Seven Myths About Loneliness
What we say and what we should say instead.
Posted Nov 09, 2020
I am quite confident that, like me, you can’t read that we’re living in a loneliness epidemic one more time. I also suspect that if you hear that loneliness kills as much as obesity or smoking again, you might start screaming—or am I only speaking about myself here?
Yes, loneliness is not great. It is also pretty prevalent at the moment, especially given the pandemic. This is probably why there is so much being written and said about loneliness right now. But are we saying the right things? Or have a few myths pervaded the conversation?
I think that a few key misconceptions have emerged. Here are seven:
- That we are definitely living in an epidemic of loneliness. There is no definitive evidence for this. Well, at least not until the start of the pandemic. To be able to say this, we’d need evidence comparing loneliness prevalence across time. This would need to be data from comparable samples in terms of age, gender composition, geographic location, among others. We do not have much of that. So why do we say this? Is it perhaps that we are living an epidemic of interest in loneliness?
- That loneliness is always a bad thing. Yes, it is by definition mainly considered aversive, though this does depend on how it is defined, as there are definitions of loneliness that do not exclude the notion it can be a positive experience. Also, if you ask people what loneliness means to them, sometimes they say it is something positive—and why should we argue with that? Nobody holds the monopoly on how loneliness is defined. Finally, even when it is aversive, loneliness can ultimately have positive results or serve important functions. For example, if feeling loneliness directs us to the importance of reconnecting, then it can at least end well.
- That some of us are just "lonely people." Of course, there are people who are lonely so often, for such a long time, that it is tempting to speak of them as "lonely people." And it is true that when loneliness is fairly chronic one might be forgiven to misperceive it as part of who the person is. But I think it is unhelpful to speak in these terms. It is more helpful to think of people "feeling lonely" than people "being lonely." It is more accurate to acknowledge that we are all "lonely people," at times. Loneliness is not about who we are, but about how we feel and our life situation. Thinking like this helps us understand that we can turn things around by changing those circumstances—though "we," in this case, refers at least as much to governments and local authorities, as it does to specific individuals.
- That loneliness is a problem of youth and old age. We hear this a lot and sometimes hearing something a lot seems to make it real. But it isn’t. First, not all studies that have the samples that allow for this analysis show these two peaks. Second, speaking in terms of these two peaks obscures more than it reveals. Overstating the importance of age dangerously obscures the importance of many other factors, such as lack of opportunities to connect with others, social exclusion, and geographic isolation. Loneliness is not a sad thing that sad old people feel—it’s a wake-up call that we all should be attentive to, no matter what age.
- That to address loneliness all we need is to "get out more." Well, yes and no. Loneliness signals the need to reconnect and in this sense, indeed, to address it we need to "get out more." But getting out more is neither always possible, nor the best way to address loneliness. If you are lonely because you are discriminated against or ostracized, for example, getting out more might just make things worse. If loneliness is associated with depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, it is hard to regard social interactions as a good thing, as well as to make the best of these when they happen, which can make you feel even more lonely. In these cases, it is important to take care of ourselves first, to reconnect slowly and gently, and it is important to be sensitive to this in others who feel lonely instead of simply urging them to "go out more."
- That the data we have on loneliness necessarily tell us about loneliness. What does it mean when someone says they are not lonely—Does it mean they are not lonely, or does it mean that admitting to being lonely is too painful or stigmatizing? People score lower on measures of loneliness that directly refer to loneliness than to questions that do not make this direct reference. Maybe some people find it hard to admit to feeling something that is socially frowned upon? Or maybe they do not recognise their feelings as loneliness?
- That social media is the devil. This one seems obvious to many, but it is never a missed point wherever I go to speak about loneliness—is (increasing) loneliness a product of social media? Hmm. Social media can be used in different ways, with different people. And it is how we use it that determines whether or not it makes us more lonely. In a nutshell, if we use it to extend our offline social relationships, rather than replace them, we are enriching our social life. If we have no other option, we are actually enriching our social life. It is only when we choose social media to replace other social opportunities that it can make us lonely.
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