Most people think the cure for loneliness is seeking the company of other people. I don’t agree. The complaint of being “lonely” is much too vague, on the same order as saying, “I don’t feel good.” What are the symptoms of loneliness, and what are its cures? Studying loneliness unclothes our souls. Why is loneliness such a pervasive condition in world of seven billion? I got onto the topic of loneliness when a couple friends mentioned joining Internet dating services and I became fascinated with how those programs worked.
Dating services sell the illusion of scientific match making. Each service believes their method of profiling will introduce their customers to harmonious relationships. Of course this assumes we must all be paired off like animals going into Noah’s ark. If our goal is to produce children, then this might be logical, but high divorce rates and unhappy marriages seem to suggest that the concept of soul mates might be a failure. I must ask, what do we want from each other?
First, is being alone bad? Well yes, if we’re alone too much. Is the solution a lifelong contractual relationship? I wonder if the deeply programmed impulse to reproduce overrides all other lesser urges so we see pair bonding as the only solution to loneliness. If we all took a contraceptive pill that removed any impulse to get naked with each other, what would be the second through nth reason for finding a friend? In no order of importance, and with no attempt to be complete, here are some of the components of loneliness that I’ve observed lately in me and my friends.
Some of my friends love to talk. Now I mean this different from people who love good conversation. These people want to express themselves in words, they have an itch to gab. They are excited about events in their lives and want to chatter away. Some people I know like this don’t particularly like to listen, nor are they particularly interested in people’s reaction to what they have to say. I’ve known a few rare souls that want to talk so much you have to back away from them. I used to have a professor that I would back out of his office and heard him talking halfway down the hall.
Now, there’s another kind of person that likes to talk, but not so compulsively, because what they really want is someone to listen to them. They want Freud for a friend. These people value others for their empathetic ability and perceptive observations. They are open to insightful comments and even welcome advice.
Witty conversation is craved by some people, by not many. They love batting words back and forth across a net. Loneliness for these folks mean hanging out with people who spend more time chasing their words than volleying them back.
Many people have the gaming gene and love to get with other people for competition. Whether it’s bridge, bowling or baseball, they seek others to play. I think older people crave the kind of living we had as kids where play was the common form of communication. I’ve read that baby boomers are forming leagues to play kickball, dodge ball, four-square and tetherball, games that were great in grade school. Kids are very physical and close when they play, like kittens and puppies, and I think many people are lonely for that kind of interaction with others.
We spend most of our adult life at work, so it’s the main form of social bonding. Having a common goal is a very satisfying way to communicate with people. Purpose is super-glue for people. I think many retired people miss the friendship of co-workers. Unlike marriage, you don’t have to be intimate with the people at work to feel close to them.
Now some readers are going to wonder why I list money as a kind of loneliness, but strangely enough I think some people are lonely for people to take care of them, and that involves dollars. I think the warmth of a relationship can be expressed in the security of finances, and I think this is true of many women. I often hear women wishing they could meet a rich man, but I never hear guys talking about wanting to meet a rich woman. I think the biological drive deep within our old brain makes females seek out powerful providers, and that works out to be a kind of loneliness.
Another factor connected to the biological drive to mate is the urge to build a nest within a partner. Women, and some men, love fixing up a house and decorating, and I think there’s a kind of loneliness that make some people want to hook up with someone special to do remodeling.
There are a lot of solitary travelers out there, but most people want to go on adventures with a buddy. Seeing the world alone is a particularly lonely pursuit.
This is a complicated one to imagine, but we know scientifically that people who live together are healthier than people who live apart. But do people really feel loneliness for health? I don’t know if it’s a conscious thing or not, but I think there’s lots of people willing to accept anyone in their lives because they just feel better about life.
This is the reason I’m often lonely. I’m interested in a lot of topics that my wife and friends find boring. I think many people look back on their school and college years as the most exciting time of their lives because of mixing the quest for knowledge with friendship.
Movies are probably the leading art form that people share. When I was growing up music and television were major artistic expressions for connecting friendships. However, when I was at the National Gallery in Washington, DC, I felt it to be an extremely solitary experience. I wished I could express how I felt about the paintings I was seeing, but they were all so personal. Reading is a lonely pursuit but we often gather in book clubs and at work to talk about books.
At the Finish Line
One my lady friends told me she was lonely for someone to be at the finish line when she runs a marathon. I thought that was a particularly good kind of loneliness – to want someone to share your triumphs. I know I like to tell my wife when I get a bunch of hits on my blog because an essay got promoted on StumbleUpon. I think if you think about this one for awhile it might reveal a lot about why people are so lonely.
Be On My Side
The same friend above said she wanted a partner that would take her side, even if she was wrong. I guess this could have also been called “Watch My Back” but that might be a slight variation. If you go to war with words or fists you want your friends to line up behind you.
Getting genital is the eight million pound gorilla in the room of loneliness. Horniness is what most males feel when they are miserably lonely. I’m not sure women feel of it in the same way, but the impulse to make babies drives us crazy. And it’s such a weird concept when you think about it. Why would below the belt friction provide so much soothing comfort for the pain of being alone? Stranger still, when we’re beyond age of reproduction our bodies still nag us about carry on the race.
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Feeling lonely is such a complex symptom. When we tell someone that we don’t feel good our friends will ask where does it hurt. From there they can play twenty questions and drill down on some specific ailment. They won’t do that when we complain of being lonely. The assumption is a generic person can be the universal pill that can cure any kind of loneliness. I spend most of my time alone, but I can’t say whether I suffer loneliness or not. I have to force myself to socialize more, and I like the company of people, but often when I’m out with a friend I’m anxious to get home to be alone. And even when I’m with people I still feel alone, a kind of existential loneliness.
On the other hand, I can be home alone, enjoying television or reading and it never occurs to me to complain about not having someone around. But other times in the same situation I do feel lonely. For the past year, my wife of thirty plus years, has had to work out of town, so I spend more time than ever alone. But even when she’s home I can have bouts of loneliness just as easily as I can when I’m alone.
Other people just want someone else around, and maybe not even in the same room, but just around the house The pain of their loneliness is reduced by being in a relationship. As I get older it seems people have less and less tolerance for putting up with other people and they prefer to live alone. Some of those people still feel lonely but find pets good company, or the hours at work to be socially fulfilling enough. I’ve been speculating with my science fiction reading friends about how companionable a robot might be. Other friends have pointed out that the Internet is good enough social contact for them.
What do we want from each other? What do you want from another person that will make you happy? I’ve asked my friends experimenting with computer dating what they are looking for in a good match. Surprisingly, or not, they don’t know. Usually they can specify things they don’t want. I think their loneliness is a general sense of unease and they don’t specifically know what will make them happy, but they often know the details about other people that make them unhappy.
Last night I had a very specific desire. I was watching this great NOVA episode on my DVR about fractal geometry and I was overwhelmed with excitement about the idea and wished I had someone to gab about it afterwards. Seeing the gorgeous fractal images in 1080i resolution on a 56″ screen was visually stunning. Learning about what fractal geometry teaches us about nature was inspiring. I really wanted a friend at that moment to discuss these ideas and maybe even try to program some fractal formulas into my computer.
Now this kind of desire for companionship bores the crap out of my wife. I get the same response from my lady friends who I spend most my social time. Of course, they want to talk about stuff that bores the crap out of me. I have a couple guy friends that would enjoy discussing fractal geometry, but their lives are usually busy with other stuff. Now I could jump online and find some bloggers exploring this subject and post comments, and that might do, but it’s not exactly what I want.
So, for me, one kind of loneliness is not having someone with me to discuss science and philosophy. I tell my wife that I ever meet a woman who has the hots for old fat bald guys that love to watch science documentaries that I’ll be dumping her. She doesn’t seemed worried. I don’t know if it’s because there’s zero chance of me meeting anyone that has the hots for my old body, or there’s zero chance for me to meet a woman that loves science documentaries, or the odds of finding someone with both qualities is like the odds of finding life on Mars.
Another type of loneliness I have is the desire for someone to share music. I used to get with friends to listen and talk about music. This started around the 6th grade and ended sometime after college. Of course, for many of those years of sharing music also included the communal sharing of a joint. Today people withdraw into their own private world of music with iPod earphones. Except for live performances, most people consider music as solitary as masturbation.
For most people, the solution to loneliness is having someone to talk to. Now some people talk to themselves, and others to cats, dogs, birds and fish, but most people need another person to carry on a conversation. Some of my lady friends can talk a blue streak. I just let them. Sometimes I think they only reason they like me is because I let them. Now I would like to talk more in these conversations, but I have learned it’s better to shovel my words out in this blog than dumping them onto people, because what I’m interested in the most seems to interest other people in the least.
When I wrote “The Implications of Sexbots” I actually thought robots would sell more for conversational companions than make-out machines. Unless you’re a horny boy, the percentage of your day spent humping your bot would be quite small, so I figured most people would want a robot to talk to. If Hondo made a Freud model of Asimo, it would sell more then the Accord. If people really believe that a robot could actually listen and understand them, and help them find insights into their souls, or just patiently handle all their blather, I think robots could be a cure for the kind of loneliness where you need another person to listen.
When you start thinking about it, the word loneliness can means all kinds of things. So when your friends complain of being lonely, ask them to be more specific.
The reproductive urge is the greatest force for bring two people together, so for many people who whine they are lonely, they are merely lamenting the desire for sex rather than companionship. We know how powerful this urge is because people will copulate with people they hate. The desire for sex will make you listen to conversations that bore you, and play games you despise.
I wonder what society would be like if humans had mating periods like some animals, so we only felt the urge to rut for two days a year, and the other 363 days we felt absolutely zero degrees of romantic heat? Would depression over loneliness be so pervasive? I don’t think so.
Before puberty, we were very social animals. Kids love to play, and often played in packs. That’s why I suggested the urge to play was one important type of loneliness. I’m wondering if it’s not the strongest after sex. But that makes me wonder if there is any kind of loneliness stronger than the sex drive. I think there is. Notice how powerful television is in our culture. Few people screw for 3.7 hours a day, but most will watch that much television.
Humanity started out as tribal groups, and even after the rise of cities, the family was multigenerational up until about the 1950s when television was invented. Instead of living with a home full of people, we commune with thousands of people via our TV sets. We love fictional stories about other people because deep within our genes and synaptic programming is social awareness. Watching Lost or Desperate Housewives resonates with that social tuning fork that vibrates within our head. Television is the methadone for our natural social addiction.
One reason I think so many of my lady friends want to talk a blue streak when they can is because they have been listening to television for hours on end and feel it’s their time to talk. Television is the robot that talks to us, hour after hour, gossiping about all the other people in the world, real or imaginary. Television is the modern Homer telling us stories. Television is the box that lets us watch the popular kids, the alpha males and females. Television is the peephole in which we vicariously watch others have sex and romance. Television is a better cure for loneliness than books, the old standard for solitary social escapism.
Loneliness is such a vague term, which is why it’s probably so overused. The next time the words, “I’m lonely” are about to tumble out of your mouth, hold up a minute and reevaluate. Think specific. What you might want to say is “Gee, wouldn’t it be great if I had enough friends for a rousing game of dodge ball.” Or “Gosh, I sure wish I knew a patient soul that would let me blab at them for forty minutes.” Or maybe you really want is to go dancing or horseback riding.
JWH – 2/10/9