization of loneliness through universal experience, it is not as harmless as it appears and should be treated with caution and awareness. This is especially the case now more than ever, as in recent years there has been an increase in “lonely” individuals in our society. It has reached such an extent that in 2017 and 2018 an epidemic of loneliness was announced, causing Ministers of Loneliness to be appointed in both the UK (2018) and Japan (2021). This shows that “loneliness” is a growing issue that requires attention and awareness of its severity in order to increase the quality of life for our society.