Our lives are full of cellphones and computers. Facebook and Twitter. So how is it that we are more lonely today than ever before? We live in a society where we're overly interconnected, and yet completely isolated. Loneliness permeates many people's lives. Except we never talk about it.
That "we" doesn't include Emily White, author of "Lonely: A Memoir." Who would ever want to read a book about that? Turns out, quite a few people are reading her moving disquisition on that most taboo of subjects -- loneliness -- and how she, a successful Toronto environmental lawyer, endured an intense bout of it between 2002 and 2006 before it lifted.
Part memoir, part inquiry, "Lonely" (Harper, $25.99) might never make the best-seller list, but it's developed quite a cult following since it was published in February. Alice Sebold, author of "The Lovely Bones," called it a "masterwork," while normally snarky gossip blog Jezebel.com described it as "an impassioned call to arms on behalf of a condition no one wants to talk about."
At a time when people can claim to be more connected than ever through Facebook, Skype, cell phones, texting or other forms of social media, we actually may be more like Eleanor Rigby, publicly "wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door," privately going home at night to an empty apartment, an empty life.
That was Ms. White's life.
"I had this sense of promises not kept," Ms. White said in a recent interview about her book, in which she argues that the condition of loneliness is a public health issue that has been ignored for too long. "I felt cheated, that as someone who was young, fit and healthy, there was supposed to be more in my life, and instead I was stuck with this emptiness."
Whether we're elderly, college freshmen, divorced, widowed, single or parents, more of us are lonelier than ever. Blame the economy, blame the need to work two jobs, blame long commutes. Blame suburban sprawl, or urban anonymity, or too much television, or the Internet.
A comprehensive study published in the American Sociological Review in 2006 found that Americans are far more socially isolated than just two decades ago, with a quarter of respondents saying they have no one to confide in. That number actually doubled in two decades, from 10 percent to 24. 6 percent, the study noted.
And it isn't just people living alone. Married people can be lonely. Young people with cool jobs living in crowded apartments can be lonely, too.
Anna North, 27, who wrote a favorable piece about "Lonely" in Jezebel.com, an online gossip site seemingly staffed by people engaged in one long party, said the book resonated with her.
"I was interning at the Atlantic Monthly in Boston, and it was so much fun, but I remember I was also kind of going crazy," she noted. Her boyfriend lived elsewhere, she was from California, "and all the people I worked with were from the East Coast. After her internship ended "I had a couple of weeks to kill, I was trying to work on my fiction and walking around the city" feeling lonely.
She should have turned to RentaFriend.com, where, starting at $10 an hour, the lonely can find companionship for hire. (There are 120,000 names registered on the site in the United States and Canada, including about a dozen in Pittsburgh.)
Indeed, the service was only a matter of time, writes Abigail Goldman in the Las Vegas Sun, "the sum of our modern equation: Community decline + Facebook + loneliness + 80-hour-work weeks + anxiety + the Great Recession + PayPal = RentAFriend.com."
In "Lonely," Ms. White not only documents her own journey, but delves into the state of research into loneliness -- including the possibility of a genetic component which makes some more prone to it than others. She also quotes University of Chicago psychologist John T. Cacioppo, who argues that our brains have become hard-wired to have regular contact with others to aid survival.
Dr. Cacioppo, who has conducted more than 30 years of research into the subject, is the author of "Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection," which braids neuroscience, social psychology and cognitive science into a highly integrated, accessible thesis: that "Nature is connection" -- and we ignore loneliness at our peril.
Moreover, his research has found that if you have a lonely friend, you're 40 percent to 60 percent more likely to feel lonely, possibly because lonely people have a shaky grasp of connection, a nervousness that is somehow transmitted to others.
Depressing, isn't it?
Not a Popular Topic
Loneliness has long been fertile ground for artists and writers, from the Beatles to Sherwood Anderson to Roy Orbison, and much ink has been spilled about the fraying of America's social fabric, most notably in Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam's 2000 book "Bowling Alone." As far back as 1986, 30-something working women were beginning to question whether the benefits of feminism meant somehow sacrificing marriage, children, a life outside of work. In a widely read Newsweek cover story, Sharon Cohen, a successful businesswoman, lamented: "Sometimes I imagine that if I died now my tombstone would read: 'Here lies Sharon Cohen. She read a lot of magazines.' "
But unlike its far-better-known cousin -- depression -- loneliness doesn't get much press as a health issue or get listed in the Diagnostic Statistics Manual, the mental-health profession's guide to psychiatric disorders.
While a handful of researchers have been doing groundbreaking work in recent years linking loneliness to early death, dementia and illness, its lack of official DSM status means it doesn't attract huge federal grants or drug industry-funded studies.
It's not listed in the DSM because loneliness isn't generally seen to impair functioning and doesn't consist of a complex of symptoms, says Dr. Ellen Frank, distinguished professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh.
"While loneliness may be very painful and may actually have a biological basis perhaps -- too little of the hormone that leads to the capacity for deep attachment -- it is still a single symptom," she said.
"Depressed people are dissatisfied with everything, while lonely people are dissatisfied with their relations with other people," says University of Iowa researcher Dan Russell, who developed the UCLA Loneliness Scale -- a diagnostic tool that has been widely used in his small field of study.
Certainly, loneliness can lead to depression, and depressed people may be lonely "because they aren't always a lot of fun to be around. There are plenty of causal connections that go both ways," he said.
The highest levels of loneliness have been found in high school and college students, while the lowest levels were found, surprisingly, in the elderly, said Mr. Russell -- but those low numbers may represent a generational resistance against answering yes, he noted, when asked point blank about loneliness.
Denial, Then Therapy
Ms. White spent much of her time hiding her condition before finally seeking therapy and starting the research for her book.
"People hide loneliness in their lives," she says. "In our culture, if you're lonely, you've somehow failed. You're needy and somehow people don't like you. It's your fault, somehow."
Her loneliness was not the kind that comes after a breakup or divorce -- but chronic loneliness, the kind that eventually breaks down the immune system and makes people even more inclined to withdraw into themselves, a vicious cycle with dangerous consequences for one's health.
Hers was a life, it seems, destined for loneliness After her parents divorced when she was 4, her mother -- also lonely -- worked long hours to support her, leaving her at home alone a lot. What her family saw as a "contented aloneness" was, in fact, "a frightened isolation, she writes -- a child left too much on her own, who would refuse to go upstairs and have "long, nervous talks" with an imaginary twin brother.
In her 30s, Ms. White was working long hours at a small law firm and commuting to an apartment far from friends every night. Relationships would start, and sputter. She began having health problems -- she was distracted, sleepless, and her doctor noted that she might, at age 34, be suffering premature menopause.
Her training as a lawyer -- to question and examine everything -- eventually rescued her, forcing her to begin researching her condition. Also, after joining a basketball league, she met her current partner and found meaningful connection.
"Lonely" is a tough read, at least for those who have managed to abolish loneliness amid the cacophony of children or fulfilling work -- the mind rebels at revisiting the topic, even as we're forced to turn the page and find out what happens next. Does she ever snap out of it?
Long story short: When her partner got a job in Newfoundland, Ms. White moved there with her, and got her book published to generally admiring reviews.
"I'm isolated, but I'm not lonely," she says, noting that she's connected with many readers of her book, who correspond with her on her website, www.lonelythebook.com. But she acknowledges that she hasn't tried to organize her life in a way to keep loneliness at bay. If anything, she writes, she is playing a kind of "Russian Roulette" with loneliness, "telling myself it won't find me, and that it won't settle again," when, in fact, it probably will.
We are born alone and we die alone, and in between, we must acknowledge our need for others -- even as our "connected" society seems to be driving many of us farther apart. Still, "I'm not, despite adequate skill or powerful desire, able to write an end to my own loneliness story," Ms. White writes at her book's conclusion.
That ending has to come from someone else, "who takes me by the hand and leads me away from the state, away from the word, away from the feeling that's been mine for so long."