Updated: Jul 2, 2019
Have you ever felt lonely? Do you recall why you felt that way and how you dealt with it? Was it a question of seeking out mental health services and, if that was so, what was the path to health that was suggested to you?
Loneliness is not a new-found mental health disorder or even something that is emblematic of our current culture. The void we feel that we call loneliness has been around, for all we know, as long as we've walked upright and formed ourselves into communal groups. To be lonely at that far-off time would have meant our ultimate and rapid demise from starvation and death. Remaining a fully functioning member of the group was essential and yet today we see all too many people suffering the pangs of loneliness in the midst of huge groups.
Living situations have jammed more of us into a square mile than ever before as our habitats have reached skyward or packed tract homes cheek-by-jowl. How could anyone be lonely in that context? Researchers believe there is a "loneliness gene" that contributes about 50% to the total equation and the other half is environmental. Should we blame it on our genes and, if so, is a pharmacologic intervention our only hope? Probably not.
In a quick-and-easy, ready-made society, with pill-centric
solutions we seek an answer, in the form of a pill, that will quickly relieve the sense of isolation that is the central component of loneliness. How could a pill possibly enable us to feel more involved, more connected and more a part of this vast island we call Earth?
Too often, pills are seen as the panacea for all that is human. The human experience involves not only feelings, occasionally, of anxiety, depression, and loneliness and if we try to erase or remove all of those feelings, what are we left with? Do we become emotionless, automatons that move through life with little connection to each other and function much like machines? Artificial intelligence is quickly becoming a part of our lives and, in the next decade, it will have replaced many of the human beings with whom we regularly would come into contact.
A loneliness epidemic may be on the verge of becoming a part of our everyday lives. Grocery stores, gas stations, the corner newsstand, the large box store, the place where we buy our cosmetics or healthcare products are all going to be automated. In fact, much of our commerce will be concluded via the Internet or some other Internet-connected device which will then increase our sense of total detachment from flesh-and-blood individuals. Jobs will be lost and machines will replace them. Is this too pessimistic an approach to the future? Who's to say?
Pharmacology, however, is not the answer and as long as we are living, breathing and sentiment individuals, we need to understand that happiness is not in a pill as an escape from isolation or loneliness and not found in some pharmaceutical elixir. Corporations will tell us that they have the answer to that genetic component of 50% which comprises half of our sense of loneliness. Are they right? Should we be questioning what they are telling us? Undoubtedly, we should be doing both of these things.
Science is wonderful and I am all for increasing scientific investigation in order to help all of us lead happier, healthier lives. But I also know that science and scientists often jump to conclusions before they have all of the information. Looking at the prospect of a "loneliness gene," I can only be reminded that we are still making new discoveries regarding the human body.
Not that long ago, we found that there is a new connection to the immune system (the glymphatic system) in the brain that had lain undiscovered until just recently. Again, in just the past few months, we have discovered that there is a vascular system within the bones that we did not know about. A few years ago, we discovered there was another bone in our bodies that no one had noticed until someone happened, quite by accident, to discover it.
Looking at all of this, I can only assume that this latest genetic discovery will not hold up because there are too many factors, genetic and otherwise biologically, which will be involved. I do not believe there is a gene for loneliness. Call me what you will, but I remain a pragmatist in matters of science and research.
A study of 55,000 people completed under the auspices of the BBC's "Loneliness Experiment" found that 40% of the people in the study between the ages of 16 to 24 often or very often felt lonely as compared to only 27% of those over 75. This disproportion of loneliness in younger people appears to cross cultures, countries and gender. Why might that be?
Take a look around you and see who has placed themselves, in effect, in a loneliness cocoon? People walking down the street, crossing busy boulevards, getting on trains or buses, or standing in line at a store are all staring at their cell phones. It is as though they cannot tolerate the quiet of being in one place with their own thoughts and must be constantly stimulated. Loneliness, it might seem, is a sense of or a lack of a sense of stimulation that we require.
Research studies completed decades ago found that the eyes do require constant stimulation and, for that reason, they have a normal subtle back-and-forth tracking movement. Persons who use various types of street drugs or with mental or neurologic disorders will exhibit this movement in an exaggerated form and it is called nystagmus. The connection between the brain and the eye mandates this movement because, for some reason, when the brain gets bored and there is no stimulation, it shuts off vision. Animal studies showed this, as I said, decades ago.
One thing we do know is that we fragile human beings need stimulation, human physical contact and caring. None of these can be found in a pill but there is one of grandma's recipes that are still proving valuable; chicken soup. Chicken soup, simple and possibly almost laughable, provides two things that we need.
First, homemade chicken soup incorporates a sense of caring and connection and we do need people to care for us and to connect in so many ways. Second it is a "comforting" or comfort food and this is its mystery ingredient; comfort. How often have you heard about "comfort" foods? These foods connect us to our past and provide a sense of belonging that is missing when overwhelming loneliness takes hold. Lingering and pleasant memories of warm hugs, soothing hands on our heads, kisses on our hands are all associated with these foods. Not found in a pill, for sure.
What to do about this creeping sense of loneliness that is seemingly engulfing our young people most of all? Back to a caring society and connections to others would seem one way to accomplish our goal. Eating comfort foods? Maybe, but that might bring on obesity. Not good.
If we can't get those comfort foods, might just the scent of them be helpful? We know that our five senses include one for olfaction and that scent memory can be quite powerful. So, should someone bottle scents that provide this comfort we seek without having to join clubs or visit friends and relatives? No, because we also need that sense of touch that is so vital. Scents are fine, but scents and touch are better.
Are we substituting animals for that touch we need? Ownership of cats and dogs is growing. This is a burgeoning industry that provides not just the essentials, but the quintessential clothing, jewelry and costumes. Pets are now seen much the same as children and we spend $86 billion a year on our furry companions. We take them for massages, acupuncture, to birth parties and doggie weddings and they travel with us everywhere. The hospitality industry realizes how important being "pet friendly" can be and has hastened to cater to it.
Loneliness is not an unresolvable situation. Is it a psychiatric disorder? I think not. The solution is within our hands and we can either solve it or not. If you are comfortable being alone (and loneliness is not just being alone), fine, but if you're not, people are out there for you to find as friends and lovers. Your choice.