Some of us treasure our solitude, but no one wants to be lonely. Nevertheless, loneliness is integral to the human experience. Writers, thinkers and philosophers grapple with it.
The great psychoanalyst Frieda Fromm-Reichmann opined that loneliness is the worst part of mental illness. The seriously mentally ill individual can’t trust her perceptions and emotions, nor can they be intimately shared, because of the inexpressible uniqueness of a broken mind.
Religious writers have also written about loneliness. They refer to the loneliness of conscience. They describe the lonely man of faith. Philosophers have told us that there is no avoiding it: the human condition entails existential loneliness. It is a fact to which each of us must respond.
Loneliness is a perception and a judgment, not an objective state. It has been described as the discrepancy between desired and achieved level of social contact, depending more on the quality of social relationships, than the quantity. One can be lonely in a crowd, or with a full social schedule, or even in a marriage.
Everyone has been lonely, but chronic loneliness threatens physical and mental health alike. Loneliness is associated with lowered immunity, lowered resilience, with depression and lowered stress tolerance, even with shortened life expectancy. Most remarkably, loneliness can be contagious.
Researchers who examined the natural history of lonely people in the large, longitudinal Framingham study found that when people were lonely, they tended to migrate to the edges of the social network. There they had fewer friends, and their loneliness led them to lose the few ties they had. Before losing those friends, though, they transmitted loneliness to them. Neighbors of lonely people were likely to “catch” their loneliness. Women were more susceptible to loneliness infection than were men.
Just as a mirror reflects a reversed image of the original, so does Laughter mirror loneliness, in many important features. Laughter’s social dynamic, physical and mental consequences and existential embrace are the reverse of loneliness. We might say that laughter is loneliness’ alter ego.
Laughter creates social bonds, reduces pain and anxiety, increases well-being, and is also highly contagious. Good Laughter communicates safety, security and human connection. Some think laughter began as a primal way of communicating relief from danger: that something potentially dangerous turned out to be ok. Thus, we laugh with surprise and delight.
Among philosophers, Nietzsche considered laughter to be a response to mortality and existential loneliness. In its power to comfort and connect, Laughter is life-affirming. If only for a moment, laughter expands consciousness and allows it to hold human fear and folly in a larger container.
As one wag put it, “Never take life too seriously. No one gets out alive anyway.”