The Epidemic of Loneliness

Are you lonely? If so, you are not alone. (Maybe that should make you less lonely!)

 All joking aside, loneliness is a serious issue – for all of us.

 And, perhaps it’s more widespread that you think. A recent study by Cigna Insurance of 20,000 people in the US found that nearly 50% reported feeling lonely most of the time. And curiously, the age group reporting the highest score for loneliness were the ages 18-37.

 One might think that social media would reduce our loneliness, but perhaps the opposite is occurring. In one study of Americans age 19-32, the top 25% of social media users were twice as likely to report feeling lonely as those using it the least.

 And the issue is not limited to Americans. Studies in Japan and the UK show similar results. 40% of British surveyed reported that their primary social contact was a pet or their television. This issue is so common that the British government has created a cabinet-level position titled “Minister of Loneliness.”  

 Loneliness is not just about how we feel emotionally; there are serious health consequences as well. A 2010 Brigham Young University study found that chronic loneliness significantly decreases one’s life span by the same amount as that of smoking ¾ pack of cigarettes a day. It also leads to a greater risk of many health issues: heart disease, stroke, cancer and others.

 Loneliness may be categorized into three general types, which are not mutually exclusive.

The first type could be named Circumstantial Loneliness. This is the loneliness that often arises when we are deprived of being with someone with whom we are emotionally attached. This can occur when someone dies or a relationship ends. It also arises when we are geographically separated from someone we are accustomed to being with.

 This form of loneliness is usually temporary and generally fades away after grieving the loss and adjusting to the new circumstances.

 A second form is Psychological Loneliness. This type of loneliness tends to be chronic; it is almost always present to some degree, and generally does not disappear with time. The cause of this form of loneliness is in the past and may have little to do with present circumstances—although it can be exacerbated by present-time events or circumstances.

 The source of this loneliness is generally a lack of appropriate bonding or connection with significant others during our childhood. Parent-figures may have been physically absent or emotionally unable to create healthy bonding with their children. There are many other factors that may contribute to this issue.

 Present moment social contact may temporarily cover up this feeling--but it usually returns with time; it’s almost always in the background of one’s awareness.

 Generally speaking some form of therapy is usually necessary. This “therapy” can take many different forms, but it most always requires reviewing one’s personal history, uncovering repressed emotions and unmet needs and mourning these losses from the past.

 The third form of loneliness is so common that it’s generally repressed and unrecognized. This type might be called Existential Loneliness. The cause of this loneliness is a sense of separation from our own essential nature—our true self. This is sometimes referred to as “the human condition” and is present any time one is identified with the ego. The Buddha referred to this condition as “dukkha” –which is often translated as suffering or dissatisfaction.

 In this form of loneliness the individual feels a sense of primal alienation from life itself. This is a very painful experience and is usually covered up through a variety of defense mechanisms. Our life style, our relationships, and our identity itself is shaped by our response to this experience of primal loneliness.

 Generally speaking, this form of loneliness can be dissolved only through some form of spiritual practice which acknowledges some type of a Higher Power which can take many forms. This Higher Power may be seen as a deity, a belief system, a spiritual practice or some type of ritual. This form of spirituality is transformative and will radically change our understanding of who we are and why we are alive today.

 This practice does not see loneliness itself as the problem but focuses primarily on our awareness and our attitude toward the loneliness. Ultimately, we discover that what we are seeking is the seeker itself. Loneliness is a problem only to the extent that we identify with it and make it real; it is dissolved not by trying to fix it but by seeing its unreality (i.e. emptiness).

  “Instead of searching for what you do not have, find out what it is that you have never lost.”

                                                                                                            Nisargadatta Maharaj