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Only the Lonely

Julia Welstead on loneliness and the Humans Givens approach

Loneliness, the quiet companion to depression (not related but very often seen together), has finally caught our attention and currently fills our UK media channels. This is in large part due to the BBC’s Loneliness Experiment in which 55,000 people, in an age range of 16 to 99, responded to a questionnaire, and an astounding one in three said they felt lonely most or all of the time.

We are not alone. The USA are talking about loneliness as well, and describing it as an epidemic, and although this is arguable (it may well be that we’ve only just begun to acknowledge loneliness, rather than numbers of sufferers having increased) the fact of the matter is that there’s one helluva lot of lonely people in the world. 

The most prevalent definition of loneliness, as taken from the BBC survey, was of “emptiness, and being disconnected”, and the top reason given for feeling lonely can be summed up as “loss of core people” whether through death, moving location, or other changes in work or home life.

There are a host of reasons as to why so many feel isolated. Those that stand out for me as ironic are that better housing has given us the space to not have to interact with others, and that technology allows us to interact remotely. We no longer even have to mingle in order to shop: everything can be delivered to our door. We are, ironically, victims of our own innovation.

Those that stand out for me as tragic are the cutbacks and closures of institutions that used to provide a space and a place for people to meet. Libraries, halls, social clubs, rural shops, post offices and pubs, and public transport systems have all been relentlessly cut in search of profitability, their important social function brushed aside thanks to our society's focus on individualism.

A deeper examination of the symptoms of loneliness suggests that having nobody to talk to eventually leads to a loss of belief in oneself and a growing inner voice suggesting that there is no point carrying on with life if nobody notices, cares about or wants you. If there’s nobody to relate to, we feel that life is meaningless.

Stark though these definitions and reasonings sound, they chime perfectly with the core ideas of the human givens approach: that we have an essential need to interact with our environment and other humans in order to survive and thrive. We are a pack animal. In days gone by we needed each other for our very survival - a lone human stood a very high chance of being eaten by a wild animal or killed by another tribe. Even though we are (for the most part) no longer being chased by hyenas, our brains still perceive solitude as dangerous.

So we need to connect, and we need to both give and receive attention from those around us. We need to form meaningful relationships with individuals, with family and with the wider community. We need to feel appreciated and needed for our skills: for what we can bring to our group. We need to find meaning in life, else it become meaningless. These are core elements, ‘givens’ in our essential emotional needs and it is clear to see how “emptiness and disconnect” equates to loneliness.

When I was beginning this article I typed ‘oneliness’, missing the first ‘l’ by mistake and that triggered two trains of thought. Despite human nature, our culture has long applauded individualism. The philosophical 3rd century BC Greek Stoics discouraged attachement and emphasised the benefits of becoming self-sufficient, and this theme has run through our culture ever since.

In the realms of work and earning, ‘success’ has a competitive element and is seen in terms of achieving something above all others, doing better. Whilst furthering our development as a species, this has also had the unfortunate effect of setting us against each other rather than in collaboration.

Young responders to the BBC questionnaire said they were lonely because they felt they couldn’t match up to (their perceived) expectations of peers, parents and society. Social media gets the blame here, but there’s no smoke without fire: competitive ‘oneliness’ has fuelled this.

The second thought my typo triggered is that being alone need not equate to loneliness. There are times when we need to be alone (privacy is another essential emotional need cited by the human givens approach) and developing a rich inner life can stand us in good stead for when we do find ourselves having to deal with adverse circumstances in our lives. In this sense ‘oneliness’ - feeling happy and capable within oneself – is a strength and a resource.

As with all emotions, loneliness must also be seen as useful. We feel hunger when we need food for energy, thirst when we need hydration, and in similar fashion perhaps the function of loneliness is to prompt us to reach out to other humans, a wee reminder that becoming too isolated can be dangerous (bearing in mind that our primitive survival brain is constantly on the look out for hyenas).

But chronic loneliness – like chronic hunger or thirst – is bad for our health and in the long run we won’t survive it. Loneliness has been linked to high levels of inflammation, and a host of conditions including obesity, diabetes, heart disease, neuro-degenerative diseases, metabolic disorders, viral infections and atherosclerosis. And of course depression, as I said at the start, is a close companion to loneliness, with anxiety, anger and addiction all in the same gang.

Looking at solutions, the BBC survey came up with a top five.

  • Do activities that distract you or dedicate time to work, study or hobbies
  • Join a social club or take up new activites or pastimes
  • Change your thinking to make it more positive
  • Start a conversation with anyone
  • Talk to friends or family about your feelings

Again, these resonate with the human givens approach to emotional health and wellbeing. We need to find meaning outside ourselves, connect with others, give and receive attention through conversation and sharing of thoughts and activities. But to those suffering chronic loneliness these solutions may well feel utterly unattainable, whether through lack of opportunity (the carer stuck indoors with a dependent) or lack of confidence (when loneliness has bitten to the extent that speaking to anyone feels overwhelming).

For those for whom something is required beyond that of “get out and join a club” (the basic thrust of our UK government’s new ‘Loneliness Strategy’ and appointment of a Minister for Loneliness) and supermarkets instigating ‘slow’ check-out isles that allow folk to chat (though actually I really like that idea and will definitely seek them out), learning about our human needs and resources can be enlightening, and speaking with an effective therapist can help to get over the first and most difficult hurdles.

A good place to start in understanding our essential emotional needs is by taking – for yourself or on behalf of someone else – the Emotional Needs Audit. This helps to tease out which of the needs are not being well met and where things are OK.

By using the human givens approach to look at any underlying lack or imbalance in met needs, we can help to identify the reasons behind the loneliness and home in on the route to recovery in much more effective, practical and pragmatic ways that will work for everyone within the reality of their lives.


© Julia Welstead, July 2018

> Benefits of the human givens approach

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