How did we get so lonely?

In 1874, The Zoological Garden in Philadelphia was the first zoo in the USA. Four years later, the first female chimpanzee at the Zoological Garden died of complications. "Miss Chimpanzee", according to news reports at the time, died "while receiving the attentions of her beloved companion". In the monkey house, where it was just the two of them, they had become “accustomed to sleeping at night in each other’s arms on a blanket on the floor,” clutching each other, desperately, achingly, through the long, cold night.

Mr. and Miss Chimpanzee were two of only four chimpanzees in America, and when she died, human observers mourned her loss, but, above all, they remarked on the behaviour of her companion. For a long time, they reported, he tried in vain to rouse her. Then he “went into a frenzy of grief.” This behaviour related entirely with what Charles Darwin had described in humans: “Persons suffering from excessive grief often seek relief by violent and almost frantic movements.” The bereaved chimpanzee began to pull out the hair from his head. He wailed, making a sound the zookeeper had never heard before: Hah-ah-ah-ah-ah. “His cries were heard over the entire garden. He dashed himself against the bars of the cage and butted his head upon the hard-wood, and when this burst of grief was ended he poked his head under the straw in one corner and moaned as if his heart would break.”

Loneliness is grief, distended. People are primates, and even more sociable than chimpanzees. We hunger for intimacy. We wither without it. And yet, long before the present pandemic, with its forced isolation and social distancing, humans had begun building their own monkey houses. Before modern times, very few human beings lived alone. Slowly, beginning not much more than a century ago, that changed. As of 2020, in the UK, 7.9 million people live alone. You can live alone without being lonely, and you can be lonely without living alone, but the two are closely tied together, which makes lockdowns, that much harder to bear.

Loneliness, it seems unnecessary to say, is terrible for your health. In 2017 and 2018, the former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy declared an “epidemic of loneliness,” and the U.K. appointed a Minister of Loneliness. To diagnose this condition, doctors at U.C.L.A. devised a Loneliness Scale. Do you often, sometimes, rarely, or never feel these ways?

  • I am unhappy doing so many things alone.

  • I have nobody to talk to.

  • I cannot tolerate being so alone.

  • I feel as if nobody really understands me.

  • I am no longer close to anyone.

  • There is no one I can turn to.

  • I feel isolated from others.

In the age of quarantine, does one disease produce another?

Primates need to belong to an intimate social group, a family or a band, in order to survive; this is especially true for humans. Separated from the group—either finding yourself alone or finding yourself among a group of people who do not know and understand you—triggers a fight-or-flight response. Your body understands being alone, or being with strangers, as an emergency. We breathe fast, our heart races, our blood pressure rises, we don’t sleep. We act fearful, defensive, and self-involved, all of which drive away people who might actually want to help, and tend to stop lonely people from doing what would benefit them most: reaching out to others.

We can argue that networked technologies of communication, beginning with the telephone’s widespread adoption, in the nineteen-fifties, helped make living alone possible. Radio, television, Internet, social media: we can feel at home, online. Or not. Robert Putnam’s influential book about the decline of community ties, “Bowling Alone,” came out in 2000, four years before the launch of Facebook, which monetised loneliness. Some people say that the success of social media was a product of an epidemic of loneliness; some people say it was a contributor to it; some people say it’s the only remedy for it. Connect! Disconnect! The epidemic only grew.

Then the great, global confinement began: enforced isolation, social distancing, shutdowns, lockdowns, a human but inhuman zoological garden. Zoom is better than nothing. But for how long? It is a terrible, frightful experiment, a test of the human capacity to bear loneliness. Do you pull out your hair? Do you dash yourself against the walls of your cage? Do you, locked inside, thrash and cry and moan? Sometimes, rarely, or never? More today than yesterday?

HUMAN-US is offering two opportunities to help combat loneliness - become a call buddy or become a pen pal and help make a real difference in someone's life today.


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