I’ve been reading a lot of news stories about what is called ‘a loneliness epidemic’ recently. There were reports that loneliness was more likely to affect young people and then read with mild bafflement about the invention by Korean researchers of Fribo, a robot designed to combat loneliness– I’m not sure how a robot helps to combat a lack of human contact. The problem, as I see it, it’s one of language and presentation, and it’s impacting people’s mental health. This is why words are so very, very important.
The media frames this as an epidemic – a word we associate with viruses and illness, as if it’s catching. It’s not. The idea that loneliness is spreading, somehow, makes it more ominous, more insurmountable and those people really suffering feel like there’s little hope of anything changing. Experts may blame technology, social media, the pace of modern life or any number of factors but one thing that doesn’t seem to be addressed is the presentation itself.
Everyone has had periods of loneliness. I remember a time when my partner left me, all my friends were busy with new families, my Dad was ill and I was living alone in a town where I knew no one. My life felt sterile; I’d go to work in a job I hated, go to the gym, watch a movie, read a book – rinse and repeat for five days before the weekends then stretched out ahead of me. I used to invent tasks for myself, little rituals, timeframes and deadlines, just to make the hours pass. Never once did I think that I was the victim of a modern epidemic. I was just lonely.
I’m not saying it doesn’t hurt, that it doesn’t push some people to despair but isn’t it better to just say to yourself, “I am lonely at the moment,” than “I am a victim of loneliness.” For one thing, it puts in perspective and that’s important. The one thing I have learned about life is that nothing stays the same. It worries me how much I see people proclaiming depression, anxiety or loneliness on social media. It’s great to have an outlet to talk about it, of course, but it seems to be cementing people’s ideas of themselves and their situation rather than helping to change them.
I’m now at a point in life where, apart from occasional waves from time to time, there isn’t room in my life for loneliness. Rather than telling people all the reasons why they are lonely, why not write about the many ways to discover friends. I can list jobs, writing and gym classes, dating websites, friends of friends, holidays and even, yes, social media as places where I’ve made friends. I assure you I am far from a social butterfly or particularly confident but if you do the things you want to do in life, you’ll meet the sort of people you want to be in it. Why not write about that instead? Why not suggest rescuing an animal if you want company, rather than inventing a robot?
And why not talk about the pleasures of being alone? Why not talk about how great it is to shut the door on the world and be yourself for a while? From the peace to write to the joy of doing housework to the Greatest Showman soundtrack with a full song-and-dance routine, life without anyone watching can be just fine.
I am not saying that loneliness is simply a matter of language and presentation but the current conversation is helping anyone. A very wise friend once told me that when you’re having a bad time, it’s just a sign that you’re ready for change. You’re pushing at the confines of the too-tight life you’re living in. So, if you’re feeling lonely, you’re not a victim of the loneliness epidemic. You’re simply at the point of realising you want more from your life. That realisation is the first step and that means you’ve already got the courage building inside you.