literary journalism

Loneliness, Solitude & Zoom Gloom

As the theologian Paul Tillich defined the distinction, loneliness is the pain of being alone, solitude is the glory of being alone. Both solitude and socialising can be enjoyable when we have the freedom to choose; impose either condition and it gets old fast. The 19% of Britons self-sequestering solo no doubt long for companions more companionable than solitude, while those bunkering down with others might offer a limb in exchange for some more ‘me time’. Wuhan was only one of a dozen Chinese cities that saw a surge in divorce filings after lockdown restrictions were lifted.

Among the calculus of costs that governments are being asked to weigh in the face of the pandemic is the impact of social distancing measures on mental health. YouGov data show that almost a quarter of adults in the UK have felt lonely as a result of the coronavirus, and that feelings of loneliness have more than doubled during lockdown. Interestingly, despite their predilection for digital communication, the group most affected has been the young, with 44% of those surveyed aged 18-24 reporting having felt lonely.

Two recent books consider this timely topic from different angles. In Together: Loneliness, Health & What Happens When We Find Connection, Vivek Murthy, a US Surgeon General during the Obama administration, is the latest to label loneliness an ‘epidemic’. Weak social ties increase the risk of a host of health problems: addiction and anxiety, dementia and depression, heart disease and premature death.

These effects, explains Murthy, are an evolutionary adaptation: a fight-or-flight response to being alone warned our forebears not to wander too far from the tribe. When loneliness persists, however, high cortisol levels can cause damage by increasing cardiovascular stress and inflammation. Murthy cites a 2010 meta-analysis in which the effects of loneliness were found to be as detrimental to life span as smoking 15 cigarettes per day—greater than the risk associated with obesity, excess drinking and lack of exercise.

Not so fast, says the social historian David Vincent in A History of SolitudeUnlike packs of cigarettes or pounds on a scale, measures of loneliness are subjective and difficult to compare over time. The UCLA loneliness scale — the basis of most of the research in the US since the late 1970s — relies on self-analysis of ‘never’, ‘rarely’, ‘sometimes’ or ‘often’ in response to questions like “I feel as if nobody really understands me”.

Vincent challenges the causality of the litany of medical conditions associated with loneliness, as well as the idea put forth by the late social neuroscientist John Cacioppo that it can be ‘contagious’. As Tom Chivers has noted, there is little evidence that loneliness is on the rise; it may be endemic but not an epidemic…

Read the full piece online at UnHerd

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