While the UK basked in sunshine this summer, a number of reports over the last three months have revealed how widely loneliness has cast its shadow.

Following in the footsteps of July’s report on how lonely our younger generation is, and another into the state of relationships in 2014 (which revealed one in ten of us doesn’t have a close friend), a new report confirms what some of us may have suspected; the loneliness experienced by men over 50.

George Monbiot dubs our modern era The Age of Loneliness;

“The war of every man against every man – competition and individualism, in other words – is the religion of our time, justified by a mythology of lone rangers, sole traders, self-starters, self-made men and women, going it alone. For the most social of creatures, who cannot prosper without love, there is no such thing as society, only heroic individualism. What counts is to win. The rest is collateral damage.”

And there is a lot of collateral damage to go around. For whoever you are, however you choose to describe yourself, the shadow cast by loneliness is long and indiscriminate.

Shame compounds our sense of isolation. Shame silences us into believing the message, spread from within as low self-esteem, and without, through the media and society, that we are unwanted because we have nothing to give, that we contain nothing of value. We compare, and find ourselves lacking. We shrink, disappear, become a hollow husk of our former selves.

Faced with zero hours contracts as the norm, a higher education system costing thousands with no guarantee of recouping expenses, decades of sharing sub-standard private rental property and the previous generation’s example of marriage and buying a first home shattered through divorce and escalating house prices .. a few weeks after the Conservative government suggests plans to cut benefits for the under 25s, it is no surprise that young people feel isolated, misunderstood, unsupported and lonely.

A present with seemingly few options leaves a future so bleak that the desire to escape, through fame and fortune, seems preferable – and understandably so. But even the glamorous and wealthy are not immune to issues.

Discussions on loneliness via twitter, and reading the comments made below Monbiot’s article, reveal the regular options and remedies – going out, talking to people, socialising and, for younger generations, returning and making eye contact, putting down smart phones (the scourge of the modern age, according to most people over thirty, it seems) but mostly good-old-fashioned talking.

As I mentioned in my last post, it’s well-intentioned and astute but puts the cart before the horse. If your fear of social rejection far outweighs any perceived or experienced benefit from interpersonal, in-real-life connection, all the good advice and exhortations to ‘talk to strangers’ in the world isn’t going to make a jot of difference. It’s advice for the temporarily lonely, not the long-term adrift. It’s like comparing ‘feeling blue’ versus clinical depression.

One of the best descriptions of long-term loneliness comes from Emily White, the author of ‘Loneliness: A Memoir’;

I lived alone. I could spend evening after evening cooped up in my flat, and I was often faced with weekends that offered little or nothing in the way of company .. As my isolation persisted, my feelings of loneliness began to change. I think it’s this long-term, intense loneliness that many people don’t understand. They don’t realise that loneliness can come alive, that it can start to snap and hound at a life.

I felt a certain dumbing down in the midst of my loneliness. I wasn’t as imaginative. I said less. Without people around me, I began to feel as though I were taking up less space. I sometimes felt so ungrounded, so immaterial and unreal, that I thought I might just drift away. 

And what bothers me most is that no one asked me what was happening. Friends and relatives probably had some sense that I was lonely, but they couldn’t peer inside the state and appreciate what was really taking place. My life was unravelling amid constant, unspoken suggestions that loneliness didn’t matter, that it wasn’t really “real”.

Loneliness is more than having no-one to talk to. To be understood and accepted, to be seen and heard, is what many people who experience loneliness crave.

A number of the solutions offered by commentators focus on creating proximity to others and speaking to them. But deep communication goes beyond words. As Dacher Keltner, a Professor of Psychology of University of California, Berkeley shows, there is level of connection and healing that goes way beyond words;

“There are studies showing that touch signals safety and trust, it soothes. Basic warm touch calms cardiovascular stress. It activates the body’s vagus nerve, which is intimately involved with our compassionate response, and a simple touch can trigger release of oxytocin, aka “the love hormone.”

In a study by Jim Coan and Richard Davidson, participants laying in an fMRI brain scanner, anticipating a painful blast of white noise, showed heightened brain activity in regions associated with threat and stress. But participants whose romantic partner stroked their arm while they waited didn’t show this reaction at all. Touch had turned off the threat switch.

This doesn’t mean you should turn around and grope your neighbor or invade the personal space of everyone around you.
But to me, the science of touch convincingly suggests that we’re wired to—we need to—connect with other people on a basic physical level. To deny that is to deprive ourselves of some of life’s greatest joys and deepest comforts.”

Touch is the missing component in our discussions about loneliness. Going out and talking to strangers rarely remedies the chill of loneliness which envelops when you wake up alone.

(I have experienced this kind of loneliness myself. Having required a wheelchair four times in just over a month (and aside from any current political gaffs that could easily make me feel more isolated), I had to consciously create connection with others through verbal communication and eye contact rather than through touch. It felt as if one of my senses was cut off and, in a way, it was.)

Sadly, touch is often freighted with anxiety and sexual ambiguity. Women are afraid of touching men, for fear it will be interpreted as a sexual invite: men are afraid of touching women, in case it’s perceived as sexual harassment.

It is a tragic paradox; we have more ways to connect through our words (be they written or spoken), and fewer opportunities to experience the healing, connecting, loneliness-alleviating power of touch. No wonder so many people (re)train to be massage therapists, and so many of us seek to become their clients; both ends of an equation which would perhaps baffle earlier generations.

And the kind of touch some members of our society view most regularly? That which occurs within pornography. It’s thought that mirror neurons can’t distinguish between seeing someone else’s actions and emotions, and perceiving those actions and emotions to be our own. It’s arguably a building-block of empathy. Is this how some of us are soothing our desire for (even non-sexual) touch? Given the brutality exhibited in some pornography, what kind of touch instinct is being embedded in our neural pathways, and how does that affect our ability to reach out and salve our loneliness?

No wonder we talk of a loneliness epidemic.

Photo credit: jiunn kang too

One thought on “If loneliness is the question, is touch the answer?

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