Scientists look to redefine loneliness by conducting different studies across the globe, reshaping our understanding of human connection.
The onset of the pandemic and the subsequent lockdowns taught people around the world a lot of things. One of the most important lessons that many people learned is confronting loneliness. Since many people had to stay home, sometimes away from loved ones, instances of loneliness and a sense of being "cut off" from the world increased. Anthropologist Ivy Pike studied Mexican immigrants in Arizona and Turkana pastoralists of Kenya to further our understanding of loneliness.
In her paper, she talks about how the Turkana community in Kenya used to move about 15 times in a year searching for watering holes that their animals could use. But this has changed in recent decades with conflicts in the region, endangering their movements across the country. There were many instances where families had to run away at a moment's notice to survive. As a result, they got separated from their livestock and had to live in displacement camps, something which they were not used to.
This has proved to be highly problematic for both men and women in the Turkana community as they lost their precious livestock and were unable to roam the land for medicinal plants. This meant that women could not fulfill their role as caregivers and men did not have much purpose. The example of this particular community hints that loneliness is not simply social disconnection. According to Science News, a study done in the US revealed how many people reported feeling lonely from a variety of factors.
One woman wanted to go to the grocery store, while another wished to browse books at the library, both of which are solitary activities, but left them feeling lonely. In fact, loneliness has become such a prevalent problem that U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy declared it a public health epidemic, sharing various statistics about its detrimental effects on an individual's health. Sarah Wright of the University of Newcastle in Callaghan, Australia, studied indigenous communities to redefine what it meant to be lonely.
She studied the Aboriginal Yolŋu people and published an analysis of a matriarch's songspiral in 2022. Songspirals can be understood as stories told through ritualized songs. The matriarch sings the song while she is on her deathbed and describes her connection to the world around her through many human and non-human relationships. She identifies herself as a whale going into the afterlife, showcasing that many of their songs represented the whale's migratory patterns. But it serves as a way for the woman to connect with non-human entities in her surroundings which ultimately fostered a sense of belonging.
Another 18-month study conducted by Theresa O'Nell of the University of Oregon also showcased how indigenous communities felt a sense of loneliness from non-social factors, such as migration, development, or even climate change. She said, "Time after time, I asked about ‘depression,’ and time after time, I was told about ‘loneliness.'" She explains that it was similar to the feeling of loneliness that an elder felt because of the loss of a song that was no longer sung.
Climate change is also a very real problem that has created new terms such as ecoanxiety and climate grief. It was found in a 2022 online survey of 3000 German adults that those who scored high in loneliness, also scored high in climate anxiety on a different scale. These examples showcase how loneliness could also stem from our relationship with nonhuman entities. Furthermore, as ecological challenges escalate, there's a potential for an upsurge in this sense of loneliness, as the threats to the environment may contribute to a perceived disconnect from the world around us.