"Being lonely is about feeling an absence of love, not just an absence of people." Photo: Getty
Loneliness kills. This is the hard conclusion drawn by recent research into what happens when we find ourselves chronically isolated: ill health is exacerbated, life expectancies are shortened.
In a recent review of the research in The New Republic, science editor Judith Shulevitz notes the significant finding that the adverse effects of loneliness are more severe in women than in men.
Profound loneliness is more than the disappointment of having to spend a Saturday night at home reading a book because your friends all seem to be out of town, or the pang I felt when my local grocery store decided to market cartons of six eggs as "great for singles!" (I bought a standard dozen out of spite and made a unnecessary pavlova in protest). The clinical definition of loneliness is a sustained sense of a lack of closeness, of emotional intimacy with others. It's hard to admit to: it feels bleak and worthless. Loneliness makes us feel unlovable. It isolates us, and makes us feel undeserving of exactly what it is that will alleviate it: other people's care.
And anyone who knows how deep loneliness feels – which is likely everyone, once in a while – knows that its hollow pain can strike just as easily in a crowd of people as when you're simply on your own (which may, indeed, feel like quite the opposite of loneliness).
Being lonely is about feeling an absence of love, not just an absence of people. There are no guarantees against loneliness. Romantic relationships, in theory, should cure loneliness, but it's easy to feel very alone (and trapped) in a relationship that isn't right.
Perhaps that's part of why loneliness hits women harder: the extent to which we feel we are valued in terms of who we have relationships with by others may in fact lead to these senses of crushing isolation. It's there in the way we are driven to seek intense friendships with each other, the belief that the possession of a "best friend" is essential, the disappointment when that kind of friendship drifts (more painful than a breakup). The feeling, to paraphrase Mindy Kaling, that everyone's having fun without us.
It's also there in the enduring belief (although evidence refutes it, it's so baked in to our culture, our celebrations, our conversations about women's lives) that we should all still be in quest of a "life partner" who should, and could, fulfil all of our emotional needs.
In fact, we thrive most with different kinds of love: no one form of it is an exclusive route to happiness. But as long as people continue to congratulate women on achieving certain kinds of relationships, and regard us with something ranging from pity to disdain if we don't have them, it will be hard to resist the shadow of loneliness.
Just allowing ourselves – and each other – to admit to feelings of loneliness is an important first step to conquering it. It can feel tantamount to admitting that we feel disgusting, inhuman – think of all the times women are dismissed as "desperate" or "needy" because they express a desire to find a partner.
We must talk more about loneliness as a universal, rather than exceptional, feeling. Embracing the value of all kinds of different relationships is also important: what is paramount is having people who care about us, not the particular position that they take in our lives.
Hillary Clinton wrote many years ago that it takes a village to raise a child. It also takes a village to make adults feel like we're leading happy lives. Loneliness can be unattractive – something that we often witness and look away from, as if in fear that it will rub off on us. But the truth, of course, is that it can only be alleviated in a collective effort. It's up to all of us to be kind, to be giving with our time, to not wince and look elsewhere when we come across someone who's lonely.
Let's be generous – offer a bit more emotional capital, stop for five minutes to have a chat with a stranger, reach out to a friend who we haven't seen in a long time due to busy-ness or apathy. We'll all suffer loneliness at some point in our lives. Together, we can experience it less.