The Loneliest Time of the Year

Loneliness, transition and wisdom

Posted Dec 26, 2018

When first released in 1963, the Andy Williams classic ‘The Most Wonderful Time of the Year’ enthused all things marshamalloy, mistltoey and full of good cheer. Sentiment aside, the holidays associated with the season—Hanukkah, Winter Solstice, Christmas, Kwanzaa, Three Kings Day and the New Year—are, in fact, among our most lonely. Setting aside the ambient social isolation of our media-numbed culture, for many of us the holiday experience can feel a lot like George Bailey in the throes of a life without himself.

Epidemic Loneliness

For a vast majority of us, the holiday season is about friends, family and connection. For those who stand outside that connection—whether as an introvert, a singleton, someone who is socially anxious, or someone whose circumstances leave him, her or them without a sense of place—the experience of loneliness can be greatly amplified, with the key concept here being ‘amplified’.

A recent CIGNA study using the UCLA Loneliness Scale with more than 20,000 people showed loneliness in the US is not simply a somewhat predictable aspect of the post-modern human condition, but is, in fact, epidemic. Members of Generation Z—emerging adults between the ages of 18-22—are particularly affected. In terms of the holidays, those standing outside the social momentum of the season can end up feeling even more isolated and alone because they are witness to something in which they feel they are, for whatever reason, unable to meaningfully participate.

That’s an important point: meaning and purpose provide us with a sense of place, no matter our external circumstances. From a spiritual perspective, finding meaning and purpose in the holiday season can relieve some of its burden. This doesn’t necessarily mean returning to Shul, dancing under the Cold Moon in the Sacred Grove or re-discovering Christ. It is more finding a way of entering into personal joy in a season of giving and love.

Cycles of Isolation

Back to loneliness, and adding insult to injury, a recent study in the journal International Psychogeriatrics suggested we experience an increase in loneliness during three specific periods on our lives: our late 20’s, our mid-50’s and our late 80’s. Anecdotally, this stands to reason, as these are periods of transition, where we are moving from adolescence into adulthood, out of adulthood into elderhood and from elderhood toward death, respectively.

Regardless, if we are within these lifespan periods, our experience of loneliness and social isolation during the holidays, in particular, can be further heightened. Not only are we influenced by external experience, but we can also be impacted by a shifting interior landscape. Being mindful that our psychosocial experience—and it’s attendant impact on our state of mind—is fluid, we can, again, support ourselves during these times by establishing a sense of personal purpose and meaning, and leveraging it as a means of entering into joy.

Wisdom as Remedy

Inside the doom and gloom is a glimmer of light and, given the season, dare we say, hope. Researchers in the International Psychogeriatrics found that there is an inverse relationship between loneliness and wisdom, where wisdom was measured on seven scales:

  • Basic fund of knowledge
  • Emotional regulation
  • Empathy
  • Compassion
  • Insight
  • Acceptance
  • Decisiveness

The degree to which these traits and characteristics are cultivated has an impact on the degree of loneliness someone reports. When they are consciously cultivated, the sense of loneliness a person experiences diminishes. Reframing this idea within the context of establishing a self-space, traits of understanding, emotional balance, openness, vulnerability and a sense of personal power all play into influencing an autonomous sense of self and place, while, simultaneously, diminishing the negative influence of outside social factors.

Another perspective on wisdom, not directly considered by the study, but compassed by it, is the notion of activation. Activation informs our ‘aliveness’—a sense of connection to self and place that provides us with a point of reference for being in the world. That sense of aliveness keeps us engaged, and the more engaged we are—through traits like empathy, compassion, insight and acceptance—the less isolated we feel

The winter holiday season can be even more difficult for some of us than other times of the year. It is a time when love and connection do, indeed, come to the fore, amplifying an already ambient distress. If you find you are feeling disconnected or lonely as a matter of course, keep in mind our most essential connection is to ourselves. The path to that connection is self-compassion, so be gentle with yourself, kind in your self-talk and know, as you love yourself, you are loved.

© 2018 Michael J. Formica, All Rights Reserved

References

CIGNA. (2018). New Cigna Study Reveals Loneliness at Epidemic Levels in America. https://www.cigna.com/newsroom/news-releases/2018/new-cigna-study-reveals-loneliness-at-epidemic-levels-in-america

Lee, E., Depp, C., et al (2018). High prevalence and adverse health effects of loneliness in community-dwelling adults across the lifespan: role of wisdom as a protective factor. International Psychogeriatric Association. https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/international-psychogeriatrics/article/high-prevalence-and-adverse-health-effects-of-loneliness-in-communitydwelling-adults-across-the-lifespan-role-of-wisdom-as-a-protective-factor/FCD17944714DF3C110756436DC05BDE9