On loneliness

Solitude and Loneliness

Being spanish my native language, one detail I like about English is the difference between solitude and loneliness:

Solitude: the situation of being alone (alone) without other people.

Loneliness: the state of Being lonely

And lonely: unhappy not being with other people

In Spanish (as far as I know) we only have one word for both cases:

Soledad.

Whether one is unhappy, neutral or happy about being alone without other people, the word is the same. And it is a limitation. Considering I believe many of us experience both states throughout life. That of suffering from being alone and other times where we need to seclude ourselves to spend time with ourselves/alone.

You can even mention a third of being with people and still feeling alone. But I don’t think there is a word that defines the latter or at least I don’t know it.

And choosing to be alone knowing that we have people waiting for us or that they want to see us is not the same as being alone without anyone there for us.

How much we like to be more or less alone depends on the personality and particular tastes of each one. How long. With how many people to share the moments that we are not alone.

But beyond these particularities, we all need both moments of solitude and company. How much we need and/or want solitude or companionship varies throughout life as well.

Personally, I went through moments in which I suffered a lot from loneliness. And others where I needed it. For example: today, working remotely full time, sometimes, at the end of the day, a weight of loneliness (loneliness) invades me more than when I studied at the university in person and spent 10 hours or more with people. Back then I would come home and need to be with myself and no one else (usually).

However, today I consider that I have the “privilege” of enjoying solitude most of the time I am alone.

Feeling alone

On this particular topic I have a bias from consuming a lot of material in english focused on the USA, Europe, Australia and NZ (“the west”). I do not believe or affirm that there is a problem of the same magnitude in Argentina or in Latin America as that of those regions.

We have meaningful cultural differences, especially in the way people relate to each other, but also similarities and many times cultural phenomena from there are replicated here (in Argentina, where I’m from). I’m not a sociologist either, this is not a serious research thesis. It is a simple post on my personal page compiling a mix of links, observations and my own opinions on a topic that always interested me a lot because of its current relevance, how it seems to continue to get worse, and goes through other problems of equal or greater magnitude (such as the loss of the third place).

There are various studies mentioning the problem of loneliness growing. Where more and more people have fewer close friends. For example: in the US, in 1990, 40% of men said they had 10 or more close friends (not counting family), 28% of women. In 2021, the percentage reduced to 28 in men and 11 in women. 15% of men and 10% of women responded not to have any close friends in 2021.

1 in 2 adults report “measurable” levels of loneliness as reported in this recently uploaded video from Veritasium. Although he himself talks about happiness, he inevitably ends up touching on the topic of loneliness.

Even if one were to completely dismiss these phenomena, claiming that it is something exclusive to the northern hemisphere/Anglosphere, it is interesting to analyze something that could potentially happen in my country and Latin America in general.

Nevertheless, it seems that loneliness is a a growing problem also in Latin America and Spain.

Some excerpts from the previous links:

“The percentage of people living alone is growing globally. In Scandinavian countries, more than 40% of homes are inhabited by a single person. In Spain, two out of every ten. In Argentina, three out of every ten.”

“The WHO revealed that between 20% and 34% of older people in Latin America, Europe, China and the United States feel lonely.”

“To finish the combo, Google searches for “where to meet people?”, “how to make friends?” reached their all-time high this year.”

There are probably (surely) more than I am going to mention, but what are the causes?

1. Loss/decline in popularity of a “third place”

The third place is a sociological term coined by American sociologist Ray Oldenburg in his 1989 book The Great Good Place. It is that place that is neither home nor where we work but where we spend a significant amount of time on a regular basis.

Low profile. A club, a plaza, a hair salon, a café, a library, a bar, the church, malls, etc.

All of them could and can be a third place. The conversation always fulfills a fundamental and central place. And on equal terms without a hierarchical structure.

Oldenburg stated that these places contribute to the feeling of social integration and community life. A completely neutral place (as opposed to one’s home or work) where we were/are all relatively equal without necessarily spending a significant amount of money.

The loss or decrease in popularity (since there are still churches or bars with regulars) of this place is complex and multi-causal. An entire post could be written about that. This video goes into better detail and I recommend it. This one too. Some that are hypothesized are the growth of agnosticism/atheism and the adoption of other religions other than Christianity; the boom of electronic commerce; the mistrust in others; the consequences of the pandemic; “car-centric cities”.

There are those who may argue that they were and are being replaced by virtual third places. I totally disagree. Digital communication by text, even including emojis, the occasional video call, photos, etc. It will never be able to replace face-to-face communication. Tone and body language are lost, leaving only the verbal component. Discord servers, forums, social networks, etc. They may be excellent places for entertainment and/or communication but it is not the same. They are superficial substitutes.

Some people have even (we have, myself included) lost the second place, work. Which brings me to my next point:

2. Remote work

I don’t have a book by a sociologist to cite on the matter in this case. But I think it is understandable why working remotely full time without any possibility of going to an office can lead to loneliness in some cases. For the record, I do not advocate returning to offices and even if I were given the choice between a completely remote job and having to spend 10 hours of my life per week going to an office I would choose the former. Without hesitation.

But I would like something hybrid since in my opinion I don’t think it’s healthy to spend 40 hours a week without seeing people with whom you have a minimal face-to-face bond. It is a controversial topic and perhaps many people reading this will scream to heaven. I completely understand those who are parents, for example, who do not need or care to see other people because time with their children is invaluable, of course. And that is why I repeat that I do not advocate, not even close, a return to how things were 100% pre-pandemic. But at the same time I know that I am not the only person who at times is exhausted and drained by 100% remote work.

3. The internet, digitality, social networks

It has been written a lot about this. I know. For example: “In a study of Americans ages 19 to 32, 25 percent of top users of social networks were twice as likely to report that they felt lonely than people who used them the least.” Correlation does not imply causation. It’s probably goes both ways. People who suffer more from loneliness use social networks more and these do not help them to get out of that state either, they worsen it.

I believe that social networks are the cause, in part, of what happened to third place and at the same time a consequence of its decline in popularity and the growth of remote work. They are a symptom, in part, of sometimes having nowhere to go.

In my opinion, they make the situation worse. Social media has a degree of anonymity and dehumanization that does not allow for genuine connection. They fuel an unhealthy competition (which has always been there but from the likes on Facebook and the replication of this feature in almost every social network it has become quantifiable). Although they have some benefits (I use Instagram, for example) I don’t think these are greater than the costs. Especially in relation to loneliness, meeting people, etc. The mere fact that we apply the term detox to refer to drastically reducing its use as if we were talking about a drug, I think, tells us a lot about its benefits and costs.

The point is, they don’t and can’t completely replace face-to-face interaction and community life like third places did. They may seem like a temporary substitute but it is superficial, and sometimes even harmful.

4. Depression and other disorders on the rise

With the other points, this point is kind of a chicken and egg. Does depression increase (among other mental disorders) because loneliness increases and/or loneliness increases because depression increases? Both. Everything has to do with everything. It is a positive feedback system. Having gone through depression, I know very well how it leads you to isolate yourself, deepening the vicious cycle of not seeing people -> getting worse emotionally in part due to this isolation -> having even less desire to see people, etc.

The question(s) of why disorders such as depression are increasing (in addition to the 3 previous points, because I think it is even more complex) is impossible for me to answer and this post is already quite long, really, it will be for another post (if I write it).

So?

Maybe you read all of the above (or skimmed through it, understandable) and you feel that nothing of everything I describe or think and is described in the different links affects you.

You still have some sort of third or even a fourth place, hopefully.

Maybe you don’t work remotely like me (or at least not 100%) and after working all day with people the only thing you want is not to see anyone when you get home.

Maybe you are at university where it is easier to form a group of friends or peers, no matter how small it may be (a lot of time together plus common interests and goals = ease of forming bonds).

The experiences are diverse and I cannot and do not intend to contemplate all of them. And I can’t imagine or have any idea what kind of person may read this. But the point is that something is happening on this issue and a more atomized society made up of more and more individuals who suffer from loneliness is not good for anyone.

Is there any solution? It depends on each person’s situation.

And unfortunately I am pessimistic about all these issues. I don’t think they’re going to resolve naturally for a long time. There is no way to go back to “pre-digitality.” Ironically, I shared this post on Instagram, because it is the most convenient way to share it with my friends, acquaintances and family (althought I prefer to keep it with few people because I believe its “harmful” effects usually come from following/being followed by many people, even unknown).

I think it would do good to anyone to have a third place, if they don’t have it already. Many third places still exist. Only that today it requires an extra effort to find them and seek to integrate. Before, without remote work, social networks, dating apps, forums, e-commerce, etc. and so many other conveniences that accrue from the digital age in the 21st century there was no alternative. Or you met people at work or in the third place (or parties, recitals, etc., too, why not).