Here’s a strange contradiction I’ve noticed about myself: I’ll willingly admit I’m yearning for more local close friends, but under no circumstances would I describe myself as lonely.
Loneliness makes me think of those “Depression Hurts” commercials. It is, if only in my head, synonymous with sadness. And I’m not sad or depressed. The opposite is true. I’m so happy in the rest of my life—great marriage, good family, thriving career—that I want the social aspect to match up.
There is—of course there is—a psychological assessment that measures a person’s level of loneliness. (To measure your own loneliness quotient, you can take the 10-question quiz or check out the full 20-question assessment. I recommend the 20-question version—you’ll measure yourself on a 1-4 scale, but take note that for half the questions 1=never, 2=rarely, 3=sometimes and 4=always, while for the other half 1=always, 2=sometimes, 3=rarely and 4=never. This is spelled out on the pdf. A score lower than 28 is low-loneliness; above 44 is high-loneliness; and 33-39 is the middle of the spectrum.) According to this 20-question UCLA Loneliness Scale, I fall in the middle of the loneliness spectrum. I can’t tell you how relieved I was to learn this. While filling out the survey, I was terrified I’d rank as “high in loneliness” and have to admit it on this blog and have my husband and mom and readers hanging their heads in sorrow for me.
But why was I so nervous? What’s so wrong with being lonely? Well, nothing really, but it’s terribly stigmatized. In The Lonely American, Jacqueline Olds and Richard Schwartz explain that while loneliness is increasing in this country, the subject is becoming more and more taboo. “We see ourselves as a self-reliant people who do not whine about neediness,” they write. “If a person is going to complain, far better to complain about what someone has done to him (abuse, coercion, rejection) or what diagnoses and addictions he was saddled with; to wistfully describe how lonely he feels is not socially acceptable.”
And yet, loneliness is incredibly prevalent. According to data from the General Social Survey, individuals without a single confidant made up a quarter of those surveyed in 2004, while the average American only reported having two close friends (down from three in 1985). And let’s go bigger than the U.S. “At any given time, roughly twenty percent of individuals feel sufficiently isolated for it to be a major source of unhappiness in their lives.”
That last quote is from Loneliness, by John T. Cacioppo and William Patrick. What’s especially fascinating in this book is how the authors describe the upside of being lonely. “The sensations associated with loneliness evolved because they contributed to our survival as a species. … Physical pain protects the individual from physical dangers. Social pain, also known as loneliness, evolved for a similar reason: Because it protected the individual from the danger of being isolated. … In the same way that physical pain serves as a prompt to change behavior—the pain of burning skin tells you to pull your finger away from the frying pan—loneliness developed as a stimulus to get humans to pay more attention to their social connections, and to reach out toward others, to renew frayed or broken bonds.” If we go by this definition, then I’m definitely lonely. Or, at least I was. Something must have moved me to refocus on friendship, right?
Do you shudder at the thought of being described as lonely? Or having someone you love think of themselves that way? Why do you think loneliness is so stigmatized—especially in a culture that usually celebrates the individual who stands apart from the crowd? And what do you think of Cacioppo and Patrick’s upside of loneliness?