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The pain of urban loneliness

Deepa Ballal, Jan 07, 2017 0:46 IST

Social isolation

I remember, the year my dad expired, I was travelling back to a faraway city where I worked. All of a sudden, there was no one to check if I had reached my hostel safely, no one to ask me if I had enough money for the journey. The fear of vanishing like vapour, going totally unaccounted for, was all consuming. Though I was surrounded by people, I felt extremely lonely,” recollects Deepika Rao, a lab technician.

This is exactly how millions of people across the world feel today. More so in cities. The young and the elderly alike. They call it urban loneliness. And it hurts. The pain of feeling isolated when the world around you seems to be having so much fun can be extremely depressing.

“I know social pain. It breaks down the individual with an impact worse than cancer,” says Jasmine Kothari, assistant manager, Mobishastra. “Ironically, the busier you get, the lonelier you feel. As you get caught up in the race to earn more, you lose touch with your family and friends. You stop talking, sharing and bonding with people. You learn to suppress all sorts of emotions and complexes, which eventually come bursting out one day, causing you to snap.”
When you feel defeated.

More and more people are opting to live by themselves these days, far away from loved ones, in pursuit of better pastures. While the elderly that they leave behind struggle to fend for themselves and cope with loneliness, the situation isn’t that much better for the younger ones.

Moving to a new place, taking up a new job, losing a loved one, losing a job, falling ill, divorce; bankruptcy, break-up, inability to find a suitable life partner or even lacking intimacy with one’s spouse can make one feel lonely, depressed and helpless.

Not so long ago, a friend of mine had asked me to drop a parcel at her aunt’s place. Little did I realise that more than the parcel, the ageing woman was glad to have my company. Her longing for someone to talk to was so evident that it was difficult to say goodbye to her.

“I think each of us experience loneliness differently. But humans are wired to be social animals. So if we go against nature and isolate ourselves, we’re bound to suffer from psychological issues that may lead to psychosomatic health disorders. Many studies have proven that elderly people with active social lives live longer when compared to youngsters living lonely or secluded lives. I feel this is true irrespective of one’s age,” says Karthika Menon, a homemaker.

Loneliness and depleting health

Researchers have known for years that lonely people are at a greater risk for heart attack, metastatic cancer and Alzheimer’s. In some ways, loneliness is more harmful than obesity or smoking. Studies show that a complex immune system response is at play in lonely people. Social isolation turns up the activity of the genes responsible for inflammation and turns down the activity of the genes that produce antibodies to fight infection.

“People who come to visit me with an underlying problem of loneliness often get diagnosed with depression or anxiety. There is often an emotional imbalance in relationships, as people need each other in varying capacities. When the need to be with someone isn’t met, feelings of self-doubt and negativity towards others creep in. This has an impact on the individual’s physical well being as well,” says Mumbai-based psychiatrist Dr Anjali Chabbria.

According to sociologist and author of the book Going Solo, Eric Klinenberg, the trend of people choosing to live by themselves is growing at a faster pace in countries like India, China, and Brazil. The places that have, by far, the most people living alone, are the Scandinavian countries. In Stockholm, more than 50% of the households have just one person, while in the US, 27% of people live alone. By 2035, 40% of Japan’s population will be living alone.

Living alone vs feeling alone

Eric, in his book, makes an interesting observation. “There’s little evidence that living alone is responsible for making us lonely. Research shows that it’s the quality, not the quantity of social interactions that best predicts loneliness. What matters is not whether we live alone, but whether we feel alone,” he contends.

Reyna Rupani, Mumbai head of Sharan, a non-profit organisation spreading awareness about holistic health, feels loneliness is a state of mind that comes from the ignorance of the reality. “I don't think loneliness can be urbanised or ruralised. You could be in the midst of a bustling street or a party and feel lonely. On the other hand, you could be all alone and still be happy,” she explains.

“I enjoy solitude and having my personal space. After a while, conversation with real people gets difficult. You really don’t know what to talk about. You become incapable of sharing your thoughts,” says Karthika.

As long as you’re healthy and have a reasonably good bank balance, solitude is best, according to sexagenarian Vasanthi Ramdas. “You can do whatever you want, go wherever you want to go,” she says with a smile.

Making friends


On the road to overcoming loneliness, often, it is the type of people we end up interacting with that matters the most. Socialising has become an expensive affair these days. From blow-dried hair to manicured nails to designer bags, one has to go through a human scanner before being deemed worthy of a ‘hello’.

And even after several weekends of meeting up, partying and ‘hanging out’, one doesn’t feel any less lonely. The relationship one has with such people – who are more socialisers than friends – is of low quality.

In her more than two decades of practice, Dr Anjali has seen that superficial relationships end up draining people. “The more superficial the relationship, the lesser the feeling of belonging. This, in my opinion, is one of the major causes of urban loneliness,” she elucidates.

Seconding this view, Kira Astryan, author of the book Stop Being Lonely, says that most of us who struggle with loneliness do not lack access to other people. “That’s not the source of the pain. The source of the pain is the lack of a certain feeling in our relationships. And that feeling is closeness. This is why it doesn’t work to simply surround yourself with people. You must actually feel close to them,” she asserts.

Seek professional help


Dr Anjali says seeking professional help in terms of counselling can alleviate the stress to a great degree. “Joining groups (books, food, travel etc.) can help you meet like-minded people you can make meaningful friendships with,” she adds.

Or better yet, adopt a pet. Life is all about the choices we make. It is high time we reminded ourselves, preferably on a daily basis, that we have one.

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