“We don’t have a word for the opposite of loneliness but if we did, I could say that’s what I want in life” – Marina Keegan, 2012.
Marina Keegan was a 22 year old Yale graduate, a young woman with a bright future whose life was tragically cut short five days after graduation in a car accident. Her posthumous book ‘The Opposite of Loneliness’ created by her family became a global phenomena and her reflections on the nature of human connection are wise beyond her years. Keegan’s article sparked my interest in the nature of loneliness, a phenomena I have since explored as the focus of my doctoral portfolio, in my training to become a Health Psychologist.
By way of introduction to the topic it is helpful to distinguish loneliness from social isolation. They are related but very different experiences. Loneliness comes from our appraisal of the quality of our social relationships, we experience loneliness when we find we lack connection with others that is meaningful to us. This is different from social isolation which describes the number of social contacts we have. Therefore, we can be lonely in a crowd.
It is important too that we don’t pathologize loneliness, it is a normal (though unpleasant) reaction to loss and for many it is transitory, for example, my son (aged 17) and daughter (aged 20) were home during the covid lockdown; despite having family around them, they missed connection to their peers and also to their grandparents. When my children were young, I experienced periods of loneliness that came from being at home with two young children, where I had no immediate family or close friends with whom I felt I could share the more difficult days. Loneliness is most commonly associated with our later years and old age, where we are more likely to experience multiple losses of key relationships. Loneliness then, can be experienced at many points in the life span, it is transitory, and most people will find ways to re-gain social connection with others.
It is when loneliness becomes a chronic condition that intervention is likely to be needed. Chronic loneliness, defined as habitual avoidance of social contact, has been shown to be as damaging to our physical health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. The last ten years has seen a growth in the number of studies which are helping us to better understand loneliness, its causes and importantly what we can do about it. This is the legacy, in large part, of the MP Jo Cox who campaigned to raise awareness of loneliness in the UK. After her untimely and tragic death in 2016, colleagues and family continued her work with the Jo Cox Foundation and events such as The Great Get Together.
A recent report published in 2020, by the Campaign to End Loneliness called ‘The Psychology of Loneliness’, shows how psychology can offer effective solutions to addressing chronic loneliness with cognitive behavioural therapy, mindfulness and positive psychology all shown to be effective in the treatment of chronic loneliness. My own use of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy showed too its effectiveness in treating chronic loneliness.
I will leave the last word to Marina Keegan’s whose reflection on the opposite of loneliness ends with: “It’s not quite love and it’s not quite community; it’s just this feeling that there are people, an abundance of people, who are in this together. Who are on your team”. Psychological therapies to address loneliness can be a first step in re-connecting with those who are in your team.