Loneliness study
Photo: 2009 © Jupiterimages
It can make you sick, destroy your sleep, raise your blood pressure, and shorten your life. Loneliness isn't just a momentary pang—it's a chronic emotional ache that affects up to 15 percent of us. So who are all the lonely people, and where do they all come from? Answers are finally on the way, now that loneliness is beginning to get the research attention it deserves. O reports on what one expert called "the Antarctica of the soul."
Lonely people tell themselves that it could always be worse. "Being alone is not the most awful thing in the world," says a character in Zoë Heller's novel What Was She Thinking?: "You make out to-do lists—reorganise linen cupboard, learn two sonnets. You dole out little treats to yourself—slices of ice cream cake, concerts at Wigmore Hall. And then, every once in a while, you wake up...and think, 'I cannot do this anymore. I cannot pull myself together again and spend the next 15 hours of wakefulness fending off the fact of my own misery.'"

Yet they do, the lonely people—they pull themselves together. They fend off the fact of their own misery and trundle forward, carrying its granite load, hour by hour, job by job, year by year. They walk down the streets, grazing knuckles against buildings just to confirm, despite how unwelcome and unnoticed they may feel, that they do indeed exist. They remain rooted to the front seat of the minivan, trying to figure out how to get from the drive to the house without shattering in front of the children or the husband or the indefatigably chirpy couple across the street. They sit, recently divorced, carefully groomed, and warily hopeful, for hours on a Saturday afternoon in the park.

They are exhausted by their separateness. They are strung out by their worry over it. And they are legion. It's estimated that ten to 15 percent of the population is chronically lonely—some 29 to 45 million people. But researchers are discovering more and more about the socially isolated, especially the effects of loneliness on their health, and this work is changing the way we look at those who chronically feel alone and cut off.

Keep reading: What researchers have discovered about loneliness
Take the quiz:
Determine your loneliness quotient
How to help: 9 ways to to help a lonely friend


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