As the theologian Paul Tillich defined the distinction, loneliness is the pain of being alone, solitude is the glory of being alone. Both solitude and socialising can be enjoyable when we have the freedom to choose; impose either condition and it gets old fast. The 19% of Britons self-sequestering solo no doubt long for companions more companionable than solitude, while those bunkering down with others might offer a limb in exchange for some more ‘me time’. Wuhan was only one of a dozen Chinese cities that saw a surge in divorce filings after lockdown restrictions were lifted.
Among the calculus of costs that governments are being asked to weigh in the face of the pandemic is the impact of social distancing measures on mental health. YouGov data show that almost a quarter of adults in the UK have felt lonely as a result of the coronavirus, and that feelings of loneliness have more than doubled during lockdown. Interestingly, despite their predilection for digital communication, the group most affected has been the young, with 44% of those surveyed aged 18-24 reporting having felt lonely.
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Two recent books consider this timely topic from different angles. In Together: Loneliness, Health & What Happens When We Find Connection, Vivek Murthy, a US Surgeon General during the Obama administration, is the latest to label loneliness an ‘epidemic’. Weak social ties increase the risk of a host of health problems: addiction and anxiety, dementia and depression, heart disease and premature death.
These effects, explains Murthy, are an evolutionary adaptation: a fight-or-flight response to being alone warned our forebears not to wander too far from the tribe. When loneliness persists, however, high cortisol levels can cause damage by increasing cardiovascular stress and inflammation. Murthy cites a 2010 meta-analysis in which the effects of loneliness were found to be as detrimental to life span as smoking 15 cigarettes per day—greater than the risk associated with obesity, excess drinking and lack of exercise.
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Not so fast, says the social historian David Vincent in A History of Solitude. Unlike packs of cigarettes or pounds on a scale, measures of loneliness are subjective and difficult to compare over time. The UCLA loneliness scale — the basis of most of the research in the US since the late 1970s — relies on self-analysis of ‘never’, ‘rarely’, ‘sometimes’ or ‘often’ in response to questions like “I feel as if nobody really understands me”.
Vincent challenges the causality of the litany of medical conditions associated with loneliness, as well as the idea put forth by the late social neuroscientist John Cacioppo that it can be ‘contagious’. As Tom Chivers has noted, there is little evidence that loneliness is on the rise; it may be endemic but not an epidemic.
Loneliness should be considered in the broader context of shifts in demography and household structures, writes Vincent. In the early 20th century, only 1% of the UK population lived alone. By 2011 this figure had grown to 31%, due to urbanisation and a declining birth rate, as well as increases in longevity and divorce rates. Living alone doesn’t necessarily lead to loneliness, however; it’s often a choice, made possible by economic prosperity, as sociologist Eric Klinenberg argued in Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone.
The elderly are the fastest-growing demographic of single-person households, but even the recently-bereaved don’t have to suffer a life sentence of sadness: Murthy cites an American study showing that widows who volunteered two or more hours per week were no lonelier than their coupled counterparts.
Vincent distinguishes between three kinds of solitude: physical, ‘abstracted’ and ‘networked’. Abstracted solitude allows one to be immersed in an activity while sharing space with others. While not all of the historical pastimes Vincent mentions have enjoyed an uptick in interest during lockdown — there’s been no renaissance in angling or philately — hobbies like jigsaw puzzles, gardening and cookery have seen a surge. “Holy mother,” one puzzle manufacturer told Vanity Fair. “[The demand] does not stop.” In her memoir about jigsaws, Margaret Drabble described it as “a pursuit that lay somewhere between creation and imitation and discovery and reverie”.
According to Vincent, smartphones are the apotheosis of abstracted solitude: today’s Candy Crush junkies are no different from their grandparents playing Patience. And texting is just the latest iteration of ‘networked solitude’ — a modern version of the Penny Post. What he does not address however, is how knitting is put-downable in a way that apps are expressly designed not to be, as Nir Eyal argued in Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products. Or how by facilitating what cyber-psychologists call ‘ambient intimacy’ — the ability to be in touch with anyone, anywhere — smartphones detract from the IRL variety with the people present.
The MIT professor Sherry Turkle has been studying the effects of life on the screen for nearly four decades. While she commends the creative ways in which technology is being used during lockdown, “people are also yearning for each other physically,” she said in a recent radio interview. “We’re brushing against the limitations of not being there with each other.” She laments, for example, the silences possible in co-presence. While video chats may be better than nothing, they invariably fall short of in-person interactions. “You don’t see as much body language, people tend to multi-task, and relationship-building doesn’t feel as solid,” she explained.
Zoom has taken over the lives of the professional classes — a friend calls it ‘the kale of communications’ — used to host everything from meetings to orgies. As the weeks wear on, the novelty of attending either without trousers has worn off. Zoom fatigue is caused by the dissonance when “our minds are together when our bodies feel we’re not,” Gianpiero Petriglieri, of INSEAD, told the BBC.
Non-verbal communication makes up the vast majority of what we convey to one another, through kinesics (body language), proxemics (distance), haptics (touch) and paralanguage (hand gestures and facial expressions). Video distorts these cues and trying to read them on a screen takes a lot more energy. The problem is exacerbated in Zoom calls with a Muppet-gallery of participants, as the brain scrambles to take in cues from multiple parties without the benefit of peripheral vision.
Given the position of the camera, genuine eye contact is impossible via video. “If you want the other person to feel like you’re looking them in the eyes, then you have to look into the camera, not their eyes,” Howard Gardner and Katie Davis explained in The App Generation. “In other words, to create the illusion of eye contact one must actively avoid it.” The eyes are a rich source of affective and social information.
Our pupils automatically dilate when we’re interested in something or someone, Mariska Kret, a cognitive psychologist at Leiden University, told me. Humans synchronize their pupil size — a behaviour over which we have no voluntary control — and once synchronized, their brains unconsciously built trust bonds. One of Kret’s studies found that if two strangers stared into each other’s eyes as they dilated in a trust game, they were ready to invest triple the amount of money compared to eyes that didn’t dilate.
The other casualty of social distancing, of course, is touch. The Oxford evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar has dedicated his career to studying groups of primates. He believes humans are not dissimilar to gelada baboons, who spend up to 20 percent of their waking hours grooming one another for social, rather than dermatological, reasons.
As grooming was an inefficient way to connect growing communities, group activities — like singing, dancing and sport — evolved as endorphin-emitting strategies to create a sense of belonging. In a study conducted on an Oxford rowing team, the endorphin release when rowing as a group was found to be double that of rowing alone. That’s why the Peloton can’t really replicate a spin class and why the ‘virtual multiverse’ of an online Burning Man this year is unlikely to spark the same high.
While social distancing measures are in place, ‘the new normal’ won’t feel normal at all. As Murthy writes, “the Covid-19 pandemic turned physical human contact into a potentially mortal threat”. It’s not the first time in history that physical contact has been limited — continental kissing was paused in France for swine flu fears in 2009 — but this time, if Anthony Fauci has his way, touchy greetings may be gone for good.
The flaccid wave that has come to replace the handshake is reversing a gesture thought to indicate “I come in peace” since time immemorial. Needs must if our hands have become biological weapons, but it may be hard not to subconsciously perceive physical distance as rejection, at least during a transition phase.
The last person I hugged in greeting was a friend with whom I saw Sebastian Barry’s On Blueberry Hill, just before the West End was shut down. The audience was palpably jumpy at every cough, but the house was packed. The play is set in a prison cell. At one point, one of the two characters, played by the wonderful Niall Buggy, reminisces about life on the outside:
“Ordinary life, you could call it… better than any fucking thing you can think of, ordinary fucking life, and when I am talking about it now, I am yearning for it, I am yearning for it.” Who could have imagined in such a short time just how much we would come to relate?