Shaheen Shivji was happier in Kabul. There were bombs going off outside the compound where she worked for a development agency, but she preferred life in the Afghan capital to the one she had at home in Abbotsford, B.C., for one simple reason: She wasn’t lonely.
“For the first time in my adult life, I didn’t feel isolated,” she says. “I felt socially connected, I was with like-minded people. I was doing something important to better the world.”
Afghanistan became too dangerous and, after a year, Ms. Shivji moved back to B.C., where she lives with her parents and works as a communications manager for local government. She has one friend she texts regularly, but otherwise her old university crowd has married and drifted away. She yearns for simple connection in her life, to meet a friend regularly for coffee or a movie, to occasionally feel a kind hand on her arm. Work is her main source of satisfaction.
The toll of her loneliness isn’t just emotional. At 44, she feels tired, distracted, unable to concentrate. It’s an effort to get to the gym. Over the phone, her voice becomes strained. “I just feel sad most of the time.”
Ms. Shivji feels like she’s on the outside looking in and, in that sense, she’s not alone.
In the West, we live faster, higher in the air, farther from our workplaces, and more singly than at any time in the past. Social scientists will be struggling to understand the consequences of these transformations for decades to come, but one thing is clear: Loneliness is our baggage, a huge and largely unacknowledged cultural failing.
In Vancouver, residents recently listed social isolation as their most pressing concern. More Canadians than ever live alone, and almost one-quarter describe themselves as lonely. In the United States, two studies showed that 40 per cent of people say they’re lonely, a figure that has doubled in 30 years. Britain has a registered charity campaigning to end chronic loneliness, and last month, health secretary Jeremy Hunt gave a speech about the isolated many, calling attention to “a forgotten million who live amongst us ignored, to our national shame.”
It is the great irony of our age that we have never been better connected, or more adrift.
The issue isn’t just social, it’s a public-health crisis in waiting. If you suffer from chronic loneliness, you run the risk of illness, and premature death.
“This is a bigger problem than we realize,” says Ami Rokach, a psychologist and lecturer at York University in Toronto, who has been researching the subject for more than three decades.
“Loneliness has been linked to depression, anxiety, interpersonal hostility, increased vulnerability to health problems, and even to suicide.”
And yet loneliness is the longing that dare not speak its name. Keenly aware that isolation carries with it the whiff of failure, Ms. Shivji was reticent to be identified for this story. Inside every lonely adult is a kid eating lunch by herself on a bench.
Says Prof. Rokach, “There is such a stigma about it. People will talk about having depression or even schizophrenia, but … I’ve been practicing for more than 30 years, and never has anyone come to me and said, ‘I feel lonely.’ But then they start talking and it comes out.”
This is why David Sutcliffe has launched a bit of a one-man shame-reduction campaign. Mr. Sutcliffe is no one’s idea of a social outcast: He’s a handsome and accomplished actor, once a regular on Gilmore Girls and now the star of CBC-TV’s Cracked, about a detective with mental-health issues.
And yet, for his whole life, he has been plagued by a profound sense of isolation. He stayed inside. He self-medicated. When he was in his mid-twenties, his therapist asked, “Have you always been this lonely?” He burst into tears.
There was a point when Mr. Sutcliffe, now 44, felt so alone that he would get a massage just to feel another person’s touch. He has a friend in Los Angeles who runs a “hugging practice,” offering long embraces to people who have no one to comfort them. “At first it seemed like a wacky California idea,” he says, “but now it makes complete sense.”
It was difficult for Mr. Sutcliffe to watch himself on screen during the first season of Cracked: “I saw a very lonely guy, and I know that pain wasn’t the character; it was me. But I was glad to put it out there, because it’s important for people to know they’re not alone. We’re all struggling.”
We are, indeed, but why? Chronic loneliness has roots that are both internal and external, a combination of genes and social circumstance, but something is making it worse. Blame the garage-door opener, which keeps neighbours from seeing each other at the end of the day, or our fetish for roads over parks, or the bright forest of condo towers that bloom on our city’s skylines.