The Web of Loneliness — From Gilgamesh’s journey to Japan’s modern-day hermits

By Edward Hopper —Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 license

My excitement of moving to a new continent was short-lived. A few months into this adventure, I had a new friend for company. I enjoyed spending time with its benevolent twin, solitude. I am not your typical social butterfly, but I do enjoy meeting and spending time with people. A few months spent with this new friend brought in a lot of changes in me. The pangs of pain that surrounded my lonely soul manifested physically from eating issues to falling sick. I got into the bus of existential crisis accompanied by depression and anxiety for a tumultuous ride.

The friend who paid me a long term visit was “loneliness”. Moving continents is a life-changing event that constitutes settling into a new place and finding a new social circle apart from numerous parallel streams of life-altering changes. It took time for me to figure it all out. My visitor left after an extended stay. It has been more than a year since the visit. I can safely vouch that I have a working relationship with this visitor currently. If you are wondering what about loneliness. My personal experience, the pandemic, and the isolation got me interested in writing this blog. I might not be able to write about everything but I have tried to cover most of it to the best of my ability.

Sartre said, “If you’re lonely when you’re alone, you’re in bad company.”

What do you make of it? I gather that he is talking about solitude. Since time immemorial, solitude has been romanticized by poets and philosophers across different timelines.

Shakespeare in Sonnet 29, Wordsworth talks about it in his poem titled is “I wandered lonely as a cloud”. Monks and savants encourage solitude as a path towards inner wisdom.

Solitude and loneliness are two different sides of the same coin. While solitude revels in discovery and inner journeys, loneliness has a connotation of pain attached to it.

In this blog, we will explore loneliness from all aspects. I will follow up with a blog on the joys of solitude.

Coming back to loneliness, if it were a person, the evolution would be extremely noteworthy. Did Adam and Eve feel lonely when they arrived at the Garden of Eden? Did Gilgamesh, the Sumerian king of Uruk who ruled around 2900–2500 BC feel lonely after his friend Enkidu died during their travel to the Netherland on his quest for immortality.

Loneliness was not given a lot of attention in the pre-1800s. As we stepped into the 1800s, science shone the torch on loneliness.

The long-standing monarchy in different parts of the world crumbled to pave the path for democracy. The 17th and 18th centuries witnessed the Age of Enlightenment across Europe from Georgian to the French revolution. The world was changing at a consistent pace. The arrival of capitalism swept in a sea of changes. The promise of a better life lured the close-knit communities to migrate to the industrial hubs. While there was a gradual increase in the standards of living, psychological duress was steadily rising. The changing social and economic strata encouraged more competition. The societies which were cohesive and collaborative were becoming nuclear and individualistic. Those were the early days of transformation and change. Modern life accelerated by industrialization distorted the fabric of our communities.

Loneliness was not talked about openly or acknowledged in the pre-1800s. Psychologists and researchers wrote about it, albeit nonchalantly. A weak social circle or lack of relationships was the primary inference.

As the wheels of the centuries turned, the case for loneliness got its due attention with Robert Weiss’s publication, “Loneliness: The experience of emotional and social isolation” in 1973.

Weiss categorized loneliness into two broad themes :

  1. Social
  2. Emotional

Later, Enrico DiTommaso and Barry Spinne further divided into more classes. Emotional loneliness had different offshoots, romantic, family, and other categories.

Weiss writes in his paper, “This absence of an attachment relationship, not merely its loss, lies at the heart of emotional loneliness.”

“At the core of his theory is the assumption that loneliness is not an outgrowth of individual distortions in social perception or an unrealistically high need for companionship. It was the result of ordinary unmet human needs.”

If we dive into Weiss’s theory, there are many variables. If X is lonely, several Y factors influence the equation. The permutation and combinations of these factors will determine the degree of complexity in the problem.

Apart from Weiss, other psychologists like De Jong Gierveld played a critical role in bringing the topic of loneliness to the forefront.

Later, UCLA devised a 20 point scale to measure loneliness in 1978. It got adopted widely to assess the degree of loneliness. The other widely used scale to measure loneliness is multidimensional by De Jong that considers all factors known as SELSA (which reports on social, romantic & family loneliness — the latter two dimensions being subtypes of emotional loneliness.).

In simple terms, loneliness started to rise as we stepped into the 21st century. The traditional life path has undergone major shifts influenced by different factors. Today it impacts millions of people in the world. There are countries like the UK that have a dedicated campaign to end loneliness.

There are 1.2 million chronically lonely older people in the UK and 9 million lonely people.

While the media narrative is suggestive of a rising epidemiological significance, the data does not seem to agree. As per the “Our World in Data” study, the rubber has not hit the road yet. The empirical data doesn’t seem to suggest that it is an epidemic.

I would like to have an objective view and am happy to see that data claims otherwise. There is more than what meets the eye. The topic is more complex and there are many factors that influence this subject. I can’t help but notice the look of longing and social connection in many people especially the aging.

The 2020 Cigna report on this subject indicates a rise in the feeling of loneliness. It has increased from 54 % to 61%. The impact of loneliness at workplaces is an ugly reality. From mental health issues to impact on work outcomes, it can impact all spheres of life. The rise of remote and gig workers add more people to the camp. Men are inclined to feel lonelier than women.

Another research by John Cacioppo, a social neuroscientist based in the USA shows that every 1 in 4 people feels lonely.

Studies carried by neuroscientists are suggestive of distress signal activation in the brain during periods of isolation.

“Being lonely increases the risk of everything from heart attacks to dementia, depression, and death, whereas people who are satisfied with their social lives sleep better, age more slowly, and respond better to vaccines. The effect is so strong that curing loneliness is as good for your health as giving up smoking.”

The roots of loneliness go beyond an individual. If we were to examine the causes, one would find the social, cultural, and biological branches in it. The evolutionary process and the changes that accompanied the timeline of loneliness might be able to shed some evidence.

Our primate ancestors moved from foraging individuals to loosely aggregated of mixed sexes approximately 52 million years ago as per a study on sociality.

If you were to look around, the sociability in the natural world is still unadulterated while it got diluted in human beings.

“Humans are inherently social. We are not special in this way; it is hard to think of any animal for whom the regulation of social behavior is not important.”

Neuroscientists have been researching social cognition for a long time. While the focus has been more on mental health areas, this is a topic that has gained prominence. Biologically, our bodies, genes, and brains play their part during our encounter with loneliness.

Anthropological Influences:

If one were to look at the cultural encapsulation of this problem, different regions and cultures have their share of experiencing this.

The most famous of all is Kodokushi in Japan. It meant a lonely death. During the 1970s, a large portion of the elderly population succumbed to Kodokushi. It remained undiscovered for the longest time due to the philosophy of “gamon” which is about quiet endurance. People did not reach out for help or connections due to this conflicting belief. The prevalence of hikikomori are people who are socially reclusive and known as modern-day hermits. This group of people mostly withdraw from socializing. While they aren’t drawn to physical interactions, a majority are connected to technology and gaming.

Each culture has some form of loneliness that prevails in different shapes and forms. Some of the well-known examples are nikomu ne nuzhni (being unneeded) among midlife post-Soviet Muscovite where they withdraw from social life, Soledad (loneliness) among youth in Tijuana.

There is also a high percentage of loneliness reporting in displaced immigrants where it stems from cultural, personal, and structural changes. With globalization, while people moved and built richer lives, there were small pockets who experienced loneliness during their golden years. Discrimination of all kinds also plays a large role in alienating people.

Loneliness is a subjective reality, while social isolation is a physical and social reality. Even if physical isolation may be more likely to induce loneliness, conflating the two can be problematic.

Sociality is hardwired in our genes.

We are social animals that require groups to survive (even in maturity, social isolation puts one at great risk) and that require maternal care to be born (something us have in common with all mammalian and bird species) (De Waal, 2010).

Humans are social beings. From the hunter-gatherer times to the modern age, there is no denying that our social existence is a part of our lives. We crave belonging and a sense of community.

The prima foci of our existence are the fact that we have each other in times, good or bad.

Olivia Lang in her exploration wrote :

“You can be lonely anywhere, but there is a particular flavor to the loneliness that comes from living in a city, surrounded by millions of people,”

Fast forward to the present day, as we get lost in the shiny object sitting our palms oblivious of the surroundings, loneliness is the talk of the town.

That is right. Loneliness shows up at different life stages triggered by circumstantial, individual, and social events. Loneliness is one of the feeders to the larger problem of depression and suicide.

Loneliness creeps in at different intervals of life. The rendevous begins at our birth, it continues as we age. During childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and retirement, the levels and intensity of loneliness vary. The abundance of our times brought along busyness. We started living by the clock and calendar.

One cannot deny the fading social affinity and closeness, especially in metropolitan cities. The routine drowned many of the traditional practices that were the foundation of family structures. Mobile technology and the internet brought the globe closer but created distances in our ethos as a large part of the world is glued to the palms.

Modern-day life has added more dimensions to this problem. We can have many friends yet still feel lonely. The case of loneliness at the top in many senior leaders is a classic example. Some individuals might feel lonely due to a lack of attachment or closeness in a relationship. The loneliness in a marriage with couples is a modern-day reality. A majority of senior citizens experience loneliness when they move into care homes.

“Loneliness is like an iceberg, we are conscious of the surface, but there is a great deal more that is phylogenetically so deep that we cannot see it.”-Cacioppo

A healthy mind is essential for a healthy body. When the mind is troubled due to loneliness, it impacts the health of an individual. A person suffering from chronic loneliness might face health issues.

As I was researching and writing on this topic, the interconnectedness cannot be overlooked. I plotted this diagram to show how it impacts. As you can see, my free hand capabilities are abysmal. But you get the point :)

Are there any gains from loneliness?

We cannot deny the benefits of short term isolation. The left fielded people have explored the territory of solitude. Many great works are known to have been created during loneliness too. The few that come to my mind are the writers like Plath, Woolf amongst others.

Objective isolation and short periods of loneliness can be helpful during periods of self-reflection. It also helps the creativity muscle. More importantly, it helps us value our social connections. The blessing in disguise of this pandemic is that many families have got closer during this period of isolation.

My next blog will talk in detail about harnessing inner fuel from solitude.

Loneliness is a multilayered issue. The problem may not have an objective solution. Loneliness is subjective and impacts each of us in our ways.

As an individual, the life stages, events, biological, psychological, social, cultural, regional, work amongst many play different roles while experiencing loneliness. It can be chronic, short term, or transient. The point is to be able to identify, understand, and take action. There are cases when one needs medical help too. The important thing is to understand the distinction between loneliness and solitude. Introverts might be happy in their own company and mindful social engagement. Some extroverts find themselves in agony over the loss of social contact and feel lonely. Like pebbles, our loneliness manifestation is of varying texture, shape, and forms. The doorway leading out of extreme loneliness might be different for each of us. Social circles, family, self-care ( mental + physical), routine, support networks, acceptance, and therapy are some of the aids that can come to the rescue.

Loneliness at work is another part of this equation. To deal with loneliness at work, the leaders and managers need to play a key role in helping teams come together. Team building activities might help at a surface level. Vulnerability, creating safe spaces, and building on the human connection might help address some of the hidden issues. As a manager, it is important to really understand the individuals at a deeper level. Each individual might not need the same amount of attention. There are people who prefer to be alone. But there are people who might have a difficult time adjusting to social situations but enjoy the company of people. There is so much that can be done more meaningfully. The culture, team dynamics, psychological aspects, management practices, and technology play a role in tackling it at work. This might call for another blog.

At the community level, the trust and connection need to be re-established in places of a deficit. We need to learn from the best. What can we adopt from the close-knit communities and infuse into spaces with a lack of interaction? The small towns and villages have close and robust communities that help fight loneliness to a certain extent. There are pockets of these powerful loving communities which exist in the cities too. These might not be accessible to everyone. How can it be made accessible and converted to a place where everyone wants to come together. It needs collaboration from all sections of society and the governments. Discovery and engagement are imperative.

While technology has made our world more connected and smaller, it cannot be a one size fits all solution. There are apps to connect and talk to people. There is a rise in anthropomorphism to try and build human-like non-biological entities. Apart from the technology stack, there is focused research to develop human and social cognitive qualities in these entities. We have it in some form in Siri or the Google Assistants that one might be using.

My fundamental belief is that human connection transcends all technology. However, if technology can play a role in solving a small part of the challenge, I am all for it. There is no denying that we have a digital existence. The question remains whether this progress will increase loneliness or whether there be a mindful transition to a life that is rich in experiences.

As a society, it may be time to go back and embrace some of the age-old practices that we discarded in the glorious trail to success. It starts with our own immediate families and communities. We need to re-prioritize our lives. Give due to what makes us human.

Loneliness is like a mirage where what we see is beyond the individual. Its impact is far-reaching that envelopes the structures of economic, social, biological, political, regional, culture in its entirety.

We need to focus on making life meaningful and affirming social connections. We need to look back and take the best parts of our past generations.

We need a juxtaposition of good values from different timelines to keep the essence of the human spirit alive. We need to focus on quality rather than quantity. It may not be about the few hundred FB/Twitter friends but the handful few who you can reach out to when it is utterly lonely.

Covid19 might have played a small role in bringing families and communities closes. Now is the time to engineer and design the kind of world we want to leave for our next generations where loneliness is a passing companion rather than an unwanted intruder sitting in our minds.

All we need is you and me, a hand that you can extend and hold during times happy and grey.

I couldn’t think of a better song to end this rather long monologue.

“Imagine all the people

Living life in peace

You, you may say I’m a dreamer

But I’m not the only one

I hope someday you will join us

And the world will be as one”

PS: All views are my own. I enjoy writing articles that bring the human element to the forefront across a cross-section of topics ( business, technology, and operations).

References :

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2527715/

2. https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20190129-the-plight-of-japans-modern-hermits

3. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1363461520961627

4. https://www.nature.com/articles/srep02027/#Sec2

5. https://www.cigna.com/about-us/newsroom/studies-and-reports/combatting-loneliness/

Bohemian Writer. Kindness Researcher. Write on an intersection of different topics that pique my curiosity. A closet poet.

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