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Alone in a Crowd

He is a hugely successful actor, comedian, writer and TV presenter with millions of Twitter followers and invites from at least six friends to holiday in desirable parts of the world this summer.

But recently, with the characteristic openness and bravery with which he talked about his suicide attempt last year, Stephen Fry outed himself as suffering from what has been described as one of the dirtiest words in the English language (yes, dirtier than that one…and that one as well.)

Loneliness.

It was another writer (might be a coincidence, might not – more on this later) Douglas Coupland, author of ‘Girlfriend in a Coma’ and ‘Generation X’, who wrote: “Forget sex or politics or religion, loneliness is the subject that clears out a room.”

So why is it significant that Fry decided to speak out about the L word (not to be confused with the minefield that is the other L word) and why does it have the potential to send friends and acquaintances uncomfortably reaching to check their smartphones?

The answer might lie in Fry’s admission in the article that he experiences guilt for feeling lonely because, after all, he is a successful, actor, comedian, writer and TV presenter with millions of…etc etc.

He writes: “I can…see that, bipolar or not, if I’m under treatment and not actually depressed, what the fuck right do I have to be lonely, unhappy or forlorn? I don’t have the right. But there again I don’t have the right not to have those feelings. Feelings are not something to which one does or does not have rights.” 

For those of us not quite so famous or ‘followed’ social media-wise, this can still bring up feelings of guilt and shame. Most of us have at least a handful of people who care about us and the explosion of social media means the chance to interact with our whole circle of friends in one place, from anywhere, 24/7.

Some would say that means it’s harder than ever to be alone. But there is, of course, a difference between being alone and being lonely.

The fact the phrase ‘alone in a crowd’ has become part of our everyday language seems to show this is an experience many people, if not all of us, have had at one time or another. It is possible to feel very lonely in a crowd of 100 but completely contented alone in a room or with just one other person.

Feeling lonely is no fun but there might be more at stake too.  An actual ‘Loneliness Scale’ test has been developed by academics at UCLA in California to measure how lonely people feel. Research based on it found that loneliness can actually be bad for our physical health as well as having well known links to mental health conditions like depression and bipolar disorder.

The research suggested that therapies like CBT can be helpful for those of us who feel lonely and want to get out there more. But the key finding was that we don’t have to have a huge social circle to be happy, it is the quality of the relationships we have that counts.

Social media can make it easier to check in with a friend through a quick message we might not otherwise have found time to send. It can also be a way to ‘get out there’ in a more low key way or even have fun projecting a different image from a distance.

But is it possible the ever-present stream of ‘friend’s showcasing their latest adventures can have a dark/down side? That it can make life feel ever more isolating and overwhelming for those of us who find it hard to connect to others at times and struggle with constant contact?

I don’t want to be alone, but I want to be left alone,” writes Fry. Here, maybe, lies the dilemma for those of us who at times want to be alone but also want real connections with people. Finding the right balance between having enough time alone but also not feeling overwhelmingly lonely.

We ran a piece on this site late last year about one of the most successful TED Talk to date, its subject: Introversion. In it, Susan Cain, the author of ‘Quiet: The Power of Introverts in World that Can’t Stop Talking’ suggests that in western society, charisma and magnetism have become more valued than intelligence, giftedness and creativity, all of which are highly linked with introversion.

The result: introverts who feel the need for time alone to recharge, or do the creative projects they’re into, can end up feeling stigmatized and, well, like they’re just not much fun really.

That is despite that fact that without such ‘antisocial’ types, we would none of things that are mostly created solo. Books, songs, art. Many of the most creative writers, songwriters and artists of all time are cited as potential introverts. JRR Tolkein, George Orwell, John Lennon, Jim Morrisson, Tim Burton and Steven Spielberg, to name but a few. Actors who pop on the list include Harrison Ford, Clint Eastwood, and even Steve Martin.

Stephen Fry doesn’t crop up incidentally and I’m not suggesting he lies on any particular place on the spectrum. Introvert/extrovert tests like Myers Briggs are always self-diagnosed. Only that loneliness and introversion are often linked. This Psychology Today article suggests there can be a ‘Loneliness Loop’ for introverts where spending time alone can become a hard habit to break.

So how do we feel less lonely, if that’s what we want? Of course, as with most things, there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution as we’re all different and need different degrees and types of social contact to feel happy.

Maybe the first step is to not feel guilty or strange for feeling lonely sometimes. But for those times when loneliness feels overwhelming, going back to the ‘Loneliness Scale’ research, it seems that quality not quantity is what counts. The upshot might be that whether we have millions of Twitter followers or ten, if we can find one or two out of those we can really trust and talk to, that might just be enough.

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