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Understanding Loneliness: Its Impact on Our Health and the Path to Building Meaningful Relationships

We are living in a world where all the structures, systems, institutions, and understandings of the past have undergone radical changes. In modern times, everything related to humanity and life has been affected by this transformation. With capitalism, new economic ideas emerged; with liberalism, new political approaches; with secularism, new perspectives on religion; and with humanism, fresh thoughts on human beings. Modernity constructed a new individual, society, and state according to its own values and ideologies. The breathtaking developments in industry, science, and technology gave rise to new lifestyles and ways of living.

The question of what these changes and transformations have gained and lost for humanity has not been thoroughly studied yet. Or rather, for now, humanity finds consolation and satisfaction in the blessings of modernity. It praises individualism for liberating people from the chains of family, religions, traditional structures, customs, and traditions. It extols technology for making life easier with its offerings. It heralds democracy and liberalism for liberating it from the tyranny of autocratic regimes. It indulges in the pleasures of hedonism by transforming its gaze and efforts into the ready pleasures of this world.

However, there are also those who approach all these “innovations” of the modern world critically. Because modernity did not only witness progress, discoveries, and advancements but also brought many distortions, corruptions, and destructions. In addition to the corruption of nature, irresponsible use of resources, disruption of ecological balance, pollution of air, water, and the environment, and tampering with the nature of things, there have been many problems related to human life, such as spreading immorality and debauchery, dissolution of the family, the use of power and wealth as instruments of domination, and the loss of meaning and purpose in life. Undoubtedly, one of the main problems created by the modern way of life is loneliness. In this article, we will focus on loneliness in its various dimensions.

What is Loneliness?

Loneliness is different from being alone. Being alone is a state of solitude, meaning being isolated from one’s surroundings. Loneliness, on the other hand, is when a person’s social relationships do not fulfill or satisfy them. In other words, loneliness is a state of mind, an emotional condition, a feeling of isolation. Therefore, being alone can lead to feelings of loneliness, and even being in crowds can make a person feel lonely.

Loneliness is a concept that is difficult to define and frame. It has a subjective aspect because everyone experiences loneliness differently; its form, degree, and intensity vary. Therefore, there have been extensive analyses of what loneliness is. However, nowadays, there is no need to provide lengthy definitions of loneliness since when we say “loneliness,” most people understand more or less what is meant.

It seems that there is hardly anyone who has never felt loneliness at some point in their life. Everyone can be alone or complain about loneliness for various reasons. What is crucial here is the duration and intensity of loneliness. Loneliness that becomes chronic and affects a person’s psychology and health is what matters. It is essential to remember that in today’s world, loneliness has moved from being an individual problem to a social epidemic.

Existential Loneliness

It is worth noting that the social and emotional loneliness we are discussing is different from existential/ontological and voluntary/intentional loneliness. Existential loneliness is related to the nature of human existence, which means that each individual is a separate realm, unique in essence and self, and the only one who knows their inner world. No matter how strong the connections a person establishes with others, no matter how high-quality the relationships they have, this does not change the fact that they are ultimately alone and unique. Even if a person does not feel this when spending time with others, they feel this loneliness when they are alone and turn inward. If they cannot find a way to overcome it, it creates a deep void and a sense of meaninglessness that cannot be filled or closed.

It should be immediately stated that nothing can fill the existential void other than faith in Allah. The reason why some philosophers view existential emptiness as an essential element of being human and argue that it is not a permanent solution is that they have not experienced the pleasure of faith. A person who believes in the existence of Allah, whose heart is filled with His love, who finds peace and tranquility with Him, who turns to Him when in distress, who thanks Him when blessed, and who lives with a constant awareness of His providence, cannot experience existential loneliness. Regardless of where they are, a person who believes that Allah is always with them (Hadid Surah, 57/4), and that He is closer to them than their jugular vein (Qaf Surah, 50/16), why would they experience existential loneliness?

Voluntary Loneliness

It is important not to confuse the social and emotional loneliness, which is considered a problem by experts today and has quite debilitating and destructive effects in terms of its consequences, with intentional loneliness. Many people want to be alone from time to time for various reasons. Some do it to clear their minds and rest. Some want to be alone to assess themselves, reflect on life, and get to know themselves better. Some choose to be alone to connect with nature, contemplate it, and engage in introspection. Some people are aware that reading, writing, researching, and engaging in intellectual activities require concentration, so they prefer to be alone.

In addition to all this, there are those who choose to withdraw from people for a certain period to purify their souls, refine their hearts, and cultivate their spirits, in other words, to experience spiritual purification. During this time, the individual tries to free themselves from the attraction of the ego and carnality by engaging in spiritual practices and striving to elevate the levels of their heart and soul. They minimize their material and bodily needs, that is, they practice asceticism. They spend their time in solitude with remembrance and worship, drawing closer to Allah. Such loneliness in Sufism is expressed with terms like “uzlet” (retreat), “halvet” (seclusion), “inziva” (seclusion), “erbain” (forty-day retreat), and “tebettül.” We can also mention the practice of “itikaf,” which is a tradition of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), in this context.


Why are we becoming lonely?

As mentioned earlier, loneliness has become a chronic problem in today’s world. Perhaps twenty or thirty years ago, it was stated that one in three people in Western countries experienced loneliness, and it was more commonly associated with older individuals. Nowadays, this rate has increased significantly. Recent studies show that approximately sixty percent of Westerners experience chronic loneliness. Moreover, loneliness is not limited to the elderly; it has become a prevalent issue across nearly all age groups. Countries like the United Kingdom, Japan, and England have established ministries responsible for addressing loneliness. The World Health Organization has declared loneliness a global health threat. If the severity of the situation is not recognized and comprehensive solutions are not implemented, loneliness will become an even greater problem in the future.

Ironically, with the advancement of communication and transportation technologies, one would expect interpersonal relationships to flourish. However, the opposite has occurred. People who can travel to the other side of the world can no longer visit their next-door neighbors. Individuals who interact with thousands of accounts on social media have become estranged from their own family members. Economic conditions have improved, and everyone has obtained what they need, but they have lost the friends who would visit them. As people began to live in large cities and metropolises, they became alienated from themselves, society, and nature. The pursuit of career success, work, productivity, financial gain, and status became so central to life that people could no longer dedicate enough time to social relationships.

Rigorous promotion of individualism accompanied these developments. People were encouraged from childhood not to depend on anyone, to stand on their own two feet. Saying “no” was depicted as a skill. However, as we built thick walls called personal boundaries, others found it increasingly difficult to approach us. We distanced ourselves further from those around us as we directed all our attention and love toward ourselves. While emphasizing our independence, we grew distant from others. We developed a strange sense of “self-sufficiency” toward others. We lost patience with people, even our own family members. As we confined ourselves to the narrow confines of our egos, we became indifferent to our surroundings. We focused on our rights and freedoms while forgetting our duties and responsibilities.

As a result, both quantitatively and qualitatively, there has been a tremendous decrease in social relationships. We became imprisoned in our individual worlds. Old friendships and past associations were largely lost. Relationships lost their warmth, intimacy, significance, and intensity. As we pursued a self-centered life, we failed to see the handicaps it would create. Escaping from neighborhood pressures and control lured us into the trap of loneliness. In our pursuit of independence, we ended up alone. Some people do not even find out about someone’s death until days later, and funerals remain at home for days because no one comes to visit. There is no one left to knock on their door. We have placed the elderly in cold walls of nursing homes. We have homeless people, children growing up on the streets like never before. Loneliness has spread like a pandemic.

In the past, people who were excluded by society or could not find enough friends could at least find a place for themselves within their families or extended relatives. Unfortunately, we have both dispersed families and severed ties of kinship.

Can’t people live alone?

Some may ask the question: Can’t people live alone, can’t they be happy? It is not as easy to answer “yes” as it may seem. Because, according to the old saying, man is a “social animal” by nature. He is dependent on others to meet his material and spiritual needs; he needs to cooperate and help others. Moreover, by nature, he is created as weak and helpless. His power, knowledge, and experience are limited. He cannot bear the burdens of life alone, cannot provide for himself, and cannot stand alone.

Furthermore, people want to establish connections with others and spend time together. They have deep emotional needs, such as being attached, belonging, receiving attention, approval, understanding, listening, loving, and being loved. Knowing that one is valued and appreciated is an indescribable source of peace. Similarly, people want to share their sorrows and joys. They know that sharing sorrows reduces them, and sharing joys multiplies them. People not only want to share joys and sorrows but also want to share their significant experiences and important life events with someone. They seek loyal friends and reliable companions with whom they can share their secrets, open up their inner worlds, and trust. They want to discuss their problems and troubles with their friends, seek advice, and relieve their burdens. All of these are therapeutic for humans; they comfort them and bring them peace.

Unfortunately, modern people largely experience the deprivation of these aspects. Trying to fill the void created by the absence of satisfying social relationships, they turn to life coaches, counselors, therapists, psychologists, and other experts, but often without success.

How does loneliness affect human health?

For many years, research and studies have been conducted to investigate the effects of loneliness on human mental and physical health. Hundreds, if not thousands, of academic articles have been written on this topic. For example, you can search for articles on Google with titles like “Loneliness and pathways to disease,” “The effects of loneliness,” “Loneliness: an epidemic in modern society,” “Is loneliness a psychological dysfunction?,” “Loneliness and Suicide,” “Relationship Between Loneliness, Psychiatric Disorders, and Physical Health,” “Loneliness as a Public Health Issue,” “Relationship between loneliness and mental health in students,” and “Loneliness Matters.” Research in this field shows that loneliness has particularly destructive effects on mental health. In one article, loneliness is referred to as the “hidden killer,” which is quite thought-provoking.

First and foremost, loneliness is identified as a source of stress and depression. Many studies have established a strong connection between loneliness and depression. There is also a strong relationship between loneliness and anxiety. Some studies even link loneliness to aggressive tendencies or crimes such as violence against women, rape, and child abuse. This is because loneliness threatens psychology, makes people unhappy, and can even emotionally paralyze them. It also increases the risk of alcohol and drug addiction and suicide. Loneliness can lead to problems such as Alzheimer’s, dementia, memory loss, and learning difficulties, causing significant damage to the brain. It can result in psychosomatic symptoms like headaches, loss of appetite, and a sense of fatigue.

Loneliness has been shown in some studies to increase the risk of significant physical illnesses. These illnesses include cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, obesity, hypertension, sleep disorders, weakened immune systems, and cancer, among others. Loneliness is said to harm human health as much as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and to shorten one’s lifespan. For this reason, some researchers propose that pathological loneliness should be considered as a type of disease itself.

A study conducted by Harvard University on 724 individuals over 85 years, known as the Grant and Glueck Study, summarizes the findings as follows: Healthy and quality relationships equal a happy life. This research indicates that having people in whom one can trust, to whom one can surrender, calms the nervous system, helps the brain remain healthy for longer, alleviates emotional and physical pain, and extends one’s lifespan. The study also reveals that those who feel lonely experience deterioration in their physical health and tend to die earlier. (https://www.uplifers.com/75-yil-suren-harvard-arastirmasi-mutlu-bir-hayatin-sirrini-buldu/amp/)

What should we do against loneliness?

The complexity and difficulty of human relationships can sometimes keep us away from people. We may fear getting hurt, being disappointed, experiencing conflicts, rejection, betrayal, or disappointment. Or we may not want to compromise ourselves, make sacrifices for others. However, while trying to avoid the rain, we end up getting caught in the hail.

First and foremost, we need to realize the following truth: No matter how we build our world for ourselves in terms of individual careers, success, status, prosperity, and comfort, none of these can replace the need for human connections. We cannot face all our material and spiritual problems on our own, nor can we solve them ourselves. Whether we realize it or not, leading an isolated life away from our surroundings will have a heavy price to pay in the long run. Therefore, in an age where time is shrinking, working conditions are getting tougher, and pastimes are increasing, what we sacrifice should not be the time spent with friends and social activities.

If we do not want to deal with the problems that loneliness brings in the future, we must appreciate the value of family members, relatives, acquaintances, friends, and find ways to build strong bonds with those around us, regardless of whether others sing the praises of loneliness or fall into the trap of extreme individualism, without neglecting our social networks.

Finally, it is essential to emphasize that the natural and innate path for humans is to socialize. This is also one of the significant goals of religions: to promote social solidarity and cooperation. While the Quran declares all believers as brothers, the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) likens the Muslim community to a building where bricks are interlocked. He says, “You will not enter Paradise until you believe, and you will not believe until you love one another.” (Muslim, Faith, 93-94)

Many of the religious commandments are aimed at fostering healthy, quality relationships among people. For instance, prayer gathers people together five times a day. Fasting develops empathy for the poor and needy. Zakat (almsgiving) establishes bridges between the rich and the poor. Hajj is a worship where millions of people come together and perform Hajj rituals together. Sacrifice is also a way of sharing. Hospitality and generosity to guests are praised. Observing neighborhood and kinship relations is among the fundamental commands of religion.

On the other hand, behaviors that can harm interpersonal relationships, such as gambling, drinking, suspicion, gossip, slander, mockery, giving derogatory nicknames, looking down on others, and spreading false accusations, are prohibited. Therefore, for believers, one of the important ways to cope with loneliness is to take religious orders and prohibitions seriously and implement them in their lives. In a society where Islamic rules are lived, it is very difficult to talk about the problem of loneliness.

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YUKSEL CAYIROGLU
YUKSEL CAYIROGLU
Professor Yuksel Cayiroglu is a scholar focusing on Islamic Law and Religous Studies.
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