A cure for loneliness

I was having lunch with a friend today, and the topic came up of loneliness. Why do people feel lonely? Are they not happy with their own company?

My friend suggested that it is not so much being by ourselves that causes such a feeling, but rather the back-and-forth between being alone and being with other people. The contrast encourages a mindset that expects the company of others.

She related a story told to her by a friend who had visited North Africa, where he had encountered a nomadic tribe. Individuals of that tribe would sometimes end up all alone for weeks at a time, with nobody else for miles around.

When told of this extreme way of being, her friend had asked one of the tribesmen whether he ever became lonely. “No,” the man replied, “I am always with myself.”

One thought on “A cure for loneliness”

  1. I think there’s a major difference between the kind of loneliness these people get, though, and the kind that people complain about in New York City. The nomads may stay alone for weeks at a time, yes, but ultimately they go back to a tightly-knit tribe of people that know them and care about them. They always go back to their group of friends and family that they’ve known for decades, that they can talk to and rely on, and that makes the isolated periods less problematic.

    The kind of loneliness you get in America, on the other hand, is rooted in the fact that many, many people just do not have this tight-knit group of friends, family, and confidants. People are forced to move for economic reasons, people are isolated from their families, people live in cities where it’s hard to make friends because you rarely see the same person twice.

    This isn’t just conjecture. There’s a 2006 study by McPherson et al, titled “Social Isolation in America”, which asked people how many friends they had that they could discuss important matters with (i.e. a trusted confidant). In 1985, the mean was 2.94 and the most common answer was 3. In 2006, the mean was 2.08 and the most common answer was zero.

    In short, loneliness and being by yourself are two really different things. It’s far more tolerable to be by yourself for a few weeks than to know that your family is distant, your friendships are shallow, and you have no one to fall back on.

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