In her new column, Louise Dolphin discusses what we really mean when we say we feel lonely

“Loneliness kills” was scrawled across the blackboard of my sixth year English class. The first “E” was underlined a couple of times. With only three weeks to the Leaving Cert, our teacher, generally a lively and passionate mentor who was a female embodiment of Mr. Keating from Dead Poets Society, was wholly exasperated by the majority of us miss-spelling loneliness in the previous night’s homework.

“E tablets can kill you, loneliness can kill you, therefore put an E in loneliness.” Having been one of the guilty ones, I didn’t forget the “E” again, but I also didn’t forget that phrase.

I recently came across a diary I kept in my first year of college. My abiding and somewhat romanticised recollections of my undergrad years include extended tea breaks, nights out, and long-winded debates and discussions with numerous friends; happy memories that I recall fondly. Skimming through a few entries, though, I was somewhat surprised to be reminded that my memory was selective, for I had also felt quite lonely at this stage of my life.

Loneliness is not quite the same as aloneness. The only condition needed for being alone is being by yourself, but we don’t necessarily feel lonely when by ourselves. The philosopher and theologian Paul Tillich stated, “Language has created the word ‘loneliness’ to express the pain of being alone, and it has created the word ‘solitude’ to express the glory of being alone.”

Short term solitude is both desirable and essential; giving us time to regain perspective, contemplate, foster creativity, self-reflect, or simply rest. On the other hand, while loneliness is generally accepted as a painful and negative state, loneliness is not necessarily based on your surroundings.

We can feel lonely when alone, but also in the company of others. Surrounded by people we know and love, we can still experience feelings of intense loneliness. It is ironic really, that we can feel lonely in a crowd. Particularly a university crowd where we are surrounded by people who supposedly have similar interests and ideas to us.

In order to feel socially satisfied, we don’t need all that many people. According to Professor Cacioppo of the University of Chicago, who researches how social isolation and loneliness affect people’s health, the key is in the quality of those relationships, rather than the quantity.

We just need several others on whom we can depend and have an emotional connection with. But research in the developed world indicates that feelings of loneliness are on the rise. A 2006 study in American Sociological Review found that the number of Americans saying they had no one to discuss important matters with had nearly tripled since 1985.

In a society that can judge us based on how expansive our social networks appear, it is worth noting that even those with seemingly large social networks can report high levels of loneliness. Last year, an Australian study in Computers in Human Behaviour reported that undergraduate students with higher levels of loneliness reported having more Facebook friends.

Stephen Fry’s stark and brutally honest blog post about his battle with depression and his suicide attempt cited loneliness as the “the most terrible and contradictory of my problems.”

He ended the emotive piece with, “I am luckier than many of you because I am lonely in a crowd of people who are mostly very nice to me and appear to be pleased to meet me. But I want you to know that you are not alone in your being alone.”

That is the irony of loneliness. We can walk around, trapped in a bubble of painful disconnectedness, forgetting that many people walking past us feel exactly the same. There is nothing shameful about loneliness. It is a universal human emotion which has been experienced by every individual that has ever gone before us.

My English teacher also had quite a flare for philosophy. Quoting Plato, she told the class to “be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle,” and, over 2,000 years on, this couldn’t be more relevant.