No one talks about feeling lonely. Yet according to a report published by the Mental Health Foundation last year, Britain’s loneliness epidemic is reaching troubling proportions, with more than one in ten people affected. This growing sense of isolation is particularly depressing against a background in which social success is measured by the number of Facebook friends you have, which places a premium on the superficial connectedness of texting and Twitter.
A new book seeks to end the silence. Lonely: Learning to Live with Solitude by Emily White charts the daily misery of living without a deep emotional connection, and feeling distanced from people, even family members. The truth is that you don’t have to live alone – as one in three Britons now do – to be lonely. Jess, who divorced six years ago, and has a wide circle of friends, says, “Before my son left home I had this terrible fear of being lonely. But when he left I realised that I had actually been lonely for years, ever since my marriage broke up. I was actually lonely when my son was here.”
Yet while some people are dragged down by solitude, others thrive on it. After years of compromising to suit a partner or kids it can be a relief to spend time on your own, and to make active choices about pleasing yourself. People often talk about feeling lonelier in unhappy relationships than they ever felt on their own.
But solitude is not the same as loneliness, and I’m not suggesting that enjoying solitude is simply a question of bucking yourself up. It is only possible to be positive about being on your own if there is a choice; if you are in a position to step in and out of solitude and connect with people when you feel like it.
As people get older they seem more willing to put up with a certain amount of loneliness in order to achieve the things they want to. This goes with a certain urgency about not putting things off just because there’s no one to do them with. That’s perhaps one reason why one in three foreign holidays are now taken alone.
One huge advantage of solitude is that you can focus more intensely on the moment. As a single parent who recently moved to a new town, Rachel has had plenty of practice. She says, “I’m quite happy to take myself out to dinner with a book or a newspaper, and I really enjoy going to the theatre or to hear music on my own – I like those momentary encounters you have with random people.
“I even went to Glyndebourne on my own, which beforehand seemed pretty intimidating. I did feel a bit strange eating my solo picnic in such a wildly social setting, but the great thing was that all my senses were heightened; everything seemed much more vivid. I can still remember details in a way I wouldn’t have if I’d been chatting to friends.”
Going solo can take some getting used to. A companion is a bit like a security blanket. Without one you’ve jumped straight out of your comfort zone, and that can be scary, especially in foreign parts. It’s even disconcerting in more familiar settings. A woman on her own still attracts the odd unwelcome stare; the difference is that these days she hopefully won’t give a monkey’s.
It can even be a good way to meet new people, providing you don’t go along with a desperate look in your eye. I’m not talking about hanging about in bars, or even cha-cha classes, where partners who want more than just a dance can be a hazard (non-clinchy Scottish reeling is a much safer option). Other kinds of classes are a more relaxed way of getting to know people gradually, and a shared interest gives shy types a head start. But you have to be genuinely interested in medieval history or jewellery design or whatever it is you’re studying. Then if you happen to come across a kindred spirit it’s the icing on the cake, not the whole desperate point of the exercise.
If you really want to meet people, travel on your own. In fact, you might well end up fighting them off. Miranda Davies, co-author of the Rough Guide Women Travel books, says, “One of the advantages of being alone is that you meet travellers of all different ages, particularly if you stay in hostels. But on the whole I would rather meet people from the country I’m travelling in, and again that’s often easier if you’re by yourself.
“Of course there are challenges – if you’re having a miserable time it’s always nice to have someone to share it with – but I would always much rather go on my own than with someone I’m not sure about.”
Pen Weir, another seasoned solo traveller, agrees: “At times I ask myself, ‘Am I really enjoying this? Do I really like being on my own?’ On the whole the answer is yes, because you have total freedom. And the great thing is that it takes you right away from domesticity; I soon stop thinking about what’s happening back home and it’s nice not to be able to communicate too much. What I love most is having plenty of thinking time – in fact I find that almost addictive.”