This is a story about loneliness. It’s about the ways we survive the churning swells of modern society, about the encompassing power of technology and the face we present to the world, about the complexity of relationships and the ways men and women deal with isolation.
W hat do we think of when we think of loneliness? In this age of carefully curated Instagram feeds, a constant stream of photos in which people seem to be having a glorious time, all the time, it can be easy to imagine that we are the only ones in the world who become afflicted by loneliness.
Dr Roger Patulny says the reality is much more equal: we all experience loneliness, from time to time. Humans are, by nature, social creatures.
Dr Patulny, from the University of Wollongong’s School of Humanities and Social Inquiry, says feeling isolated and alone is all part of the human condition. “Everyone feels lonely and everyone is capable of being lonely,” he says, “we all need human contact on a regular basis.”
The number of friends you have is irrelevant, what matters is the quality rather than the quantity.Dr Roger Patulny
Indeed, Dr Patulny, a sociologist who specialises in social connections and emotions, says the concept of loneliness is often misunderstood. It is not a lack of interaction with others, but rather a lack of good social contact that contributes to our feeling of being alone.
“There are people who interact with a lot of others at work or in a social setting but they are still lonely, because they don’t connect with anyone,” Dr Patulny says. “The number of friends you have is irrelevant, what matters is the quality rather than the quantity.
“We know that severe loneliness is detrimental and can cause severe harm. It has been linked to depression, self harm, and suicide.”
Is there anybody out there?
Loneliness is not a modern feeling. It is a common theme among writers and artists, a thread that runs through much of literature and music. The Beatles implored us to think of all the lonely people, Elvis asked if we were lonesome tonight, while some of fiction’s greatest characters have been defined by their emotional and physical isolation; Anna Karenina, Jane Eyre, Jay Gatsby, Harry Potter (pre-Ron and Hermione).
But recent articles have questioned whether loneliness has become a modern epidemic, on par with obesity and smoking for the risks it poses to our health. Dr Patulny does not think loneliness is rampant – yet – but he says society is becoming more physically disconnected.
“It is really hard to tell if there is a epidemic of loneliness,” says Dr Patulny, who spends much of his days analysing data that reveals who we are and what makes us tick. “Some statistics seem to suggest that rates of loneliness have worsened, but often the measures are more disconnection from other people, which is not the same thing as a lack of quality social interaction.”
If we are swapping face-to-face acquaintances for online versions of the same, then we are still maintaining the good relationships we always had. What’s unclear is the quality of either of these types of relationships.Dr Roger Patulny
In other words, we are drifting away from each other; the lure of technology means we are often getting our fix of human contact via a screen, and a few pithy text messages, rather than in person, over a coffee. Technology is the proverbial elephant, the earthquake that has rippled through every level of society.
It has changed the way we interact with the world, the way we see each other, and the way we communicate, to the extent that face-to-face interactions often seems a novelty rather than the norm.
We no longer visit a bank to deal with our money, we simply open an app and our money is at our fingertips. We order clothes, food, music, books via apps. We book appointments, draft our exercise plans, and search for new homes. We conduct most of our conversations through text (find me a millennial who will answer a phone call rather than a text. Go on, I’ll wait…). While technology has certainly made our lives more convenient, it has changed the way we connect with each other.
- 60 per cent of Australians say they often feel lonely
- 80 per cent of Australians believe loneliness is increasing
- More than 30 per cent of Australians don’t have anyone to confide in when they feel lonely
Dr Patulny says this new way of communicating is contributing to the sense of disconnect we feel, which can be exacerbated by age and gender differences. For example, older people who may not be so technologically savvy may find themselves feeling adrift from the world or as if they are on the outside the digital bubble, looking in.
“Face-to-face contact is declining,” he says, “while texting and contacting each other via our phones is increasing. I think true social disconnection is indeed a lack of quality connections, and if we are substituting away from decent face-to-face contacts and into a great mass of Facebook friends, we are on a path to a loss in social connection.
“However, if we are swapping face-to-face acquaintances for online versions of the same, then we are still maintaining the good relationships we always had. What’s unclear is the quality of either of these types of relationships.
“There are broad sociological theories about the atomisation of society. Sociologist Zygmund Bauman’s theory is that we live in a fluid world now; we can change jobs, cities, religions, sexualities without a second thought. And one of the theories is that with nothing to hold us firm, all our bonds dissolve. I don’t know if I necessarily believe that, but the digital revolution has certainly led to a feeling of social disconnection.”
Only the lonely
Loneliness corresponds with the peaks and valleys of our lives; our social capital – the benefits we gain from being part of a web of social networks – can rise and fall as we move from our teens, to our twenties, our thirties and beyond.
Dr Patulny says parenthood is the one stage of life that truly highlights the loneliness divide among genders. After experiencing life as a single dad, Dr Patulny realised the extent to which women tend to dominate and comprise the social networks that provide the foundation for our communities.
“I was always interested in relationships between gender and social connection,” says Dr Patulny. “There is a long history of women being excluded from social activities because they are less financially well off than men. For example, single mums often don’t have the money to participate in activities such as going out for a meal, because they have to save for a long time to achieve that. These are things that many of us take for granted.
There is a long history of women being excluded from social activities because they are less financially well off than men.Dr Roger Patulny
“However, I realised that while women can be excluded from society financially, men are excluded from social networks. Outside of the workplace, the daytime world is not a man’s domain. Women run the show and have the networks.”
Dr Patulny would study at night, and spend his days looking after his young daughter. It was on the playground that he discovered he wasn’t as welcome as the mothers. “I’ve always been a very active dad, and when you get involved in your child’s life, you realise there is a whole world around it,” he says.
“I used to go down to the park in the middle of the day with my daughter. I was the only guy with a kid. The mothers weren’t unfriendly, but they weren’t used to having a dad at the park. It wasn’t an inclusive culture, you feel like a kid on the first day of school.”
He realised the social networks that tend to grow once you have children – from mother’s groups, to the park, to volunteering for the school canteen – are largely the domain of mothers, and fathers, particularly single fathers, can often be left behind.
“It is reflected in the statistics. Single dads have a very tough time with social connection,” he says. “Our social networks revolve around children. Dads will get involved, but they are often introduced by their wives.
“In Australia, I think women are really good at supporting other women, but with single dads it doesn’t work that way. Women are the social diaries of a family. As a man, when you’re cut out of that world, it’s very isolating.”
While men and women start their adult lives with similar friendship numbers and networks, this falls away as they move throughout the typical life stages. We all know that feeling; life gets in the way, and suddenly it has been weeks, months, even years since we’ve caught up with our beloved friends.
However, while women tend to increase their friendships as they hit retirement, men’s social networks don’t recover to the same extent.
“A women can approach anyone to organise an event or a catch up, and it’s acceptable. But Australian men just don’t do that; they are much less likely to reach out, and if they feel lonely, they are much less likely to do something about it,” says Dr Patulny, who largely attributes this to the code of masculinity among Australian men.
“Men devote so much of their lives to their career, they might have a handful of friends from work or sport, but they just don’t have the depth and breadth of social networks that women do. When they hit retirement, they end up being more isolated than women.”
So lonesome I could cry
While we all feel alone at various points in our lives, the impact of severe loneliness is far-reaching. It is bad for us personally and emotionally, but also have a negative effect on society as a whole. Urban loneliness is an issue in cities throughout the world, with elderly people reporting the highest incidences of loneliness.
Indeed, at the time of writing this piece, the United Kingdom appointed their first Minister for Loneliness, with government research showing that approximately 200,000 older people in Britain had not had a conversation with a friend or relative in more than a month. That statistic alone is heartbreaking.
There is something particularly poignant about loneliness in the city; the heaving, chaotic mass of metropolis should, by its very nature, be an antidote to isolation. But the anonymity of the big city does not tend to lend itself to strong social connections. However, Dr Patulny says suburbia also bred loneliness; many Australian suburbs lack proper town centres, community-minded infrastructure, and even proper walking paths.
“Australia is a very suburbanised country,” he says. “Suburbia is built to be isolating. No one walks, everyone drives, so we lose that sense of community when the only time you see anyone is in their cars. We go inside our houses and shut ourselves off from the world.”
- 16 per cent of people who live with others feel lonely
- 26 per cent of solo dwellers feel lonely
- Men who live alone are more likely to smoke (27 per cent) than those who live with others (20 per cent)
Lonely no more
It is inevitable that we will, at some point, experience the acute, uncomfortable, overwhelming feeling of loneliness. But how do we stop ourselves from disappearing down the rabbit hole of isolation? Dr Patulny says we need to reach out, reconnect, and re-examine how we use technology.
“Use your phone to facilitate face-to-face contact, organise an online group or event with like-minded people. Contact that friend you haven’t seen in a long time, reach out to old friends.
“I’m a total fan of any society in which family care and work is split equally among men and women, because then women will have more access to work and financial independence, and men will be able to build better social networks outside of work. That structural change really needs to happen. It will help everyone.”