LONELINESS: A SOCIAL CONCERN



Harry Stack Sullivan, the personality psychologist, in his interpersonal theory of psychiatry, suggests that interpersonal interactions and social relationships shape self and personality. This means that fulfillment of interpersonal needs become significant for healthy development of self and personality. When interpersonal needs are not fulfilled, it leads to psychosocial threats, namely, loneliness and isolation.
This idea of Sullivan fits well with modern descriptions of loneliness. Loneliness has been described as the unpleasant feeling of being unable to form satisfying, long-lasting relationships (friendships, romantic relationships). It has been described as an unfulfilled need for intimacy – the person is completely desirous of having good friendships and other relationships, but is unable to do so.
Loneliness gives the feeling of a lack of social support. Social support is the feeling or experience of being cared, helped, esteemed, and valued by others, and that one belongs to a supportive social network. It helps to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression. Loneliness – a lack of close relationships – makes the person feel unwanted, which naturally, gives the feeling of having little or no social support and not belonging to a supportive social network.
A lack of social support and an unfilled need for intimacy means that the individual experiencing loneliness has been unable to develop social ties and social bonding. A lot of people living in urban areas, specifically metropolitan cities have been found to have similar experiences. In the current scenario, in urban settings, people are achievement oriented and have a consumerist lifestyle.
The idea of the lifestyle of people in urban settings can be appositely described in terms of the tripartite model of self. The tripartite model of self suggests that a person is represented by three different aspects of self, generally one being more dominant than the other two. These three aspects are the individual self, relational self, and collective self. The individual self is associated with personal agency and goal-directed behaviour. The relational self is associated with significant others, and involves interpersonal relatedness and interdependency. The collective self is associated with group affiliation and adhering to group norms.

Largely, in urban settings, it has been found that individuals are more inclined towards their individual self as compared to relational self or collective self. Such people are highly individualistic in their lifestyle. Their goals are self-oriented rather than being group-oriented and they are relatively independent of relational and group bonds.
Being inclined to the individual self makes them more self-oriented instead of relationship-oriented, gradually leading to developing a lack of social ties. This plays a role in the extent to which one has a sense of community. Social ties has been found to be associated with the development of a sense of community – a lack of social ties leading to a low sense of community.
Sense of community or a psychological sense of community is the strength of bonding that individuals have with community members. It involves a feeling of similarity and interdependence with others. Having a sense of community gives the feeling of belonging to a larger social structure.
An inclination towards the individual self, resulting in a lack of social ties leads to a low sense of community. It can therefore be said that, in urban settings, the experience of loneliness is due to the individual not being able to develop a high sense of community.
This can be further explained by looking at the four elements of sense of community (proposed by psychologists, David McMillan and David Chavis), which are membership, influence, integration and fulfilment of needs, and shared emotional connection. Membership is the extent of personal investment and belongingness towards the community. The urban lifestyle, including an inclination towards individual self, develops a lot of uncertainty and instability in an individual. The person due to lack of social bonding and low self-disclosure does not feel a sense of emotional safety, which further leads to a lack of personal investment and a low sense of belonging.
The second element of sense of community is influence. Influence is about exerting power over others, which occurs due to being part of a cohesive group. An inclination towards the individual self naturally does not make the person be a part of a cohesive group, and therefore, has a low sense of influence.
The third element of sense of community is integration and fulfilment of needs, which involves community involvement. When there is community involvement then it leads to integration and needs fulfilment. Again, the urban lifestyle involving being individualistic and achievement-oriented leads to a very superficial involvement with the community, leading to very little integration and fulfilment of needs.
Finally, the fourth element of sense of community is shared emotional connection, which involves deep bonding with community members. Being highly self-oriented leads individuals not being able to develop deep bonding within the community.
Therefore, a low sense of membership, a low sense of influence, little integration and fulfilment of needs, and a lack of shared emotional connection all lead to limited social interactions, which lead to an unfulfilled need for intimacy and a lack of social support, eventually leading to the feeling of loneliness.
An urban lifestyle or urbanism, which involves an inclination towards the individual self, makes people develop a low sense of community, which can be said to be a major cause behind the feeling of loneliness. This can be seen as the reason why loneliness, nowadays, in urban settings, has become a very common problem that people are facing. More and more people are suffering from the feeling of loneliness, it has become highly prevalent.
The fast-paced lifestyle of urban settings does not make people realize that they have been unable to develop strong social bonds. As time passes by, the low sense of community and a lack of belongingness causing them to experience loneliness starts developing an emptiness and a sense of meaninglessness within them, giving rise to a state of confusion, making them to lose any sense of purpose in life.
The long-term effects of such emptiness can be deleterious for the social, psychological, and emotional wellbeing of the person. This prolonged sense of emptiness caused by severe loneliness gives the person a feeling of being lost in the crowd. Loneliness, in this manner, especially in urban settings, has become a social concern rather than an interpersonal problem.

Saif Farooqi

A PhD in Psychology (from the University of Delhi). I have been blogging about psychological issues for than ten years. I am extremely passionate about teaching psychology. I'm a writer, an independent researcher, and conduct workshops and awareness programs in schools and colleges. Currently, I'm also working as an Assistant Professor in Psychology at the Department of Applied Psychology, Vivekananda College, University of Delhi, India.

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