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Roots of the Loneliness Epidemic

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Saturday, June 10, 2023

by Mubeena, Founder at

Loneliness is now considered to be as dangerous as smoking or substance abuse. Millions suffer from it in silence. Our ancestors shielded their survival by grouping up into tribes, but we are more isolated today than ever before. How do we beat this global epidemic?

It isn’t a medical illness, and yet, it affects as much as 1 out of every 3 people on earth at some point in their lives. There is no formal diagnosis for it, and yet, people die from it every single day. No test has been invented to discover it, and yet, humans have complained about it since the dawn of civilization. I’m talking about the raging global epidemic called loneliness. Some studies point to its devastating effects by comparing it to smoking and substance abuse. It predicts early death and increases the risk of suicidal ideation. And it just feels awful when you don’t like your own company all the time.

I’m here to shed light on this contemporary phenomenon after listening to dozens who’ve experienced it. But first, what is it exactly? And why does it cause so much anxiety? When needs for social connectedness are not met, the sense of self can take a beating. To be part of a group has been the basis for our evolutionary survival. Without a herd, early humans died from extreme cold, starvation and predatorial forces that they couldn’t fight alone. The benefits of staying together are the foundation of what we call community today.

Why do we find ourselves lonely?

Once people explicitly did not need a tribe to survive on their own, progress has since forced human beings to come to terms with the idea of not being needed. The ancestral brain is thus still coping with the aftereffects of humanity organizing itself into civilized society. It does this by pushing back with a primal reaction to loneliness.

Let’s look at the most common responses when I ask, “Why do you describe yourself as lonely?” I don’t fit in. Nobody sees the real me. I am exhausted after [insert traumatic event]. My job does not let me have a social life. At my age, I should be [insert financial or marital status]. 

I notice that these surface-level responses correspond to a common root – the unconscious wish to be invisible. Out of fear. This results in self-isolation that can translate into crippling loneliness. What is this fear, you ask? It always comes down to being rejected. By a social group, community, society, country, world, any other kind of collective you can name. And the root cause of this fear of rejection? How about being appraised, assessed, prodded, and judged only to be declared “you’re not good enough for us”. In the cave days, humans literally died from this out-casting.

Is it just the elderly?

No. Many moms reach out to me. New moms are expected to have a glow and embrace the experience of motherhood, which can be a special time especially when it’s been a lifelong goal. However, sometimes, they end up feeling lonely when dedicating each waking hour to their child and being socially isolated due to fatigue and an ingrained guilt that all mothers face at some point.

Then there are young people who have moved to a new city leaving their family and friends behind for a lucrative job opportunity. Career success at times can turn into loneliness very quickly when corporate demands chip away at a person’s time they set for their interests, relationships, social life and rest.

Senior citizens, especially when they’ve lost long-term partners, face abject loneliness all over the world. The hole left behind by loss of a long-term soul mate never seems to get filled and many in the elder community haven’t the energy to find a new purpose to live for.

We want so bad to belong and yet we don’t take bold steps to ensure this because the fear of rejection is greater than the joyful camaraderie. Because it can be taken away from us. So we stay put in isolation and numb ourselves against feeling anything. As dire as this epidemic sounds, there is hope if we can muster up the courage to acknowledge its hold on us. The first step is always the hardest. To admit that we are lonely. What then?

Slow Down and Make Meaningful Connections.

Many of us avoid making meaningful connections. We choose to climb to the top of corporations, get busy being a parent or spouse, or hop from one place to another to chase a lifestyle. What we believe “success” is appears to conflict with the idea of slowing down and connecting with others to build truly meaningful relationships that have our backs.

No wonder people feel lonely standing in a room full of unfamiliar others. After all, getting out of a secure zone can lead to judgment and rejection. Ask yourself, “who truly cares about what happens to me?” Slow down and build those connections. Make them mean more than an activity that fills up your schedule.

Find Purpose.

So how do you create that meaning? Most of us wake up and get into routine without a greater purpose. It does not have to entail saving the world. A purpose can be personal, for example, a monk’s purpose is to attain nirvana through the meditative practice. Or it may involve creating a service to improve quality of life for a community or bringing people together by entertaining them with your talent. Dig deep and find it. And if you have trouble, offer compassion. Volunteer towards a cause and feel the value of your contribution. You are always needed. Once you know that you are worthy just for existing, loneliness cannot define you.

Be Alone. This is not the same as being lonely.

We’re bored if there aren’t people to chat with. But with purpose, doing anything by yourself can be rewarding and satisfying. Curling up with a book to gain specialist knowledge you can apply, practicing mindfulness and being in the present, and getting creative through writing or painting extends your sense of self. Treat your body well, eat high-energy foods, exercise, and enjoy plenty of sun and nature. The best relationships come to fruition when you know your identity goes beyond things like a job title or a beauty standard. It tells the world that you’re the kind who looks for meaning in everyone and everything, whether by yourself or with others. Meaning is where the worth is.

Isn’t it ironic that we live in an increasingly connected world with all this technology, but are feeling lonelier than ever? And with the arrival of artificial intelligence, we’re stripping away the basics of who is saying what, let alone working out what they truly mean. Swiping like we do on dating apps has become the norm of how we are treated, even in the offline world. Loneliness is on course to win at this rate.

Now more than ever, is the time to dive deeper into our visceral need to connect. There’s a reason our evolutionary ancestors wired this into our brains and it will once again keep us alive for centuries ahead. 

Summary of Article

The Big Ideas

01. Admit It

The hardest step is admitting that we are lonely. Acknowledging that we want authentic connections, beyond the number of likes and friend requests on social media, is the stigma to break in our age of loneliness.

02. ‘Alone’ is Not ‘Lonely’

There are many people who are single, living by themselves and who are very well-adjusted to life because of loving who they are. When you have purpose, loneliness cannot find a way to define you.

03. Look for Meaning

You can be lonely in a room full of people. To beat this epidemic, look for meaning in every interaction. Build quality relationships that have your back and offer the same. You can’t be rejected for the value you bring. 

final thought

The loneliness epidemic is a threat to our collective consciousness. When we were cave people, getting into a group protected one and all from predators, extreme weather and extinction. Today, we’re facing a deep paradox about what it means to be human and the adage that we are social animals is questionable. With increasing isolation, trends like ghosting where communication isn’t considered necessary and us living longer, loneliness is a silent killer. We need to return to our primal urge of connecting for a clear purpose, build tribes that enable us to thrive, and not use technology to distance ourselves. Surviving separately is not viable.

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Mubeena is the Founder of Listen Truly, helping adults get the clarity and relief they deserve without psychotherapy. She started working as a professional listener out of her need for spiritual growth and her desire to practice non-judgment. If you would like to learn more, sign up for a free orientation session.

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