Loneliness is the state of distress or discomfort that results when one perceives a gap between one’s desires for social connection and actual experiences of it. Even some people who are surrounded by others throughout the day—or are in a long-lasting marriage—still experience a deep and pervasive loneliness. Research suggests that loneliness poses serious threats to well-being as well as long-term physical health.
- Psychology Today
Eco-loneliness is the state of distress or discomfort that results when one perceives a gap between one's desire for felt connection with the more-than-human world - the hills and rivers, trees and stars - and one's actual experience. This kind of loneliness poses a threat to long-term spiritual and physical health, for individuals and societies. It, too, is part of the loneliness epidemic.
- Jay McDaniel
The solution to the problem of loneliness, including eco-loneliness, is not collective community alone. It is not intimacy or friendship or collective identity. It is a certain kind of community that makes space for solitude, understood as self-reflection, contemplation, and the enjoyment of rich bonds with the more than human world and other sources of joy: books, music, films, and God. Community and privacy go together. No privacy without community, no community without privacy.
The problem of the thematic between collectivism and individualism is that it neglects a third way: individuality without individualism, collectivism without repression. From a process perspective, the third way is community with solitude, where each enrich the other. We call it constructive postmodernism.
- Jay McDaniel
The Loneliness Epidemic and What to Do About It
Cornell University, Evidence Based Living
"The evidence shows Americans are becoming lonelier, leading to mental and physical health problems for people of all ages.
Preliminary results of a Harvard University study conducted in October 2020 found that 36 percent of Americans reported feeling seriously lonely. Among specific groups of people, that number was even higher, with 61 percent of participants ages 18-25 and 51 percent of mothers with young children reported feeling “frequently” or “almost always” lonely. In addition, there is ample evidence that older adults have experienced an increase in loneliness since the start of the pandemic. Loneliness has broader implications for our mental and physical health. It’s not difficult to understand how loneliness leads to depression, a growing problem in the U.S. Among older adults, loneliness increases the risk of developing dementia, slows down their walking speeds, interferes with their ability to care for themselves, and increases their risk of heart disease and stroke. Loneliness is even associated with dying earlier. Among adolescents and young adults, loneliness increases the likelihood of headaches, stomach aches, sleep disturbances, and compulsive internet use.
Neuroscientists have found feeling lonely changes the structure and function of our brains in areas associated with cognition, stress response, and emotions. Brain imaging studies have also found loneliness is related to the biological markers for Alzheimer’s disease.
The recent Harvard report offers a deep dive into who suffers the most from loneliness, and the best ways to alleviate this problem. They found, for example, that young adults ages 18-25, have been especially vulnerable to loneliness during the COVID-19 pandemic. About half reported going weeks without having anyone ask how they were doing in a way that made them feel the person “genuinely cared about their well being.
The report advocates for two main solutions. The first involves educating people about how loneliness changes the perceptions of self and others, and teaching techniques to reframe these negative perceptions. This includes informing people about how widespread loneliness is to reduce feelings of shame and encouraging lonely people to reach out to others, even though they might feel prone to rejection. Second, the report also advocates for a broader public response that raises awareness about the importance of maintaining and creating social ties. It suggests a two-pronged approach: connecting people to others through digital platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Twitter, Pinterest, and Google, and local organizations such as schools, churches, YMCAs, and libraries.
According to Living Earth philosophy, we live in a larger web of life and yet we can be very lonely. Loneliness takes at least four forms. The first three pertain to human-to-human relations and the last refers to human to more-than-human relations. The four forms are:
Longing for intimacy: We can be lonely because we desire but lack an intimate relation with another person (a partner or spouse).
Longing for close friends: We can be lonely because we desire but lack a circle of friends.
Longing for community and a sense of collective purpose: We can be lonely because we desire but lack a collective identity which gives us a sense of meaning: for example, as part of a village, a city, a nation, an ethnic group, or a movement.
Longing for felt bonds and healing connections with the natural world: We can be lonely because we desire but lack meaningful connections with our more than human relatives: plants and animals, hills and rivers, trees and stars.
The fourth form is eco-loneliness. It is the distress and discomfort that comes from being emotionally out of touch with the power, beauty, and diversity of the more-than-human world.
Like the other forms of loneliness, eco-loneliness comes in degrees. We can be more or less eco-lonely, relative to the circumstances of our live. If we spend too much time indoors, or too much time in the presence of computer4 screens, eco-loneliness becomes more intense. It is what leads us to want to spend time outside and breathe clean air, to pet a cat or dog and have plants in our room; to spend time with trees and dip our feet into water; to spend time stargazing and plant a garden. We want to be with what is more than human in healing and healthy ways.
Eco-loneliness can be conscious or unconscious, overt or latent. For many people it is latent. It lies underneath the conscious mind as a yearning to be with something that is more than human. Such loneliness is especially prevalent among people who live in crowded urban settings. As the Harvard study makes clear, it is especially pronounced for people 18-25 in the United States.
Eco-loneliness is connected to the other three kinds of loneliness in different ways. Often the four forms of loneliness are combined. We may be live in a large city, we may be relatively satisfied with the opportunities the city provides for entertainment and diversion, as do our computers, but lonely because we lack close friends and meaningful connections with more than human world. In the words of one friend" I miss community and the countryside.” If we are in this situation, we may move to the countryside in search of community and closer collections with the natural world. Many millennials in China are doing this. The allure of such a move is that it promises community and rich ecological bonds. The place we go may or may not live up to the allure, but that combined cure for loneliness, human and ecological, is what is promises.
Urban dwellers, too, may seek such a cure. If we stay in the city, we may volunteer our time and energy in helping others (the elderly, the very young, the handicapped) in local settings; spend quality time with the people we do know and love; take up gardening in our apartment or in a local community garden, meeting others along the way; spend as much time as we can outdoors in local parks; and, if we are able, cultivate and enjoy a close relationship with a companion animal.
All of these are ways of coping with loneliness, human and ecological, in practical, life-giving ways. All of these are fragile but effective “cures” for loneliness.
Loneliness can be part of a culture as well as of individuals. We can live in “lonely” cultures that are out of touch with the natural world, or that are overly competitive such that true friendships cannot evolve, or that overly sexualize life such that all intimate relationships must be sexual, or that are so industrial that life seems made of concrete and the natural world is understood only as a “resource.” In these cultures, loneliness spreads like a virus. People feel lonely in one or another the four ways because it (the loneliness) is contagious.
Moreover, the designs of the cities and townships can be conducive to lonely living. If a city is built on the premise that having possession of large amounts of land and large homes is the “dream,” the people who live in such homes may find themselves “lonely” for meaningful interactions with others.
Politics of Loneliness
Additionally and importantly, loneliness is not often chosen. It can be foisted upon people because a society itself is unjust and unsustainable. People born into poverty and living in concrete jungles, lacking quality education and access to wild spaces, have little opportunity to be “one with the Earth.” And the very struggle to survive, to make ends meet, may vitiate opportunities for satisfying social relations. Any meaningful discussion of how to cure to epidemic of loneliness must be combined with public policies and forms of governance aimed at helping people find ways out of loneliness in its four forms. What is needed is a politics of companionship and relationship, not a politics of coercion and fear.
The Living Earth Movement
This is where it can be helpful if individuals and communities are nourished by a larger vision of life: one that helps people realize that life is not about fame, fortune, and power, but rather about healthy relationships. The holistic vision of the Living Earth movement, articulated in process philosophy, provides an example. See the slideshows below for an understanding of the worldview, its four hopes, and its social aspirations. If, in fact, many people in the world today are suffering from a pandemic of loneliness and a desire for satisfying community, the Living Earth movement, as articulated in process philosophy, can help. We are reminded that life consists of relationships, not things; that the purpose of human life is not to accrue fame, fortune, and power, but rather to walk in love; that the love extends to the more than human world as well as the human world. We are reminded that the primary forms of healthy connection are intimacy, community, collective enjoyment, and rich bonds with the more than human world. We are encouraged to live creativity and compassionately, freely and lovingly, in reciprocal relations with others: humans, to be sure, and also other animals, plants, minerals, and the earth. The true ecology that is needed in our time, the one that is most important, is inner and outer. It is how we feel and how we act, with head, hands, and heart.
The Living Earth Movement and Process-Relational Philosophy
The Living Earth movement is a collection of leaders in the field of theology, business, science, activism, the arts, and the academy who are passionate about combatting climate change and preserving life on the planet as we know it. Their passion is inspired by a recognition that the Earth itself is indeed living, and that all forms of life on earth have value worthy of respect and care. For those of us in this movement, life itself, subjective and objective, provides a framework for thinking about all things: quantum events in the depths of atoms, microbes on the planet earth, hills and rivers, trees and stars. All things everywhere are ‘alive’ or filled with some capacity for experience. And so is the Living Earth. Although decay is a part of life, nothing is simply “dead. Things are just alive in different ways.
There are many ways of articulating this way of thinking: Eastern and Western, Southern and Northern. Indigenous traditions around the world are especially helpful in this articulation. Many of them are naturally sensitive to a Living Earth. Another is what has come to be known as process-relational philosophy, influenced by the late philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead. It is now embraced among a small but growing group of people in China under the auspices of the Institute for the Postmodern Development of China. It is also embraced by people in the United States and many other nations with help from the Cobb Institute and the Center for Process Studies. Process philosophy offers a philosophical underpinning for the passions of the Living Earth movement. It speaks of our need for Ecological Civilizations that are good for people, other animals, and the Earth. The Living Earth movement is guided by the hope – and more than that the passion – for building these kinds of civilizations. For an outline of the key ideas in process philosophy, as well as its vision of just and compassionate communities that are the building blocks of Ecological Civilizations, see the slideshows at the bottom of this page.
Advocates of the Living Earth movement recognize that in our time one of the primary obstacles to development of Ecological Civilizations is loneliness, human and ecological. There is, in fact, an epidemic of loneliness throughout the world. This page is devoted to a consideration that that epidemic, trustful that, the more we understand it, the better able we will be to cure its discomforts and help us all live into the better hope: a world where people live with respect and care for one another and the larger community of life.