Type the word "loneliness" into your search engine and you will be overwhelmed with articles, books, and videos. This is hardly surprising since loneliness, in the words of one British journalist, has become a "silent epidemic." In 2010, for example, the Harvard professor Jacqueline Olds published a book titled The Lonely American: Drifting Apart in the 21st Century. But is it true? Are we really witnessing an epidemic? And if it is true, why is it happening?
Before looking at the 21st century specifically, a few words need to be said about loneliness itself. First, it should be stressed that loneliness is not the same as being alone. Many people live and work alone yet do not feel lonely – and it hardly needs adding that many feel desperately lonely in spite of their numerous friends and family. Second, loneliness is really a long-term condition. Most people feel lonely now and then – that is quite natural, even healthy. True loneliness is a deep-rooted feeling that can last years. Indeed, some, often those who have never been physically alone, feel lonely their entire life.
Unfortunately, simply filling your life with new people is not always the answer. Someone can marry, have several children, and make lots of new friends yet remain profoundly alone. The only real cure is the love and affection of people who understand you; spend your time with those who do not, people with whom you have nothing in common, whose minds work quite differently to yours, and you are likely to feel more lonely. For example, a sensitive, emotional introvert is unlikely to connect with a shallow, insensitive extrovert. The extrovert may be very fond of the introvert and do her best to relieve his loneliness, but true intimacy may prove impossible.
Of course, there are some who never feel lonely, no matter what their circumstances. Others feel better by simply walking into a bar and chatting to the first person they meet. Some lack the emotional depth necessary for those kinds of feelings. Those who suffer the most tend to be both highly sensitive and slightly unusual. In other words, their personality, humor, and intellect is so unique that they rarely meet anyone who 'gets' them.
Finally, it should be added that loneliness is more than just a psychological or emotional state. Many experience physical symptoms as well. One of the most common is a feeling of suffocation. In their worst moments, some literally gasp for breath. Others talk of feeling squeezed and crushed, even of sharp aches and pains. Indeed, there is growing evidence that prolonged loneliness actually increases your chances of developing physical illness.
So why is life in the 21st century so much lonelier? All sorts of explanations have been put forward. For example, people are now more likely to live in large towns and cities, while the traditional, tight-knit village or tribe has become less common. They are also more likely to move about, often changing career and city, losing touch with work colleagues and extended family in the process.
But any discussion of 21st century life must begin with technology. It is a sad fact that the growth in so-called connectivity technologies (cellphones, social media, email etc.) seems to have increased rather than decreased loneliness. For example, Professor of Psychology at Chicago University John Cacioppo reported in 2013 that 40% of adults now describe themselves as lonely compared to 20% in the early 1980s. And this is supported by other studies. In 2010, for example, the American Association of Retired Persons found a 15% increase in the numbers of people over 45 who described themselves as lonely compared to the mid-1990s.
How can this be? Both sets of results (and other European studies have found something similar) suggest that since the appearance of cellphones and the internet, loneliness rates have shot up! The problem with social media is that it isn't 'real'. You are not interacting with a living, breathing, sweating, laughing, flesh and blood human. You are merely staring at a screen. Deep, nourishing intimacy occurs on a non-verbal level. For this to take place, you need the other person in front of you. Put simply, you did not evolve to interact with your fellow humans through screens, lenses and phones.
Two other trends must also be considered. First, record numbers of people now live alone. In the 1950s, around one in ten households were occupied by a single person. Today that figure has risen to one in four. Of course, many are perfectly happy with this – especially those who have left miserable or abusive relationships.
Second, faith in what Post-Modernists call 'Grand Narratives', meaning some great, overarching explanation, has decreased. These Grand Narratives can take many forms. A Christian or Muslim would explain the meaning and purpose of life in strictly religious terms. A Communist would talk about the triumph of the proletariat and establishment of a worker's utopia. Even the Nazis had a Grand Narrative, arguing that it was the destiny of the Northern European races to rule the world. The nature of such movements, whether religious or political or even philosophical, is not important. The point is that they gave people a sense of meaning and belonging. The individual could submerge his individual identity in something greater.
Unfortunately, no-one can opt out of the 21st century. The only solution is to recognise these problems and look for practical answers. Remember, you will not escape your loneliness simply by meeting lots of new people. Instead, you must forge deep, intimate, affectionate relationships with people who share your humor and interests – people who get you.
The 21st century can also work to your advantage. The fact that so many people now live alone, for example, and that so many feel lonely, means there are plenty of people out there looking to connect. And social media, while it is part of the problem, could also be part of the solution. Why not join online discussion forums? Sit down and make a list of all the things that concern, interest or excite you. There is almost certainly an online discussion group based around these topics. Join, write some posts, get chatting to people and then put up a thread asking if anyone in the area would like to meet for a coffee. If you have joined a forum for people with OCD, you could advertise it as a support group. If it is a forum for those who love poetry or medieval history, call it a discussion group.
If you feel lonely, you must be prepared to put in some effort. Meeting new people and maintaining relationships demands discipline and hard work. The fact is, unless you are one of those cheery extroverts who likes pretty much everyone, it will take time to meet people you really want to be with. Above all, have faith and keep trying.