The walls at Artful are lined with a singular procession of life-sized interconnected nude bodies, eleven figures in total. Eleven carved cradle panels, the figures brought to life using oil sticks (giant ‘crayons’ made of oil paint), with a lot of messy handprints and fingertips evident if you look closely enough.
This series was created as an exploration of questions to do with how humans connect and interact with each other. In some of the pieces, the position and connectedness of the bodies reference monumental landscapes; rolling undulations of land and sea, the drama of mountains and valleys.
In others, I played with the dichotomy of photographing people individually, in physical expressions of introspection, vulnerable, emotional self-reflection, and then used ‘low-tech’ cut and paste (scissors and glue) to create tableaus of connection and interaction. I was curious how physical contact and proximity created narratives that differed from the intentions of the original photographs.
We humans are meaning making machines. When we lack a story, we will happily provide one, interpreting, projecting and assuming all manner of thoughts and connections between events, things, and people. Our capacity for creativity and storytelling is fundamental to our existence, growth, and survival. This very necessary and useful ability can also lead us quickly down paths of misinterpretation and conflict, especially as we so rarely stop to check in, “Do you mean…?”
Many of us avoid the risky vulnerability required to share our interpretations, preferring instead to hold our conclusions about what we think we know of other people’s intentions, thoughts, and actions, saying only to ourselves, “I know what’s happening here…”, because to ask for clarification requires risky self-revelation.
As a counsellor, I regularly witness these disconnections of meaning between people. I experience them personally, with my friends and family. Especially over the past three years, I have frequently wondered to myself what is going on here? Why are people…hell… why am I so sensitive, irritated, and frustrated with people that I am close with?
The past three years have been challenging for many different reasons beyond the health concerns of the pandemic: isolation, financial insecurity, existential angst, political polarization, ideological -isms and moral divides opening unexpected chasms directly beneath our feet. While the isolation of the pandemic is behind us, there remain some distressing personal disconnections. It was as I was reflecting on this that I returned to the questions raised in the series exhibited in “Alone Together”.
Weirdly, it seems a common wondering. The current exhibition at the Comox Valley Art Gallery is titled “Apart Together”. Synchronicity amplifies my thinking, when I see echoes, I can’t help thinking that perhaps it isn’t just me that is asking these questions. Kelly Madden recently offered a poetry reading here in the gallery. The dedication on the inside of her recently published book: “To those who have ever felt alone…”.
The Loneliness Epidemic
There has been a lot of press about a ‘Loneliness Epidemic’, and it began long before Covid. An epidemic is defined as a disease that is rapidly spreading within a limited region, while a pandemic is an epidemic that is spreading globally.
Initially, the ‘Loneliness Epidemic’ was thought to primarily impact western, individualistic societies, created as a (dys)function of our independent focus on self-sufficiency and self-responsibility, and the breakdown of community and family support, exacerbated by the technological advances of the past 15 years (Luiggi-Hernandez & Rivera-Amador, 2020; Orben et al., 2019).
One in three Canadians experienced severe loneliness during the pandemic (Lin, 2023), a significant uptick from the pre-pandemic one in five level of reported loneliness (USSG, 2023). A during- and post-covid analysis of over 32 studies found that the severity of loneliness has increased within individuals, and that global levels have also increased (Holt-Lunstad & Perissinotto, 2022). Another recent worldwide study, including over 20,000 people from 101 countries, found the same distressing results (Holt-Lunstad & Perissinotto, 2022). Loneliness has become a pandemic.
These studies identify the groups most at risk: those with significant financial needs, mental health concerns and those living alone. A more extensive list of vulnerabilities identified women, youth, divorced individuals, low-income households, students, people without large social networks, and those with an intolerance for uncertainty. Overall, women are significantly at more risk than men (Holt-Lunstad & Perissinotto, 2022; Lin, 2023).
Job insecurity was the strongest determinant associated with severe loneliness among immigrant populations, who often have low paid and low skilled work, and higher associated risk of infection with fewer job protections. Precarious employment is also associated with poorer mental health outcomes, including anxiety and depression (Lin, 2023). There are digital health inequities in access to mental health resources, disproportionately inaccessible due to financial barriers and to those with low technological literacy (Lin, 2023).
Part of the challenge in defining the severity and growth of the issue is that social isolation and loneliness are not tracked in a consistent manner through public health records, despite the evidence indicating that loneliness is as detrimental to one’s health as smoking or obesity. In the US, The National Academy of Science and Engineering released a substantial report literally two weeks before the onset of the pandemic, summarizing decades of research and evidence on the health effects of social isolation and loneliness on all cause mortality, including heart disease, stroke, depression, chronic inflammation, and dementia (Holt-Lunstad & Perissinotto, 2022).
The question, “How long can I remain lonely and isolated before the negative health spiral begins?” can only be answered if we do a better job of measuring social isolation and loneliness as a part of our regular health care practises. In the UK, the National Office of Statistics developed a standardized measure of loneliness in 2017, and as a result were able to map isolation and loneliness throughout the course of the pandemic, and identify where it was worse (Holt-Lunstad & Perissinotto, 2022).
Isolation and loneliness are not listed on a death certificate as causes of death. Since Covid, there has been an uptick in all-cause mortality, not specifically linked to the Covid virus. There are questions about whether the Covid mitigation strategies exacerbated a pre-existing condition by keeping people apart and curtailing community connections (Lin, 2023). I am left wondering, “Are people literally dying of loneliness?”
Dr. Vivek Murthy, Surgeon General of the United States, describes, “You can feel lonely even if you have a lot of people around you, because loneliness is about the quality of your connections” (Summers et al., 2023). A Global news piece highlighted the connection between loneliness and shame. We can struggle to change our behaviour, paralyzed by the thought that we are somehow flawed, and that it is our own fault that we are lonely (Dangerfield, 2023).
Loneliness is defined as painful isolation, subjective discontent, felt as a negative emotional response, often to rejection. It is characterized by negative rumination and spiraling thinking patterns about what we are lacking. Loneliness has significant negative impact on our psychological and physical health and can be described as the distress felt when recognizing the disconnect between the relationships we have and those we wish to have (Gombas, 2022; Ortiz-Ospina, 2019).
Solitude is defined as being content and alone by choice. Constructive self-reflection and introspection require being alone. Daydreaming, a vital ingredient for creativity, requires solitude to be alone with our thoughts (Kaufman & Gregoire, 2016). Mental and emotional well-being require the fluid movement between the states of introspection and engagement. The capacity for solitude is an indicator of emotional maturity and healthy psychological growth. Solitude is chosen, requires strong emotional self-regulation, and appreciation for the beauty and simple pleasure of one’s own company (Gombas, 2022).
Social Isolation is defined as infrequent social contacts, living alone, few social network ties, and is the only objectively measurable aspect of loneliness or solitude, while the others are perceived as feelings or emotional states unique to the individual. Social isolation and loneliness are not necessarily linked, as even those with frequent social contact can feel very alone (Holt-Lunstead et al., 2015).
As existential philosopher Paul Tillich characterizes it, we use the word loneliness to express our pain in being alone, and we use the word solitude to express our glory in being alone.
Why Do We Feel Loneliness?
Loneliness is an integral expression of our humanity. Just as we feel hunger to prompt us to fulfill our physical needs by eating, we feel loneliness to prompt us to fulfill our social needs with human contact. Humans require collaboration and connection for survival. In the past, small groups of 50-150 people formed to be able to meet their needs for caloric intake, security, and care. To be alone, or excluded, could mean death. Loneliness is social pain, an adaptation to rejection, and an indicator to stop behaviours that are leading to our isolation (Kurzgesagt, 2019; Holt-Lunstead et al., 2015).
Perhaps the current ‘Loneliness Epidemic’ has been quietly in process since the Renaissance, increasing as we moved from tribal to individualist societies, with industrial modernity and individual responsibility. As we became located less physically close to our families and communities, moving away for relationships and work, in person connections with our families and friends became less frequent. In 1985, the average person had three close friends. By 2011, that number had dropped to two (Kurzgesagt, 2019). Having a limited social network, defined as less than three close friends or family members, is the threshold for becoming high risk for the burden of loneliness (Lin, 2023).
Loneliness And Health
Social isolation and loneliness are equally hard on our health. Those with high loneliness and lack of social connection have the poorest health outcomes. Simply increasing social contact may not reduce loneliness, as it is the quality of the relationships that defines their benefit (Holt-Lunstead et al., 2015). Solitude does not give rise to loneliness (Ortiz-Ospina, 2019).
Social connection impacts our health through many pathways. Our biology changes with the introduction of stress hormones, inflammation, and gene expression. Our mental well being shifts as our sense of safety, resilience, and hope decline. The stress of life’s challenges is borne more heavily when we think we are alone, that we have no support.
Social connection is likely the strongest protector against self-harm and suicide, even in those with anxiety and depression (USSG, 2023). People who are lonely have poorer health outcomes, and people with poor health are often lonely. Because of this two-way relationship, it is important that studies in loneliness be done over time rather than comparing different age cohorts at one point in time (Ortiz-Ospina, 2019).
One of the best longitudinal studies ever initiated is the Harvard Study of Adult Development which has followed 724 boys for over 80 years. Robert Waldinger, current head of the study, summarizes it thus: “Those who kept warm relationships got to live longer and happier lives” (Waldinger, 2016).
What Happens When We Get Lonely?
When people feel loneliness, their first reaction is often to either become quiet and withdraw, or to become angry and lash out. The longer this defensive disconnection with others continues, the easier it becomes to believe that others don’t care about them, and the harder it is to find common ground on which to base a connection (Summers et al., 2023).
When loneliness becomes chronic, the feeling that was intended to initiate change and motivate us to rejoin the group, has devolved beyond its usefulness. Given the high stakes of the outcome its not surprising that things can escalate quickly. If we get locked into our initial reaction, whether it is withdraw (flight) or attack (fight), remaining in our defensive pattern for more than the initial reaction time (often only seconds or minutes) can initiate a series of cognitive changes which become self-perpetuating as our thoughts begin to distort (Kurzgesagt, 2019).
We start to see danger and hostility more frequently and become hyper-sensitive to our environment. In our hyper-sensitivity, we experience more triggers, and more negative interpretations of those triggers. We notice more, and as our cognitive reasoning goes off-line, we understand even less (Kurzgesagt, 2019).
Soon we are interpreting hostility in neutral situations, which increases our distrust, and makes us even more likely to misinterpret someone else’s intentions. We assume the worst and become even more self-protective. It’s a vicious cycle because then we appear even more cold, unfriendly, and socially awkward, and as a result people pull away, confirming our thoughts about their untrustworthiness, and …. do you see how this works? (Kurzgesagt, 2019).
How Do I Break The Cycle?
To break the cycle, first we must recognize it. Use some of that alone time to figure out where you are in the cycle. When you first notice the tension and sadness of feeling lonely, instead of letting yourself spiral into negative thought cycles about yourself or others, find a way to make social contact with someone. The difficulty is that if you start to avoid social interactions, guess what? You will feel more isolated and alone. The cycle escalates and becomes more severe the longer the courageous social action is not taken. You withdraw even further from people, decline invitations, and stop answering the phone when people call, until eventually, they stop calling (Kurzgesagt, 2019).
The way to dismantle the cycle is to reach out and experience an outcome that is less awful than what you might anticipate. It is through spending time with people that we grow our confidence and capacity to be with people. Withdrawing or lashing out, while initially protective, paradoxically reinforce the belief that we are unlovable. The story that you are excluded is now self-perpetuating, they never call, and the world becomes as you imagined it, lacking connection even as you continue to yearn for it.
How Do I Help Myself?
Loneliness is a natural and universal experience. Accept that you are feeling lonely, rather than using distraction to avoid your feelings. Listen to the message of your emotions: you are yearning for close connection with another human being. Reach out to a friend you haven’t talked to in a while, an estranged family member, or a work colleague. Go somewhere new, where there are people, and chat with a stranger. Exercise your social connection muscles.
Question your thoughts if you are feeling angry or distant with someone. What did they really say? Are you adding extra layers of meaning to their words? Are you making assumptions about someone’s intentions? Assuming they are attacking you? Are you being cold and unfriendly to pre-emptively protect yourself from being hurt? (Kurzgesagt, 2019).
If you are unable to work through this on your own, reach out to a counsellor. Talking to friends or family can sometimes backfire. In their attempts to comfort or console you, they may inadvertently be reinforcing your story that people are untrustworthy and uncaring. A counsellor is objective, they can help deconstruct your protective web of isolation, and help you navigate your way out of the cycle.
And watch the Harvard Longitudinal Study Ted Talk… even if you aren’t lonely…😊
References if you are interested in learning more:
Dangerfield, K. (2023, May 12). The loneliness epidemic: How social isolation can damage our minds and bodies. Global News.
Gombas, L. (2022, April 19). W2C: The difference between solitude & loneliness. Coach Training EDU.
Holt-Lunstad, J. & Perissinotto, C. M. (2022). Isolation in the time of Covid: What is the true cost, and how will we know? American Journal of Health Promotion, 36(2), 380-382.
Holt-Lunstead, J., Smith, T. B., Baker, M., Harris, T. & Stephenson, D. (2015). Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for mortality: A meta-analytic review. Perspectives on Psychological Science. 10(2) 227-237.
Kaufman, S. B. & Gregoire, C. (2016). Wired to Create. TarcherPerigee.
Kurzgesagt (2019, February 17). In a nutshell: Loneliness. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n3Xv_g3g-mA
Lin, S. (Lamson). (2023). The loneliness epidemic, intersecting risk factors and relations to mental health help-seeking: A population-based study during Covid-19 lockdown in Canada. Journal of Affective Disorders, 320, 7-17.
Luiggi-Hernandez, J. G. & Rivera-Amador, A. I. (2020). Reconceptualizing social distancing: Teletherapy and social inequality during the Covid-19 and loneliness pandemics. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 60(5), 626-638. Sage.
Orben, A., Dienlin, T., & Przybylski, A. K. (2019). Social media’s enduring effect on adolescent life satisfaction. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 116(21), 10226-10228.
Ortiz-Ospina, E. (2019, December 11). Is there a loneliness epidemic? Our World in Data. Summers, J., Acovino, V., Intagliata, C. & Wood, P. (2023, May 2). America has a loneliness epidemic. Here are 6 steps to address it. All Things Considered, NPR.
United States Surgeon General. (2023). The U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory on the Healing Effects of Social Connection and Community.
Waldinger, R. (2016, January 25). What makes a good life? Lessons from the longest study on happiness. TED. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8KkKuTCFvzI