By Aruna Sankaranarayanan
That the family is the most central and cohesive unit of our Indian social fabric is practically indisputable. Though the joint family system has increasingly splintered into nuclear residences, the family is still a focal part of our collective psyches. While old-age homes are mushrooming in metros and smaller cities, most elderly folk continue to maintain ties with their offspring. So, unlike the West, where loneliness is now recognized as a serious health hazard, on par with smoking, we, in India, pay scant attention to this social and psychological phenomenon. As the number of people, both young and old, living on their own in India is on the rise, we need to remind ourselves that loneliness is ultimately a state of mind and can result even when people are living in crowded or cramped joint families.
While being a family-oriented culture may inure us from falling prey to loneliness in epidemic proportions, we are not completely immune to this malaise either. In Harvard Magazine, writer Jacob Sweet profiles a typical overachieving Harvard undergraduate who is steeped in the go-getter culture that engulfs him. Though he is surrounded by peers and connects easily enough with others through superficial exchanges, he doesn’t form lasting or deep relationships. When his productivity and motivation plummet, he takes a year off and discovers that his core problem is one of loneliness.
In India too, a number of people may suffer from pangs of loneliness even while being cosseted by family. People who feel that their friends and family don’t really know or understand them are prone to feeling lonely. And, loneliness has only been exacerbated by COVID-19 as we are compelled to distance ourselves from our usual social contacts. Sweet argues that loneliness occurs when there is a lacuna between the social ties you have versus the type of connections you seek. He quotes Robert Waldinger, Professor of Psychiatry, who speculates that loneliness, like other forms of chronic stress, may result in mild inflammatory states, affecting our health and immune system.
Sweet also interviewed Jeremy Nobel, lecturer at the Harvard School of Public Health, who discriminates between varieties of loneliness. Psychological or interpersonal loneliness entails not having a close friend or confidante to whom one can bare one’s heart. Existential loneliness, on the other hand, involves feeling that life is devoid of meaning or purpose. Finally, societal loneliness is experienced when a person feels unwanted and unwelcome by a group and usually stems from prejudice whether it is based on race, class, caste, gender etc.
Professor of Psychiatric Epidemiology, Karestan Koenen, avers that loneliness feeds on itself. If you are lonely, you may be less inclined to reach out to others as you fear another possible rejection. Nobel adds that people are often ashamed to admit to loneliness as they feel it may reflect adversely on themselves.
So, how can we stave off loneliness? Vivek Murthy, the former and current surgeon general of the United States, found that loneliness often underpinned many physical and psychological ailments when he visited patients across the country. In his book, Together, he offers tips to foster a sense of connection. As far as possible, he exhorts us to spend time every day with those we love. Even if you live alone, try to reach out to family members or friends by phone or videoconferencing. If you have no one you can reach out to, try to contact folks in the neighbourhood, connect with old friends whom you haven’t heard from in ages, or even join groups, online or offline, that share your interests.
When interacting with others, Murthy urges you to give your wholehearted attention, a rare quality in our digital age. Be mindful of the fact that when people are lonely, they tend to be self-obsessed and inward-looking, thereby jeopardizing their ability to form meaningful relationships. If you evince genuine interest in others, warm feelings are more likely to be reciprocated. Ironically, Murthy also advises us to savour our solitude. Unless we know ourselves by plumbing our own depths, we cannot forge authentic bonds with others. And, to get to know yourself, you need time alone to process your thoughts and feelings and recalibrate your life goals and values every now and then. The fourth tip that Murthy proffers is to offer and receive help, as they both cement social links and can imbue people with meaning and purpose. Can you tutor a neighbour’s child? Or, accompany a sick flatmate to the doctor’s? Likewise, acknowledge the stranger who holds open the lift door for you. A smile or a kind word are the beginnings of human connection. Also, don’t shy away from being at the receiving end of someone else’s kindness. After all, acknowledging our shared humanity and vulnerabilities can kindle new ties while buttressing old ones.
(The columnist is an avid blogger. Her forthcoming book, Zero Limits: Things Every 20 Something Should Know will be released by Rupa Publications.)