How to embrace loneliness: a modern guide
A survey showing 83% of people under 35 have felt lonely is no surprise to me. But if you get the knack of being alone it can be a luxury you’ll learn to love
'Being on your own is how you learn to value company. Silence is what gives value to conversation.' Photograph: Andrew Fox/AlamyMonday 20 April 201509.00 BSTLast modified on Monday 20 April 201510.59 BST
Loneliness can creep through your bones like a disease, wash over you unexpectedly as if a stranger’s vomit, or sit in the pit of your stomach for weeks like undigested chewing gum. Especially, it turns out, if you’re young.
A survey carried out by Opinium for The Big Lunch has found that 83% of 18- to 34-year-olds have experienced the dull, quiet ache of being lonely, which is no surprise to me.
Of course it’s easy to be lonely in your 20s. You may sit in an office of 50 people, but if you email your colleagues rather than exchange gossip over tea in the communal kitchen then it’s hard to feel truly part of a group. When you eat lunch sitting at your desk, idly scanning through other people’s Facebook photos rather than chatting around a table about the canteen’s latest attempt at tex mex, you leave yourself open to the cold draught of loneliness. If you sit on a sofa with your flatmate silently scrolling through everybody tweeting about a party you didn’t go to, you may well start to feel socially estranged. Is it so surprising that 28% of people under 35 wish they had more friends?
Our constant state of remote social interaction is a twin spear of loneliness; we are both aware of all the people out there having more fun than us, while being slipshod about making our own plans. Organising drinks with friends is often little more than a rolling set of text-based delays. Are you free on Tuesday? Maybe – I’ll let you know on Monday. Do you want to do something this evening? Perhaps – let me see if I can get out of this work thing. Are you on your way? Sorry – I’ve just been held up in a meeting, but perhaps we could meet later instead?
There is something altogether lonelier about hanging suspended in social limbo than facing a blank diary. Because many people under 35 have failed to learn the noble art of being alone. Just as those four-hour car journeys to visit your granny with nothing but three rubber bands, a pencil and the swaying nausea of travel sickness used to teach us how to deal with boredom, our pre-mobile phone lives once taught us how to deal with loneliness.
I remember walking through Leeds during my first week of university utterly alone, lost, looking for Argos. It was a petri dish of potential loneliness and yet, rather than reaching for Google maps, I went into a baker to ask for directions. I ended up spending the next few minutes talking to a woman with a face the consistency of a floured bap about electric blankets. It was wonderful. And, although only 10 years ago, it now sounds like something from a Thomas Hardy novel, especially to a modern 21-year-old with a smartphone embedded in their fist.
The problem, of course, isn’t being alone, but in how we think about being alone. We fear it, pity it, do anything in our power to avoid it. And yet, in the modern frenzy of social media, smartphones and overpopulated cities, loneliness can be a luxury. Isolation, silence, the longing to be among people and forced self-reflection are all incredibly useful, especially if you want to achieve something creative.
Being on your own is how you learn to value company. Silence is what gives value to conversation. Having nobody to ask is how you work out what you really want. It may not always feel like it, but loneliness can be incredibly productive.
Being on your own is a knack, one that takes practice, and not learning it may actually be fatal: research published by Brigham Young University last month showed that loneliness can increase risk of premature death by up to 30%. So you must be prepared to talk to strangers and make plans that don’t rely on others. Not just because your friends are a fickle bunch of thumb-active flakes but because doing so directly affects your chances of living to see the wrinkled side of 60.
And you are alone. Whatever your Facebook feed says. As Orson Welles, that cleft-chinned citizen of the lonely world, once said: “We’re born alone, we live alone, we die alone. Only through our love and friendship can we create the illusion for the moment that we’re not alone.”
You can fight loneliness, learn to love isolation, make use of the discomfort of time on your own and come to realise that sometimes the best tunes come in solos. And as you eat your sandwich in a deserted park or sit at home listening to the drip of a tap, remember this: you’re not alone in feeling lonely.