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A silent epidemic of loneliness is on the rise worldwide, especially in the West. Do you feel lonely? If you do, ironically, you’re not alone.
According to the Angus Reid Institute, almost half of Canadians have experienced feelings of loneliness sometime in their lives. In the United States the number of Americans who have no one with whom to speak has tripled since 1985.
Experts understand that this epidemic of loneliness, spreading as a global phenomenon, reflects a weakness in the social network of relationships:
Interpersonal connection is at the heart of all human society. As a species, we thrive on relationships and social interaction, to the point that our health as individuals is negatively affected in the absence of these connections. – Angus Reid Institute, June 2019.
So how do we define loneliness? Loneliness is an actual, true, or perceived sense of being separated from others as a result of lack of social belonging and meaningful ties of friendship.
Loneliness, being alone, and social isolation, although interrelated, are all different phenomena. Psychologists define loneliness as a subjective experience, while isolation is an objective one often imposed on humans due to different circumstances, for example, the isolation of refugees or isolation in a hospital setting to prevent the spread of disease. A long period of isolation may lead to loneliness and despair. The state of “being alone” can be voluntarily chosen by individuals in order to concentrate better on tasks and projects, or imposed because of medical developmental conditions such as autism spectrum disorder. As Paul Tillich said, “Loneliness expresses the pain of being alone and solitude expresses the glory of being alone.”
It is also possible to be surrounded by people and yet to feel lonely. The concept of “the lonely crowd” was popularized through a book by David Riesman and colleagues in the 1960s, which depicted the “new middle class” in America in terms of its social character. After half a century it remains a realistic and inspiring work in the present social climate, foreseeing the decline of sociability and the rise of loneliness and consumerism in America.
Loneliness is not a disease, but it can lead to illnesses such as depression and anxiety, as well as the adoption of risky habits such as substance abuse and smoking. Such destructive habitual behavior may be a way of compensating for a lack of social companionship. On the assumption that loneliness is an ailment, researchers have tried to invent a pill to cure it. This research, based on the use of the hormone pregnenolone, involves a steroid also produced naturally by the human body. In its steroid form, it is used as a supplement to overcome fatigue and to stimulate energy and memory.
So far the experimental research involving pregnenolone involves the study of mice whose brains are stimulated through injection of the hormone, but hope has been expressed that the next step will be to try it on lonely human beings. However, if one assumes that loneliness is not a disease, but rather a symptom of societal dysfunction, other solutions begin to appear, such as developing social and spiritual programs which would not only combat but prevent the rising epidemic of loneliness.
While we sometimes have the instinct to avoid human contact for self-preservation, generally speaking, human beings, by nature, are sociable and long to connect with others. Mother Teresa said “The most terrible poverty is loneliness and the feeling of being unloved.”
The increasing number of elderly in our societies may suffer most from loneliness. Many older people may have lost a spouse or close friends, and unless they have other resources to support them, they may spend much of their time alone. Besides the above-mentioned losses, older adults may also be confronted with mobility challenges, health issues, lack of transportation, lower income, inadequate services or lack of information about the availability of services. Such obstacles can deprive them of access to social interaction, which increases loneliness.
But loneliness has always existed in the history of humankind. Even the prophets of God and the saints and holy ones suffered from it. They did not have the sophisticated methods of communication we now do, but they had a greater sense of reliance on their Creator, the Almighty. For example, Baha’u’llah wrote:
Unto Him do I render thanks and praise for the things He hath ordained, for My loneliness, and the anguish I suffer at the hands of these men who have strayed so far from Him. – Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 274.
In a Baha’i prayer we read, “Behold , then, O my God, my loneliness among Thy servants and my remoteness from Thy friends and Thy chosen ones.” – Baha’u’llah, Prayers and Meditations, p. 109.
Abdu’l-Baha wrote this reassuring message to a Baha’i in an isolated area:
There is no harm in thy loneliness in those regions; for verily, the hosts of confirmation are thy help, thy Glorious Lord is thy protector and the angels of the Kingdom are thy fellow-speakers. Glad-tidings be unto thee for this! Blessed art thou for this! – Tablets of Abdu’l-Baha, Volume 1, p. 61.
Cultural, social and familial values, including subscribing to a materialistic outlook on life, all have an impact on loneliness in modern society. Moreover, the flood of refugees and migrants, who typically receive inadequate humanitarian support, brings the phenomenon of social isolation to a new level. The stark contrast between the close relationships that existed in their countries of origin, especially for those coming from African or Asian nations, and the lack thereof in Europe and North America, contributes to the loneliness they experience.
The culture of individualism, with its orientation toward success achieved through competition and its promotion of self-interest at the expense of others, bears responsibility for the condition of isolation and loneliness felt by so many. As a result, individualism adversely affects the spirit of cooperation, reciprocity and willingness to share, giving rise to indifference toward the plight of the poor and the suffering.
In a letter from the international governing body of the Baha’i Faith to its community it warned:
It must be realized that the isolation and despair from which so many suffer are products of an environment ruled by an all-pervasive materialism. And in this the [Baha’is] must understand the ramifications of Baha’u’llah’s statement that ‘the present-day order’ must ‘be rolled up, and a new one spread out in its stead.’ – The Universal House of Justice, 28 December, 2010.
Religious, family and cultural values provide a sense of belonging and encourage a sharing of life’s challenges and opportunities, especially as people gather and work together for a common purpose. Such experiences buffer isolation and loneliness. For example, engaging in humanitarian and service-oriented endeavours can mitigate isolation.
The Baha’i writings say that the purpose of education is service to humanity. Moreover, the Baha’i teachings strongly encourage social integration with people of all walks of life and diverse religious, racial, ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Furthermore, building community through associating, in love and harmony, with people of different backgrounds not only fosters a spirit of service and leads to the creation of a new civilization – but it also minimizes loneliness by rejecting the cult of individualism and self-centeredness. This manifestation of love for humanity, which includes respecting the rights of others and reaching out to the poor and lonely, can then become part of the daily life of each person and the community itself.