When Samir Joshi* of Hyderabad married his sweetheart in 2001, life seemed so good for the software businessman. But, within a year, his business suffered huge losses. His doting father died soon afterwards. Then came the revelation of his wife’s infidelity. For a while, Samir was in a daze, hoping to give his wife and himself a chance to save their marriage.
In 2005, Samir’s wife divorced him and married her lover. Worse, endless questions and advice kept pouring in from inquisitive relatives and neighbours about his failed marriage—all of which made him retreat further into his own shell.
Blame it on broken hearts and bereavement to mere shyness and busy routines, millions of us suffer from some form of loneliness. Like a disease, it cuts across class, age groups and gender, leaving very few of us immune. And it’s not Robinson Crusoe’s loneliness, where a person is cut off from society, but it’s loneliness despite living amid dear ones and neighbours, despite the Internet and social networking, crowded towns and shopping malls. “People can be alone without being lonely, or lonely in a crowd,” says one research paper on the subject.
Those affected by loneliness are generally not keen to talk about it. They feel ashamed or embarrassed or simply do not have anyone to discuss the problem with. “Globally, modern urban living has become more and more individualistic and loneliness is a by-product of it,” says the noted psychologist and social theorist Professor Ashis Nandy. “Relationships in present times have become transient, the concept of extended family has weakened and our circle of friends has narrowed.”
Although very little research on loneliness is available from India, findings from other countries could be a guide. In one city in Holland, for example, a third of all parents of children who are old enough to attend school were found to be lonely. There is also a very close connection between old age and loneliness. In a recent nationwide survey, New Delhi-based Agewell Foundation, an NGO that works for the welfare of the elderly, found that nearly 78 percent of Indians in the 60-to-70 age group feel quite lonely and isolated.
Other studies have shown a strong correlation between loneliness and poor mental health. “Persistent loneliness can set the stage for depression, increase the risk of suicide, and in other ways jeopardize psychological wellbeing,” says one survey of empirical findings on the subject. University of Chicago psychologist John Cacioppo, a leading expert on the subject, even maintains that loneliness is contagious. His studies have determined that people are moved “to the edge of the social network when they become lonely,” and “lonely people transmit feelings of loneliness to their remaining friends, who also become lonely.” Cacioppo explained, soon after his study was published in 2009, “that as people become lonely, they become less trustful of others, and a cycle develops that makes it harder for them to form friendships.”
And, in agreement with Ashis Nandy’s view on the decaying of extended urban families, the Agewell survey revealed that while only 10 percent of Indian seniors living in joint families felt isolated, nearly 68 percent of those living with nuclear families reported loneliness. The survey also found that older people living in rural areas have more social interactions and feel less the pain of loneliness in comparison to the urban elderly. It was also found that older Indian men are more prone to isolation than older women.
Reader’s Digest spoke to several experts and examined ways of tackling loneliness before it becomes a serious problem that can affect a person’s mental and physical health. “One needs to deal with his or her loneliness through conscious efforts rather than giving up on the problem,” says Mumbai psychiatrist Dr Anjali Chhabria. “Apart from one’s inner strength, the support of friends and family members also plays a crucial role in overcoming loneliness.”
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