A considerably shorter and less comprehensive article on this subject was written for, but never published in, AARP The Magazine
Story and Photos By Bill Newcott
Lonely? You’re not alone.
Just take a quick look at your ITunes playlist: There might be Hank Williams crooning “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”…or Elvis checking into Heartbreak Hotel “so lonely I could die”…or Drake protesting “I Get Lonely, Too.” Or type in “lonely fiction” at Amazon.com and you’ll get 3,600 book titles.
We’ve all been there. Things are going great, but then we move to a new place, start a new job, end a romantic relationship or lose a dear friend or family member and we feel alone again. Naturally.
Usually, we heal over time. But today, scientists are discovering new insights into loneliness—even a possible genetic link—that make the story more complicated. For some people, loneliness is chronic, lasting for months or years. Even when surrounded by other people, nothing seems to pull them out of their lonely funk. Research shows that this kind of loneliness is far more than just an issue of mood; it can gravely jeopardize physical health and longevity.
In short, we’re learning that loneliness not only kills the spirit...in various ways it can kill the body, too. How prevalent is loneliness? Despite the explosion of you-are-there technologies like Facebook, Skype and Twitter, one in four Americans told the National Science Foundation recently that they had no one with whom they could share their personal troubles or triumphs.
A 2010 AARP study revealed that among people in their 50s, 41 percent described themselves as lonely. And while divorced, separated, and never-married people, unsurprisingly, had the highest rates of loneliness (ranging from 45 to 51 percent), an alarming percentage of married people (29 percent) also reported being lonely. The good news? Loneliness declines as we get older, and people 70+ have a far lower loneliness rate (25 percent) than younger folks.
Which leaves the million dollar question: Why is loneliness so pervasive, and what can we do about it? Loneliness, it turns out, is as universal as air; as unique as a fingerprint. Strangest of all: Loneliness often loves company.
“My loneliness kept telling me I needed more people in my life,” says Emily White, a successful Toronto lawyer. “Once I sat down with a pen and tried to find words to describe it. I wrote that it was sweeping, like a wind, and rough, like sandpaper, and big, like a blanket spread out. Its edges were jagged, and sometimes it felt suffocating, like I couldn’t properly breathe.”
Sitting in a gothic-ceilinged café on the campus of the University of Toronto, where she wrote most of her 2010 book Lonely: A Memoir, White recounts the story of her battle with chronic loneliness in her 30s and 40s—a sense of isolation that persisted despite a network of friends, a loving family, and a busy career. No sooner did her book hit the shelves than she started getting notes from, as The Beatles called them, all the lonely people.
“I heard from a lot,” she says. “There are many common denominators for those of us with chronic loneliness: a sense of exasperation, of not knowing what’s wrong. Then when you figure out what’s wrong you try all sorts of things to fight it…and learn that they just don’t work.
“Mostly, lonely people blame themselves.”
Should they? In a sense, perhaps yes—if only because for many people the accusatory finger is best pointed at their genes.
“Loneliness seems to be about 50 percent inheritable,” says Dr. Louise Hawkley, citing studies of lonely people, including twins who are chronically lonely. “It usually takes some sort of triggering event to make it manifest itself.”
A psychologist and senior research scientist at the University of Chicago, Hawkley explains that the loneliness “trigger” varies from one person to another. One woman, she says, was perfectly fine in her hometown, but after she moved she found it impossible to get a sense of connection.
“Had she stayed put,” Hawkley says, “she would never have realized her vulnerability.”
That may be in part because loneliness is less a symptom than an instinct. On an evolutionary level, humans learned long ago that solitude is not the safest state (two or three people have a much better chance against a saber-toothed tiger than does one). So according to Hawkley and other researchers, the need for companionship really is burned into our DNA.
“Loneliness is not our normal state,” says Hawkley. “The opposite of hungry is full. The opposite of hot is cold. But what’s the opposite of lonely? Not lonely?
Whatever the opposite of lonely is, it’s so fundamental to our natural state we don’t even have a word for it.” (The Merriam-Webster Thesaurus lists a single, unsatisfying, antonym for lonely: Accompanied.) Loneliness is so anathema to humans that our minds come up with ingenious ways to combat it. Most of us know someone who fights loneliness by treating a pet as a combination friend, family, and confidante. But it’s also common for lonely people to project personalities on inanimate objects, like plants or appliances.
Loneliness can be doubly vexing when there is no apparent reason for it, says Hawkley. Princess Diana and Robin Williams had at their disposal as many people as they cared to summon, yet they were often overwhelmed by deep loneliness. It may seem counterintuitive, but Hawkley points out that many extroverts are really lonely people who are desperately trying to reach their unrealistically high threshold for companionship.
One important thing to remember: Loneliness may look like depression, but they are two very different things. Like those with depression, lonely people tend to draw into themselves and find little enjoyment in recreational activities. But while depression is the result of an abnormal balance in the brain, loneliness is a natural instinct, like hunger, that has varying levels of urgency in different people. And while there are recognized treatments and therapies for depression, loneliness has so far defied reliable relief.
In fact loneliness, common as it is and despite its apparent genetic influences, is not listed as a psychological disorder by mental health experts.
New York psychologist Matt Lundquist is fine with loneliness sitting out there in a definitional netherworld. As a condition that can approach people from so many directions, he says, it’s futile to try and pin down an approach to treating it.
Sitting in a crowded lower Manhattan coffee shop, Lundquist talks about a weekly therapy group he leads in TriBeCa. The group of nine ranges in age from their 20s to their 60s, and loneliness plays a large role in many of their discussions.
“About 20 percent of the people who come into group, I’d say, would identify themselves as lonely.
“They often feel people simply don’t like them—and group is a phenomenal place to learn and work on things that might make someone unlikeable. Someone might just come out and say, ‘Hey, you know, you interrupt a lot.’ Or ‘It’s kind of annoying the way you pick your fingernails.’ They’ll hear that and perhaps think, ‘Well, maybe there are other things I can do to make myself more appealing to other people.’”
How do patients describe loneliness? “People talk about being baffled, or angry, that they’re not included in things,” he says. “They often feel resentful of other people who always seem to have something going on—sometimes it’s true, sometimes it’s not.”
Loneliness can become an occupational hazard, even for those whose jobs require them to be around other people all the time.
It certainly caught Bill Lometti by surprise. When he embarked on a 43-year career in federal law enforcement—including 23 years in the Secret Service—he knew he would have to keep his home and professional lives separate.
He did not expect that wall would eventually create for him two separate selves, each with its own brand of loneliness.
“You have these two lives and they just can’t mix,” says Lometti, now retired and living with his wife Susan near the Delaware shore.
“You’re in the field for 28 days and you don’t hear about the son with the broken ankle. You have to focus on the job. You’re lonely for your family, and being with your colleagues doesn’t help that. At night you go back to your hotel room, you disassemble your gun, you clean the bullets, you put it all back together and then it’s time for bed.
“Then you come home for 28 days, and all the crazy stuff that happened out in the field, you can’t share, not even with your wife. You’re holding back a huge section of your life, and you become lonely for that.
“Each is a different type of loneliness, but you’re lonely just the same. Lots of cases I’ve seen, that loneliness spirals down to depression, which can lead to sexual impropriety, divorce, and more. There are all kinds of ways to deal with it, some better than others. One way to deal with it, you end up sucking on the end of your gun.”
Nationwide, the number-one killer of police officers is suicide caused by depression. There’s no telling how many of those cases are related to loneliness, but a study by psychologist Gary M. Farkas, a former cop, showed that 37 percent of undercover police report suffering loneliness during and after their assignments.
Still, we all know people who seem to thrive on solitude. Are there things the chronically lonely can learn from the happily alone—things they can do every day to at least give themselves a fighting chance against loneliness?
“Probably,” says Hawkley. “Researchers are looking into coping strategies for loneliness.”
Zayne O’Leary knows how to be alone. His fire tower, where he lives alone four months at a time, stands one mile up a barely-there road, more than 8,000 feet high in Arizona’s Apache National Forest. Outside the four wall-length windows stretches a panorama of mountains, valleys, canyons, and billowy clouds that extends uninterrupted for hundreds of miles.
This is O’Leary’s 26th year spotting fires. Not that he’s antisocial—he’ll talk your ear off. He’s got good friends back home in Oregon and a girlfriend in the Philippines. But his favorite company is himself.
“I enjoy being with my own thoughts,” he says. “I enjoy having conversations with myself, populating my brain with ideas, with challenges.”
Zayne, 44, recently took up painting; a stack of canvases both used and naked occupies one corner of the floor. Books line a shelf: Politics, science fiction, a volume about Amazon tribes.
As Zayne scans the horizon, he considers the best advice a happily alone guy would give to the lonely.
“Exercise, reading, little tasks, daydreaming,” he says. “And have conversations with yourself,” he adds. “I talk to myself all the time, either out loud or in my head. I’m not schizophrenic; I’m just talking to myself.”
A few hundred miles downhill from that mountaintop, on the University of Arizona’s Tucson campus, Zayne’s “talk-it-out” approach to combating loneliness gains a hearty endorsement from one of the nation’s leading loneliness experts.
“Internal dialogue,” says Chris Segrin, a behavioral scientist at the university’s Department of Communication, nodding approvingly. A smiling fellow with a ready laugh, Segrin seems an unlikely guy to have helped break the worst news of all for lonely people: Loneliness can be dangerous for your health.
“Lonely people are at high risk for heart conditions,” he says. “Chronic loneliness, I tell my students, is like that frantic search when you can’t find your car keys and you need to be someplace. For most of us, that anxiety is over in five minutes. But imagine having that urgent need for years. It takes a toll on your nervous system. It’s bad for your heart, for your mind, your muscles, and your eating and sleep patterns. Early mortality is higher among lonely people.”
In fact, a recent Brigham Young University study found that not only is loneliness a factor in early death—it’s as much a factor as being obese, smoking 15 cigarettes a day, or being an alcoholic.
“We found that loneliness, the subjective feeling of isolation, as well as actual social isolation and living alone all significantly predicted risk for early mortality,” says Julianne Holt-Lunstad, lead study author and an associate professor of psychology at the university.
So, besides talking to yourself, is there anything the chronically lonely can do?
“Absolutely,” Segrin says. “Even if there is a genetic link to loneliness, it can be overridden behaviorally, without a doubt.
“But the person has to be motivated. And that’s the sad thing: Lonely people want to withdraw, and that’s the last thing a lonely person should be doing. Even if they have to drag themselves to do it, lonely people need to connect with other people through sports activities, recreation, faith-based organizations, book clubs, online classes, whatever.”
Indeed, a 2010 AARP study showed there are common traits among people who don’t suffer loneliness. Generally, people 60 and over are less lonely, as are those who have lived in the same place for a long time, are either married or widowed, regularly attend religious services, are part of a community organization, and have regular contact with friends. It also appears that when it comes to loneliness and wealth, money really does buy happiness: Wealthy people are generally less lonely than poor people.
Fire watcher Zayne O'Leary is alone with the horizon atop his tower in Arizona's Apache National Forest.
Intriguingly, the study also showed that while the difference is not dramatic, there is clear evidence that American Hispanics are less likely to experience loneliness than other U.S. ethnic groups. I wondered if there’s something the lonely could learn from U.S. Hispanic culture.
I didn’t need my GPS for the last block or so before reaching the Santa Cruz Council on Aging center in Nogales, Mexico. I simply followed the flow of 60-plus people heading down a side street and across a sun-baked parking lot, a stone’s throw from the U.S./Mexico border.
Lunch would not be served for another half-hour, but inside, dozens were already sitting at the flower-decorated tables, laughing, chatting, and playing scattered card games. As important as the food is—for some of these older Mexican-Americans, it would be the only meal they’d have all day—the emotional nourishment of companionship was an almost equal draw.
Marta Ainez laughs as easily as anyone I have ever met. She sat across from me over our lunch of mole, rice, and refried beans, her eyes virtually disappearing behind her mirthful expression as she told me about her day—arising at 6, sweeping the stairs, and getting ready for the bus that would pick her up to bring her here.
Her creased face was topographic map of her 80 years, but she told me she never goes out without first applying makeup.
“You’ve always got to have your makeup on!” she beams. “Who knows what’s going to happen during the day?’”
As a young woman in Mexico, Marta studied chemistry. She raised her children, worked in education, and now lives here alone, forever resisting her kids’ pleas to move near them In LA.
“I feel safe here,” she says. “Besides, there’s a good health clinic here. In LA they take you to the county hospital, keep you for two days, and then you die.” At that, she dissolves into laughter, along with everyone else at the table.
“I’m never lonely,” she says, glancing around the room. “We talk a lot. A LOT! We talk here, we talk at the market, we talk everywhere.
“And besides, I’m never alone. I always have God with me. He’s always walking beside me.”
She smiles radiantly, as if talking about her best friend. I spend that lunchtime chatting with as many of the folks as I can, keeping a mental checklist of anti-loneliness indicators. Over 60, of course. Long marriages seem almost universal. Roots in the local community run deep. Most of these people make visiting this place the centerpiece of their day—unless they first go to Mass in the morning. As they all stand together to recite The Lord’s Prayer—in English, in honor of the gringo in their presence—it is clear they are all bound by a common faith.
Of course, not all the anti-loneliness indicators are present this afternoon: especially not the one regarding wealth. But as I listen to the laughter and see the bear hugs spread from one end of the room to the other, one thing is clear: This is what “not lonely” looks like.
Marta Ainez, right, enjoys a laugh with her friend Lupita Knoblock at the Santa Cruz Council on Aging Center in Nogalez, Mexico.
Perhaps due to the misconception that older people are acutely more lonely than younger generations, there are already movements afoot to fight 50-plus loneliness. Nationwide, programs like AARP’s Mentor Up and the Palo Alto Medical Foundation’s linkAges are matching kids up with older people for mentoring and companionship.
Loneliness experts in the U.S. are closely watching a number of European efforts to fight loneliness through biking, language, and “rent-a-granny”-type programs. With every personal contact, a solitary person may be brought one step closer to that elusive state of “not lonely.”
Experts love to point to the irony of loneliness in a world that is as electronically connected as ours. Still, technology can be a powerful tool for those whose loneliness grows from being apart from those they love.
First thing every morning, Barbara Howard reads some Bible—then she sits down at her desktop computer in a back room of her tidy little Long Beach, California, house. She logs on to her e-mail and Facebook chat, knowing without a doubt that at least some of her four brothers and six sisters—most of them back home in Lake Charles, Louisiana—will at this moment be involved in an ongoing online discussion that has been continuing day and night for years.
“When I turn my computer on, they’re there,” says 74-year-old Barbara, scanning the screen. She points.
“There’s my brother Larry!” She laughs, so emphatically it’s conceivable that Larry will hear her without the help of technology.
“Sometimes the news is happy; sometimes it’s depressing. But I have contact with them.”
After 53 years living in California—widowed at age 47—she’s raised four successful children and enjoyed a career as a teacher. But before the advent of online chat, “I missed my brothers and sisters so much. I was so lonely I cried many days.” Now, there they are in real-time: relating stories about church outings, sharing memories of fishing trips gone by, excitedly texting photos of an alligator spotted by the side of the road.
“I’m close to my children,” she says with a soft smile. “But with your siblings, well, it goes a little deeper.”
Barbara has learned first-hand what loneliness studies continue to show: Family, important as it is, cannot fill the loneliness gap nearly as well as unrelated friends—pals who have no obligation other than to be friendly
“Of course you want to have family close; it’s protective,” says The University of Chicago’s Louise Hawkley . “But you’re not choosing them, like you do friends. Studies show having friends that you choose to be with is particularly important.”
To the occasional exasperation of researchers, just as unexpected triggers can usher someone through the gates of chronic loneliness, the exit door can also abruptly appear.
The day Emily White realized she wasn’t lonely anymore was otherwise uneventful. She had fallen in love, moved from Toronto to the island of St. John’s in Newfoundland and made a whole new circle of friends. But that gnawing feeling of loneliness still seemed to have a grip on her. Until one day, it didn’t.
“I remember it vividly,” she recalls. “I was in my car, and I had just dropped my partner off at work. The Dixie Chicks were on.
“And it hit me. I wasn’t lonely anymore. It felt odd.”
To this day White doesn’t know why she suddenly emerged from loneliness, nor why now, after the breakup of that relationship in St. John’s and her return to Toronto, the cloud of loneliness has not again enveloped her.
“I’m probably jinxing myself by saying it,” she says, “but it just didn’t hit again.”
She sighs. “Honest to God, I feel like my whole life has been either being lonely or not being lonely."
The café around us is empty except for a waiter clearing tables. We stood to leave. She smiles absentmindedly.
“There ought to be some kind of group for lonely people.”
A considerably shorter and less comprehensive article on this subject was written for, but never published in, AARP The Magazine
After her morning Bible reading, Barbara Howard fires up her computer to join a never- ending chat with her four brothers and six sisters