Loneliness is a complex emotion – and although it’s likely that we have or will feel lonely at some point in life, our experiences of loneliness are personal to us. The post below was written by Henny Syers, an experienced educator and positive psychology practitioner based in Bali. Like all of us, Henny has been challenged and faced numerous changes to ‘normal life’ over the last year. Passionate about social change and the importance of human connection – Henny kindly agreed to share her personal experience of loneliness, drawing attention to an issue which will resonate with many of us.
With so many songs dedicated to it, so many stories, films, poems and art works inspired by it, we know that loneliness is a subject that warrants our attention. Loneliness matters and, for obvious reasons, has recently had increased attention drawn to it.
My blog below considers how our decreased social contact with others, as well as the lack of certainty and control that we have recently faced has resulted in many of us feeling a form of loneliness.
Lonely in Paradise
As it has for most, this year has been a challenging one for me. Having always in the past been someone who embraced challenges, who moved from one goal to the next, and who always had a project on the go, this year threw me off kilter. Plans suddenly had to change and I found myself without a clear roadmap to follow. Whilst some might have found this liberating, I found it very unsettling. Despite living in Bali which many would regard as paradise, and despite having a devoted husband, a loving family and a close group of friends, I have felt incredibly lonely at times this year.
What has perhaps made my loneliness even more pronounced is the guilt that has accompanied it. When witnessing the abject poverty that has tragically hit so many Balinese as a result of this awful pandemic, it is easy to regard the so-called loneliness of a privileged “bule” (a white foreigner or expatriate) as somewhat selfish. Furthermore, those of you currently in lockdown might ask how someone surrounded by sun, sand, sea, surf, scooters and smoothie bowls could possibly say that they are feeling blue! And yet, as it has done with many this year, loneliness has crept up on me and made itself comfortable and it has been accompanied by some unpleasant physical effects.
Having previously slept like a baby, I have found myself often struggling to get to sleep, tossing and turning throughout the night or waking up early and not being able to settle down again. I have felt increasingly anxious and ‘on edge’ and simply not as ‘upbeat’ or positive about life as I was previously.
According to researchers in the field, these physical symptoms are not to be unexpected. When we feel lonely, our bodies react physically. Stress hormones are released, we experience cardiovascular stress, and there is inflammation throughout the body. Our brains and bodies react with the same threat level as if we were still living in the tundra, alone and surrounded by wild animals or alien tribes. The late Dr John Cacioppo, whose research on loneliness helped to transform social neuroscience, stated that feeling lonely is like a physical warning signal to satisfy our need for social connection, a “biological and social imperative rooted in thousands of years of human evolution.”
Our Basic Psychological Needs
According to Ryan and Deci’s Self-Determination Theory of human motivation and personality, humans have three basic psychological needs of which “relatedness” is one. It refers to having a sense of attachment, belonging, and closeness towards others, as well as access to help and support if needed. It is not difficult to see how many have recently found this need wanting. Whilst Zoom, Skype and Facetime with colleagues and loved ones has been a lifesaver over this period, most of us are finding that these technical platforms are simply not sufficient for the long-term.
The other two needs outlined by Ryan and Deci’s theory are autonomy and competence:
– Autonomy is the idea that we need to perceive that we have choices and can self-determine the actions we take; we must feel in control of our destiny and be able to make our own decisions
– Competence refers to feeling as though we have the skills needed to succeed and achieve our goals. Recent circumstances have also seen these two needs suffer. Factors beyond our control have sometimes left us feeling entirely rudderless (lacking perceived autonomy) and ill-equipped to face the challenges ahead (lacking perceived competence).
The fact is, not meeting any of our three basic psychological needs can result in feelings of loneliness, a destination to which there are clearly numerous routes.
Loneliness and Purpose
Unlike Europe, Bali has not been in full ‘lockdown’ which has meant that I have been fortunate enough to still visit cafes, sports clubs, the beach, shopping centres etc. I have not, therefore, suffered the social isolation that many of you will have done over the past year and believe me, my heart goes out to you. Speaking to family and friends back in the UK, I have come to appreciate my physical freedom more and more, and realise how incredibly fortunate I am to still have access to the world outside my front door.
Ultimately, the main reason for my own loneliness this year has been my perceived lack of purpose. After eleven years of teaching, followed by a busy year studying for a Master’s, finding myself unemployed has given me first-hand experience of how debilitating and distressing it can be to not feel useful.
As Mahatma Gandhi once said: “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” Helping others not only makes us feel increasingly competent but it increases our sense of self-worth. By affecting others positively, our actions have added meaning and this makes us feel as though we matter.
And let’s face it, mattering to others feels good. Whilst I am not saying that being unemployed is the route to loneliness nor that being employed necessarily protects us from it, what I would maintain is that we all crave having a sense that we matter to others and that our actions count for something beyond ourselves. More about this in my next blog.
Whilst the cause of my own loneliness has perhaps differed from many of you this year, it has potentially helped to illustrate that whilst loneliness does not have a single root cause, the results can be equally distressing despite the initial contributing factors. As we move forward, we must make fighting loneliness a priority. It is, as Dr Vivek Murthy states in his book “Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World”, “an urgent mission that we can and must tackle together.”
In a future post, I would like to suggest one practical and positive step that we can all take to fight loneliness and build a stronger and more connected society. Yes, the present is painful for many of us but we have a valuable opportunity to capitalise on our shared vulnerability and catalyse the process of connection. The time is now because loneliness matters.