Solitude: another one of society’s unsolved taboos

In September 2017, many British newspapers wrote about author Deborah Moggach’s declaration. “Solitude really is the last taboo” describes the main phenomenon at the source of frequent moves from the UK to India among retired people. Like its neighbour, France also faces issues with solitude, which has been concerning several risk groups for many years. But how is this scourge manifested in today’s society, as we are supposed to be more and more “connected”?

As scientists recently theorised the effects of loneliness on our health and our way of thinking, this article tends to be a source of information, or at least a short reminder, about the causes and consequences of solitude, but also about our responsibilities as citizens.

“Being alone never felt right. Sometimes it felt good, but it never felt right.” – Charles Bukowski, Women

Jean Jacques Rousseau in Du Contrat Social theorises that living outside the social contract would lead to tyranny and vanity. Outside the moral aspect, social neurosciences have recently theorised the social aspect of the human being. This discipline was instituted by John Cacioppo and Garney Bertnson during the “decade of the brain,” when it was claimed that “the brain does not exist in isolation, but rather is a fundamental component of developing and aging individuals who themselves are mere actors in the larger theatre of life.” In fact, human survival depends on social interactions. Humans developed neuronal and hormonal mechanisms that support structures like towns, cities, societies, and civilizations. Social interactions help organisms to survive, reproduce, and teach one’s descendants how to do the same.

Social connections are therefore opposed to solitude. John Cacioppo describes two types of solitude: the objective solitude is the lack of contact with people, while the subjective solitude is a complex and usually unpleasant response to isolation. According to John Cacioppo and Patrick William (Loneliness: human nature and the need for social connections, 2008), solitude is a motivation to seek connections, and thus to survive. Can we then say that society is the best remedy against solitude?

Well, it is not that easy. John Cacioppo and Patrick Wiliam are in fact talking about the subjective solitude, commonly translated by Loneliness. But John Cacioppo observed in numerous experiments on solitude and loneliness that those two are not highly correlated. Therefore, one can be objectively alone and not feel lonely, while others can live in society, interact with others, but still feel lonely.

“The most terrible poverty is loneliness, and the sensation of being unloved” – Mother Theresa

We now understand in scientific terms—if not concretely—what solitude and loneliness are. But the question remains, what effects do solitude and loneliness have on our behaviour and our society?

To understand this, Roy Bausmeister, an American social psychologist, and his collaborators conducted experiments in the early 2000s to provoke the fear of being alone in the future. In one of those studies, students had to complete two questionnaires. Some of the subjects were told that they were lucky, as their personality type matched with long social connections, like good marriage and good friendships. They would always attract people who would care about their welfare. The second group was informed that they would probably have a solitary future. The third one—the reference group—received a neutral prediction, with no relation to social connections. For ethical reasons, people were told about the emotional manipulation they had been exposed to at the end of the experiment.

Once the predictions were made, students had to pass different cognitive tests. Concerning memory tests, no noticeable differences were observed between those three groups. However, concerning reflexion tests, performances were negatively affected by fear of solitude. That paradigm has been used by Baumeister and his team to measure how the fear of solitude impacts self-control and cognitive performances.

This confirmed what Professor Naomi Einsenberger and her collaborators found in 2003. By conducting an experiment using MRI scan, they showed that the feeling of social exclusion, which was artificially simulated during the experiment, activated the same brain areas as an individual who is feeling physical pain.

So, based on those paradigms, Baumeister and his other collaborators, and specialists in social and cognitive psychology found evidence that the feeling of loneliness lead people to behave in a way they knew to be harmful for them in the long run (eating too much, drinking, being aggressive…) For cognitive tasks—like academic performances—lonely people get the same score as others. But when it comes to identical tasks engaging social relations, their scores were lower. Authors explain this phenomenon by anxiety, which is stronger among lonely people in social situations.

“The reason why the world lacks unity, and lies broken and in heaps, is because man is disunited with himself” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, there were many studies attributed to society. In France, the label of Great National Cause was attributed to the fight against solitude in 2001. But more than ten years later, “risk groups” like old or unemployed people seem to still have an issue with solitude.

In 2013, La Fondation de France published a survey, showing that about 5 million French people felt lonely. The main reported reasons are precarious living conditions, objective isolation from social and cultural activities—especially in small towns in the countryside—and health and life accidents. Most affected are elderly people, who have less and less contact with their family due to far distances and a decreasing ability to move. As a result, they face an increasing risk of triggering or worsening diseases like Alzheimer’s or dependence. Unemployed people can also suffer from precarity, which sometimes compels them to cut off basic needs. The 2016 report did not show much improvement.

Solitude does not only affect lonely people. Researchers from the London School of Economics, alongside the British Campaign to End Loneliness, showed that, for a decade of an older person’s life, the extra economic cost of loneliness is evaluated to be about £6000, while prevention would save £3 for £1 invested.

As we become more and more “connected” by social media, and as we get information faster, we sometimes forget people who do not belong to the movement. Intergenerational differences, among other factors, can isolate a generation from the new “connected” one. It can also isolate young people who would not have a standard or a good experience with their peers.

“Come on, it’s the 21st century!” This automatic formula sometimes tends to disregard the importance of solidarity, particularly among young people. During my civic services, when interviewing associations working for solidarity, I was concerned by the lack of young people getting involved in local groups and associations. Even though France, according to the 2014 European Social Survey, is not as badly ranked regarding solitude as other countries like Portugal, it can do better. The French minister of education, Jean-Michel Blanquier, said he wanted France to be a country of lecturers. Let France also be a country of citizens wishing to act in solidarity! Technological and social progress are amazing, but they should not make us individualist individuals. As Bill Clinton once said, “we all do better when we work together. Our differences do matter, but our common humanity matters more”.

by Rose Mba Mébiame


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