LONELINES
We’ve
all known people who are lonely – perhaps we have even been lonely ourselves. A
few hundred years ago, though, this wouldn’t have been the case. Yeah,
loneliness is a very recent concept. The word has taken on a new meaning, and a
whole new concept has developed with it.
We’ll
look at the history of a concept that seems so fundamental today, but actually
came into being as recently as around 1800. We will look at how the concept has
evolved in step with the society that surrounds it, looking at the factors that
have contributed to its rise to prominence – today, after all, many people talk
of an “epidemic” of loneliness,
especially among the elderly.
Loneliness
is a surprisingly recent concept, and these days it’s often called an epidemic.
It’s
tempting to think of emotions as concepts that exist outside of time:
intrinsic, fixed parts of what makes us human. But in fact, it’s possible for
society to change so much that different emotions develop and change. One
prominent example of that, with biting relevance today, is loneliness.
Think
of that famous Beatles song, “Eleanor
Rigby,”
depicting a village full of lonely individuals. It’s deeply rooted
in the 1960s, when huge societal changes led to a shift away from the
traditional “nuclear” family unit of
stable marriage with children: that was a time when loneliness, especially
among the elderly, started to become more common.
Fast
forward to today, and it’s common to talk of loneliness as an “epidemic.” That’s more than just a
metaphor: loneliness can lead to illness and even death, and the World Health Organization
(WHO) estimates that lonely people have a 30 percent greater chance of dying
earlier. Loneliness, they say, increases the risk of conditions including
dementia, depression, and even strokes.
This
is all the more surprising because our contemporary concept of loneliness
emerged as recently as the 19th century. What’s more, despite its prominence,
loneliness remains difficult to define today – linguistically, it has no
opposite, and it’s not the same as simply being alone as it also involves a
sense of emotional lack. It’s useful to think of loneliness as a kind of
emotional blend, incorporating elements of resentment, sorrow, shame,
self-pity, and others.
But
however you define it, there’s no doubting the significance of loneliness in
contemporary society. You could even compare it to obesity, as they have a
surprising amount in common. Both are chronic conditions, related to lifestyle,
and particularly prevalent in the contemporary Western world. Both place great demand
on health services. And both conditions are experienced by those unable to
escape their own boundaries – the body in the case of obesity, and the mind in
the case of loneliness. But loneliness isn’t a purely mental state. Like all
emotions, it’s experienced and affected by the body as well as the mind.
Also,
the meaning of “lonely” has shifted
in the past two centuries, in step with societal change.
According
to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “lonely” dates back to the sixteenth
century, and has two meanings: first, meaning sad because of a lack of company,
and second, referring to a remote place. But only the second of those meanings
was widely used before the nineteenth century. And the related term “loneliness” only started to be widely used
around that same time.
This
is more than just a change in language: it relates to the birth of a whole new
concept.
The
growing usage of “lonely” in the
nineteenth century is bound up with changes in society. These days, we think of
the state of loneliness as roundly negative, but in earlier times this wasn’t
necessarily the case. Before the nineteenth century, to be on one’s own – or to
experience “oneness,” a term that’s declined in popularity – had benefits
that were widely understood. Significantly, that was because people were never
truly alone. Even if there were no people around, one was still in the presence
of God. Hence, solitude – the other popular term – was often thought of as a positive,
religious experience.
In
the twenty-first century, however, it’s rare to talk about the benefits of
being alone. Sociability is considered a cornerstone of good mental health, in
fact. Yet, ironically, loneliness is perhaps more common than ever, thanks to a
range of shifts in both how we live and how we think about our lives.
For
one thing, more people live alone these days: it’s less common to live with
one’s entire family, spanning the generations. That change is tied up with the
spread of individualism as a societal value, where we all pursue our own goals,
sometimes at the expense of the collective. Then, of course, there is a rise
in secularism. In the West, at least, religion has diminished in influence, and
the idea of solitude as a sort of holy communion has hence been all but lost.
These
days, people are less likely to define themselves by their relationship with
God. Instead, we construct our own identities based on our relationships with
the people around us, and if those relationships are lacking, we’re not alone
in the presence of the Almighty, but simply alone. Perhaps it’s no surprise,
then, that loneliness today – experienced by ever-greater numbers – is
considered such a major problem, in a way that “oneness” never was.
Next
we will look at the concept of soul mate as a remedy to loneliness.

Please
leave your thoughts and opinions in the comments box provided below.
Have
a fruitful day!
Olusola
Bodunrin is a graduate of Philosophy from the University of Ado-Ekiti. He is a
professional writer, he writes articles for publication and he anchors – ‘What
You Should Know’ on SHEGZSABLEZS’ blog.

‘What
You Should Know’ is a column that offers to educate and enlighten the public on
general falsehood and myths.

Oluwole Olusanya
Oluwole Olusanya is the Founder and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of one of the fastest-growing lifestyle and entertainment website in the country. He is a banker, writer, blogger, public affairs analyst and a tax consultant. He anchors Trending Topics on SHEFFA where he shares his thoughts and opinions on trending issues. He is currently studying for a Master’s Degree in Business Administration at the University of South Wales, Wales, United Kingdom. He has diplomas in Banking and Finance, Investigative Journalism, Creative Writing, and Linguistics from Lagos State Polytechnic, Isolo, Lagos, University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, Scotland and The Open University, Milton Keynes, United Kingdom.