The Seven Ages of Loneliness

by | May 12, 2022 | Thoughts


When have you felt lonely?

  • Standing with leaden feet in a primary school playground while watching the other kids form companionable little friendships.
  • Trying very hard not to look like you care as you fail to be selected for the team.
  • Keeping a low profile so the girl who picked on you as you walked home won’t notice you.
  • Starting a new job knowing that your face doesn’t fit, wondering how you’ll assail the impenetrable workplace cliques.
  • Trying – and failing – to fathom the unending needs of this tiny baby.
  • Hearing the diagnosis of a life-threatening illness and trying very hard not to break down in front of the brusque young doctor who delivers the news.
  • Following the car that’s taking your partner to the hospice knowing you’ll never again share a bed and a home with the one person in the world who knows you best.

We tend to think of loneliness as an affliction of old age, an inevitable rite of passage as we lose partners and friends and as family members move away. But that powerful sense of not being seen, heard, or understood – or at the very least, knowing that we are held in the hearts and minds of others – is something we might feel throughout our lives.


Sometimes loneliness arises from circumstances: moving to a new area; losing a partner; caring for a small child alone. But it is equally possible to feel lonely even if your life is full of other people. Many report feeling lonelier in a relationship than being single. And sometimes loneliness arises because of our own feelings of shame, of not believing we’re ‘good enough’. For too many of us, childhood chastisement involved isolation from other people, even alienation, so it’s not surprising that we might sometimes withdraw when we feel the ancient pangs of shame. Loneliness is often a feature of depression, where we seem to push others away precisely when we might need their presence the most.

Like all our emotions, loneliness is alerting us to a need – to connect with others in meaningful ways that give us a sense we’re seen and accepted for who we are.

But we live in a world that frequently obstructs those connections with the demands it makes on our time, energies, and attention. We learn very early in our lives that our primary purpose is to serve economic growth rather than our own needs for human interaction.


The places we live and work are organised like silos, with walls and doors designed to shut others out to maximise our productive effort. We attempt to overcome the limitations we place on connection through conscious efforts to ‘network’ as long as this activity yields a return in the form of pair bonding or business wins.

We live in a society that upholds romantic love as the cure-all for loneliness when, in reality, the possibilities for meaningful connection have always been wider, deeper and far more diverse. Nonetheless,  we invest our time disproportionately in securing and maintaining a love relationship that must meet all our needs, unfailingly, for a lifetime.

#MentalHealthAwarenessWeek this year focuses on loneliness, no doubt in recognition of how widely felt this emotion must have been during the most restricted periods of the pandemic. The virus demanded estrangement over and above the usual ways we are estranged from each other. But even before Covid-19, loneliness had reached epidemic proportions in our society and, increasingly, we have been recognising its negative health impacts (loneliness is considered as lethal as smoking 15 cigarettes a day).

A few months ago, there were reports that a drug was being developed for loneliness, another sign that we would rather suppress our human needs biochemically than organise ourselves in ways that would address them.

The prospects of a societal change to tackle loneliness seems like an unachievable aspiration. We are driven too much by production and consumption. But we could attend to our own loneliness or the experience of others. We might do this first by noticing how difficult it is to say “I feel lonely” (since it seems to denote some personal failing). We might tell ourselves that loneliness is an ordinary hunger for connection and that experiencing it is testament to our humanity and appetite for life.

So, when that neighbour smiles at you as you take out the bins, why not do a little more than smile back? By reaching out more consciously and purposefully in our neighbourhoods and at work, who knows what wonderful, lasting and life-affirming connections we might make?









1 Comment

  1. Mark

    Thanks for your blog, nice to read. Do not stop.


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