Loneliness, a universal dread, is experienced by everyone in one way or another. Biologically, we fear loneliness because it determined our very survival in ancient times given our ancestors had a higher chance of survival in the wilderness when they belonged to tribes, groups, communities. In fact, the unpleasant feeling of loneliness is an evolutionary advantage we developed to warn ourselves of our vulnerable state, and encourages us to seek companionship.
Firstly to understand loneliness as a feeling, it is important to establish that we all experience loneliness in our lives and that it typically manifests itself into a protective mechanism. It uses our fears of social rejection and isolation to motivate individuals to connect with others . Loneliness is a trigger that causes stress and despair, because we’re hardwired to crave inclusion and a sense of belonging. However loneliness is not always obvious to ourselves or others as there are many misconceptions that it is only felt by “people without friends”. whereas In reality, most individuals will feel lonely despite being surrounded by a multitude of friends. Loneliness is difficult to pinpoint and define due to its evershifting nature as time passes. As we begin to see a trend of external sources affecting our psychology and causing loneliness, such as the internet; this is made even more confusing in addition to our basic human physiology.
I believe the nature of loneliness can be divided into two observations.
Loneliness is a mental state, not an observable truth.
Loneliness manifests into a toxic cycle, and promotes isolation.
To put into perspective why loneliness is not an observable truth, we must understand that loneliness can exist on the manifest or latent level. The manifest level refers to obvious evidence while latent level refers to loneliness that exists on a hidden level. The manifest or latent level is a theory usually describing different levels of violence visibility within a community. However, I believe that this theory applies to how loneliness is caused by structural and cultural violence. Structural violence depicts a community with rules that permit violence, while cultural violence is violence exerted on individuals and parties due to their cultural identity and beliefs. So how does a theory of violence in the field of global politics apply to loneliness?
Loneliness is caused by the fear transmitted to us by our ancestors—social exclusion. While loneliness can be obvious and on the manifest level, such as physical exclusion or rejection of certain individuals from a group, it is not always so obvious. Certain people can be predicted to feel easily lonely, due to certain conditions within a society. For example, a high-pressure society can easily manifest a negative outlook in individuals, which may cause intentional rejection of society, and lead to self-made loneliness. Take the example of Hong Kong, which is undeniably one of the most high-pressure communities, sporting an extremely low livability index ranking. A 2014 survey found 1.9% of Hong Kong’s adolescents to be withdrawn (Gent). Essentially, teens become reluctant to socialize or form connections with others. This figure of 2 out of every 100 adolescents feeling withdrawn is a shockingly high number, as it indicates that many of our peers do not feel like they belong. This issue is not limited to Hong Kong as individuals all across the globe experience loneliness. Overtime, the severity of these feelings can increase which can have detrimental effects on ones mental health and lifestyle. An example of this would be Japan’s “hikikomori” which is used to describe a group of people exhibiting characteristics “of physical isolation, social avoidance and psychological distress that lasts six months or longer.” (Gent).
Loneliness can manifest itself into a toxic cycle as a prolonged feeling of loneliness reinforces itself to create a negative, self-deprecating mindset. This is why “hikikomoris” socially seclude themselves for prolonged time; because loneliness manifests itself to a prolonged feeling of helplessness over time. Helplessness has many effects on the human psyche, but a notable one would be how it leads to an unwillingness to interact with others. This unwillingness to reach out, along with other emotions, leads to the creation of a mindset that promotes “loneliness” and causes a toxic cycle to be born.
Loneliness is a cognitive perspective, and to truly understand its cause, it boils down to the psychology and nature of this feeling. In the 1960s, Martin Seligman developed a theory of “learned helplessness”, through an experiment with dogs. This experiment was mainly meant to investigate whether preparing a dog to learn something aids their response in a future situation. To accomplish this, Seligman used two groups of dogs, one which is trained to be shocked whenever a bell is rung, the other group was untrained. Then the two groups of dogs would be placed within a box, with an obstacle in the middle. The dogs would hear a bell sound which is accompanied by an electric shock on the floor, and they could jump over the obstacle to avoid getting shocked. However, the dogs “prepared” for the test only lay on the ground and accepted the pain, unlike the other group of dogs who quickly learnt to jump over the obstacle. The pre-trained dogs developed a “learned helplessness” because they were accustomed to being shocked, without any control over it, so they lay there and succumbed to their fate. The experiment would be considered unethical by today’s standards, but still it showed the psychology of a dog’s mind, which actually resembles ours. From this, we can see how helplessness is a feeling that develops from past experiences which have manifested into a negative mindset.
Similar to a dog’s psychology, it is extremely easy for us to fall victim to the same discouraged mindset. An individual getting unpleasant social experiences repeatedly may develop feelings of helplessness, and in the end reach a mental state where they simply stop trying to interact with others, feeling that their loneliness is inevitable. This may develop into voluntary social seclusion and isolation.
So how can we help those who experience loneliness? Unfortunately, like all topics regarding mental health, this is hard to pinpoint and observe due to its “invisibility”. As mentioned at the start, “loneliness is a mental state, not an observable truth”. This idea encapsulates two unique characteristics of mental health: it is often difficult to observe when others have mental illnesses, and it isn’t quantifiable. This means it is hard to observe, and it is sometimes difficult to communicate one’s emotional turmoil. This makes it difficult for individuals to feel their thoughts to be reasonable and accepted by others, which promotes the instinct to further isolate themselves. This cycle is extremely toxic as loneliness begins to reinforce itself.
Though there is no definite solution for overcoming mental obstacles, I believe every little action counts in breaking the cycle of loneliness. I believe, as with dealing with any issues regarding mental health, the core of solving it is through sensitivity. Make a conscious effort to be sensitive to others’ experiences, and be empathetic. Do our best to be kind to others and include them, give them a hand and opportunities to break out of that toxic cycle of loneliness. Through all of this, perhaps we will all feel a bit less alone in this confusing world as long as we all try to understand and validate each other’s unique experiences in life.