THE COMPLEXITY OF THE CONCEPT OF LONELINESS

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Loneliness is the unpleasant experience of having an unfulfilled need for intimacy or an inability to have satisfying long-lasting interpersonal relationships. This widely used definition of loneliness does not necessarily depict the complexity of the concept of loneliness.

Over the years, researchers have suggested that there are a number of ways in which loneliness can be viewed, which has led to an understanding of it in different ways. This indicates that loneliness, as a concept cannot be completely understood by a single, common definition. These different aspects of loneliness certainly make it a complex concept.

Loneliness can be broadly distinguished as state and trait loneliness. State loneliness is situation-based. It is the situation in which the individual is, such as being in an unfamiliar place or being around unfamiliar people, becomes the cause of feeling lonely. Usually, this type of loneliness is short-lived, in such that as the unfamiliarity of the situation gets reduced, the person does not feel lonely.

Trait loneliness, on the other hand, is long-lasting. When the traits or characteristics of the individual cause him or her to feel lonely, then it is called trait loneliness. Traits are relatively stable, and thus, trait loneliness becomes long-lasting. The characteristics of the individual, like social awkwardness, melancholy, shyness, low sociability, etc., cause difficulties in having fulfilling social interactions. The individual, due to this, is unable to have satisfying relationships and experiences loneliness.

The understanding of loneliness with respect to state loneliness and trait loneliness becomes very different. The experience of displeasure in trait loneliness is severe and a major cause of concern. Trait loneliness often leads to having low self-esteem and depression. On the other hand, state loneliness is less severe, and after some time passes, the individual may easily overcome it by becoming more familiar with the situation.

There can be a possibility, however, that state loneliness also gets prolonged. This can happen if an individual consistently has to be in different unfamiliar situations. In such circumstances, this could eventually lead to developing into trait loneliness. Over a period of time, due to consistently being in unfamiliar circumstances, the individual might develop behavior patterns that may cause prolonged, severe loneliness.

In addition to that, there could also be circumstances in which a person with trait loneliness might have to be in unfamiliar situations. This will lead to a complicated condition in which trait loneliness gets combined state loneliness. Both of these circumstances, that is, prolonged state loneliness and trait loneliness getting combined with state loneliness, further add to the complexity of understanding the concept of loneliness.

Apart from state and trait loneliness, loneliness can also be differentiated as social and emotional loneliness. Social loneliness takes place due to a lack of supportive social network. Emotional loneliness occurs due to a lack of an intimate figure in life. These are two very different ways of looking at loneliness.

There can be very much a possibility that a person experiences both types of loneliness simultaneously. However, it can also be quite possible that a person who does not feel emotional loneliness may experience social loneliness. A person may have one or two intimate figures in life but may be unable to connect with a larger group of people and thus may feel a lack of a supportive social network.

It can also be that a person who does not experience social loneliness may feel emotional loneliness. A person may feel to be a part of a strong supportive network, but somehow might be missing that intimate figure, someone with whom he or she would like to share those small, personal day-to-day activities experienced in life.

Both social and emotional loneliness can be associated with trait loneliness. A person being high on trait loneliness will experience both social and emotional loneliness. However, if a person experiences social loneliness and not emotional loneliness, then it can be associated with state loneliness that has been prolonged indefinitely. In this case, it is the situation or circumstances that make the person experience social loneliness. If this social loneliness continues for a long time, it can be the kind of loneliness that has often been found to be characteristic of the lifestyle in urban settings.

In urban settings, because of the fast-paced, consumerist lifestyle, people are usually inclined to their individual self instead of their relational self or collective self. This means that individuals are individualistic rather than being relationship-oriented or choosing goals that may be associated with their social group. Due to this, individuals are unable to develop supportive social networks.

The social psychoanalyst Erich Fromm suggested that modern society, which is characteristic of capitalism and consumerism, makes inherent needs like relatedness, rootedness, sense of identity, etc. to be unfulfilled. Due to this, individuals feel distressed and alienated.

In a similar vein, the existential psychologist gave the concept of unhealthy individualism. May suggested that individuals, in their desire for success and materialism, display hyper-competitiveness, which makes them extremely self-reliant and disconnected from others. This, in turn, leads to having a lack of social support. May refers to this state as unhealthy individualism.

Unhealthy individualism results in a feeling of emptiness, which involves a sense of directionlessness and hopelessness. The individual feels powerlessness, a lack of control over events, and a complete sense of indifference. This emptiness, according to May, leads to experiencing loneliness.

The condition described by both Erich Fromm and Rollo May is a form of social loneliness. However, this type of loneliness is similar to what has been referred to as existential loneliness. Existential loneliness involves a complete disconnect from others, alienation, emptiness, and meaninglessness. The person has the feeling of being completely lost in the crowd.

Loneliness in urban settings, as mentioned above, can be viewed as a form of social loneliness. This form of social loneliness is due to being in a specific type of situation or context, which makes it a form of state loneliness. The same can be said for existential loneliness. Both of these conditions develop into specific patterns of behaviors or end up being characteristic of the individual. This means that the prolonged state loneliness eventually becomes trait loneliness.

However, existential loneliness may not necessarily result due to being in a specific kind of situation. It can be possible that an individual experiences existential loneliness because of having certain traits or characteristics that make him or her feel that way. This means that trait loneliness could eventually lead to experiencing existential loneliness.

When describing loneliness, at first, it might seem to be a single-faceted or unidimensional concept. But loneliness can be viewed from many aspects. Each of these aspects suggest that loneliness can be understood in many different ways, depending on the context and the type of loneliness. All this makes the concept of loneliness to be very complex. 

Saif Farooqi

A PhD in Psychology (from the University of Delhi). I have been blogging about psychological issues for more 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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