Sometimes it seems that everything is chugging along quite nicely and everyone is reasonably happy, there is even food in the fridge and the promise of a weekend away coming up, and you are managing the everyday pressures of life really quite admirably, and even getting the laundry done as well, and then out of the blue everything changes. I don’t mean a life-changing disaster, but lots of smaller, irritating, unnecessary, upsetting glitches hitting you all at once, and then – bam – there you are, a confounded, hurt, troubled insomniac, wondering if there’s an all night gin bar close to hand.
My dad has always joked that he’d like to live on a hill with just a goat for company, and sometimes I know exactly what he means. When I’m feeling emotionally overwhelmed I naturally retreat into hermitness for a while – a well-practiced self-preservation technique. The hope is that I emerge having reevaluated my priorities and identified exactly what is important and on who and what to focus my energy.
I was slightly perturbed but not surprised to read that we experience a peak in loneliness in our fifties. There is no research to explain exactly why, but my best guess would be that we are crazy busy with children and/or careers and the associated social stuff in our thirties and forties. Perhaps as we slide surreptitiously into the second half of our lives, with our children (hopefully) conveniently well on their way to independence, we become more discerning – realizing that we are jaded by our thirty-year-long careers and that, actually, we no longer relate to the people we’ve been hanging out with all this time.
But however attractive hermitness sometimes seems, we are essentially social beings, and a pang of loneliness is proof that our innate search for connection is intact. In caveman days, we needed something to make us reach out and be with other people, so that we were less likely to be eaten by wolves. And loneliness literally hurts – brain studies show that the same areas in the brain light up when you experience social pain as when you experience actual physical pain, just as it does when someone says or does something hurtful. According to psychologist Maike Luhmann, that pang of loneliness is a “biological warning system” that has evolved over millennia, alerting us to potentially dangerous levels of isolation.
Loneliness is often mentioned around Christmastime, and naturally we will all be taking care of each other. But loneliness can hit the unlikeliest of people at different times, whether or not they have families or live alone, or seem happy or not. Introverts genuinely enjoy being alone, as Mark Twain said, “The worst loneliness is to not be comfortable with yourself.” Others may look as if they’re having an amazing life but they may be fundamentally lonely among a sea of people. As Bob Dylan sang, Loneliness/Got a mind of its own/The more people around/The more you feel alone. We can’t invite everyone round for Christmas dinner, but it doesn’t hurt to bear this in mind, smile at a stranger, and just be kind.