Loneliness is now a disease. Loneliness, according to an article I read in The New Yorker last week, “alter(s) hormone levels, immune responses, and gene expression, (and increases) the risk for a variety of ailments, including heart disease, depression, high blood pressure, and Alzheimer’s.”
The article’s author, Ellen Surrey, shared the results of a study done by scientists on Carpenter ants in which it was observed that isolation affected the way ants digested food. The isolated ants also spent a lot of energy looking for their colonies and that, in addition to not receiving the nutrition they needed because of poor digestion, increased their likelihood of dying earlier than non-isolated ants. The study’s authors are curious whether loneliness affects the gut in humans as well and if it’s a factor in loneliness’s effect on human mortality.
We are living in an age of loneliness apparently. But what are we talking about when we describe someone or ourselves as “lonely”? Isolation isn’t loneliness. It can be but not always. Being alone doesn’t necessarily mean you’re lonely. Surrey was right when she described lonely people as “people who lack—or believe that they lack—close social connections.” “Believe that they lack” is what makes lonely people lonely. The most spot-on definition of loneliness came from William Deresiewicz in his essay “The End of Solitude”: “Loneliness is not the absence of company, it is grief over that absence.”
It doesn’t matter how many social connections you have or how close those connections are if you think, or believe, it’s not enough. Believing you don’t have what you need is stressful and stress is what can cause whacked out hormone levels, depression, and high blood pressure.
It seems like all those articles warning about the negative health effects of loneliness think companionship is the cure. The cure is changing what you believe about being alone and what you think you need from people. I wrote about this in my post Climb Down Into Loneliness — the cure is to stick to loneliness all of your life.
The cure is to learn how to be alone.
Human beings are living longer and have computers that they can wear on their wrists but so many of us don’t know how to be alone. We’re advancing at unreal speeds technologically and devolving psychologically and emotionally.
I read somewhere that if you are currently under the age of 40 you will never have a retirement. The economic reality will be that you will have to work for most of your adult life unless you fall ill or until you die just to survive. The social reality is that we do not live in small, tight-knit, stable communities anymore when loneliness was less likely. You’ll need to learn to be alone to survive increasingly chaotic and unstable social situations.
It’s so easy — just spend time alone. Do the things you’d normally do with other people alone until it no longer feels uncomfortable. Stop thinking or grieving the fact that no one is around. This magical thing occurs when you stop expecting to be heard, understood, comforted, entertained by people all the time: it’s fun to be alone. The most fun, peaceful, burned in my memory moments are when I was alone. Another secret: you enjoy other people more when you aren’t desperate for them. Again, more fun.
Need a “learn to be alone” role model? Try Sadie Stein. I thought I was great at being alone because I’ve gone to the movies alone on a Saturday night, but she’s a rock star. She wrote about how she figured out how to alone in the article “A Dance to the Music of Time” in The Paris Review:
Back when I was at my loneliest, I decided it would be a good idea to force myself to do all sorts of things alone.
The point was not to meet anyone; I shunned company. It was some combination of self-improvement and self-punishment. One June evening, I determined that I would go dancing. I didn’t want to—of course I didn’t want to, I didn’t want to do any of it.
She would get all dressed up, take the subway for an hour to a bar, and dance. Alone. The Twist. Rock star.
Eventually some people joined her on the dance floor and she went to the bathroom. As she was leaving a young girl said to her: “I just wanted to say…when you were out there, doing the Twist? We were like, that’s the coolest girl we’ve ever seen.”
If I was in the bar, I’d be thinking the same thing.
The thing that made Sadie a rock star in my eyes wasn’t so much being brave enough to dance alone at a bar but what she realized afterwards:
Well, that’s the point of being alone—it’s not anything to do with you. It’s about being something in someone else’s life, and no one ever knows the difference, or the truth. That’s why people like bad movies and bad fiction, and it’s worth it, it’s worth it, it’s worth it.
You tend to realize deep shit like that when you spend time alone.
If you have no one, LEARN TO BE ALONE.
If you only have one friend, LEARN TO BE ALONE.
If you have people who love you but you feel isolated and distant from them, LEARN TO BE ALONE.
If you are constantly surrounded by people you love who love you, LEARN TO BE ALONE.
If the machines take over, LEARN TO BE ALONE. (I re-watched The Matrix last weekend.) Being alone is a good skill to have no matter what’s happening.
And do it with bravery and creativity and grace and joy.