Just Saying

The loner way to help cheer up the lonely

Experts say ageing societies face a 'loneliness epidemic', with health risks. To survive this festive season alone, one happy loner offers clues to beat the blues.

If there are enough twitchy fairy lights to trigger a fit, it means we are in the thick of the festive season.

It can be the most wonderful time of the year, but it is also sweetly and relentlessly marketed to be the most wonderful time of the year to be with loved ones.

From Christmas to New Year's Day, from Chinese New Year to Valentine's Day, visuals of huggy families, friends and kissy lovers will flood our screens.

TRIGGERED BY MUSHY FESTIVITIES

Some of us aren't surrounded by loved ones and are okay with that.

Some will gag on the flood of sparkly gooeyness this time of the year though, and leak around the seams with loneliness.

How many of us feel like they are walking around with heart-shaped holes in their bodies?

A screen capture of an animated doodle (see the cat float away on Instagram @sseeingthings) by the writer about how, as a loner, as a lifelong stray cat, she always needs more space.
A screen capture of an animated doodle (see the cat float away on Instagram @sseeingthings) by the writer about how, as a loner, as a lifelong stray cat, she always needs more space. PHOTO: COURTESY OF DENISE CHONG

Chest, hearts roasting on an open fire, jacked-up nostalgia nipping at your nose.

If the lonely need some help, could the positive bits of being a happy loner offer clues to not feeling so alone at this time of the year?

TEA FOR ONE, PLEASE

One is a wonderful number.

Tea for one, movie ticket for one, plane seat for one.

Extroverts think we're such poor things - aiyoh, all by yourself, wail, so sad.

Introverts understand how much it recharges our souls to take time to be away from loads of people, and this is important even if you are one half of a couple.

As a loner, as a lifelong stray cat, I need space. I always need more space.

Don't get me wrong; I linger for hours at dinners and suppers when there are great laughs and solid conversations. But after the after-party ends, having the whole world back to myself once more, having myself back to myself, is like a thirsty cat lapping from a fresh, cool lake of peace.

How many of us feel like they are walking around with heart-shaped holes in their bodies? Chest, hearts roasting on an open fire, jacked-up nostalgia nipping at your nose. If the lonely need some help, could the positive bits of being a happy loner offer clues to not feeling so alone at this time of the year?

The trite but true strength of a loner is being in control of our own happiness. We don't put the responsibility of our well-being in other people's hands. It's not fair to do so.

We may love others to death, but even if they are literally dead, they will not take all of our joy with them.

We may care about other people's feelings, but we are not responsible for keeping them happy 24/7.

NOT SUCKING ON STRAWS DIPPED IN SOCIAL APPROVAL

Thanks to technology, it is now easier than ever for even social animals to try loner days. We now can go for a long time without speaking to a human. (That's if we have the privilege of no family responsibilities and have flexible work arrangements.)

Beep groceries through self-checkout machines, work from home, and have meals delivered to the door.

Try it to get to know ourselves better without the constant ping of human interaction. See how much more we love ourselves when we don't suck on straws dipped in social approval.

We don't have to delete the social media apps. What's more important is to turn off the need for social media approval.

Once there is emotional distance, feel that peace on earth.

Beware of becoming so detached that we veer into creepy, serial-killer, loner territory though.

I am a fairly disturbing person, but I don't frighten children and small animals... too much.

Perhaps it's because I'm from the generation that is the last to have one foot in the analogue past, when it was the norm to mix with people in real life, and the other foot in the no-human-contact tech present. So, to borrow a linguistic term, a bit of code-switching between lone wolf and social animal is a useful skill.

If we are alone, we can be happy because of our lone-wolf hearts.

If we are with others, we can be okay because wolves can look like dogs with waggy tails.

NOT ALONE IN BEING LONELY

These loner pointers might be handy even after we kiss the mushy season goodbye with Valentine's Day in February because, according to experts, loneliness is becoming a widespread, year-round thing in ageing societies.

Lonely? You are not alone.

You are also facing a health risk.

"With an increasing ageing population, the effect on public health is only anticipated to increase. Indeed, many nations around the world now suggest we are facing a 'loneliness epidemic'," Dr Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a professor of psychology at Brigham Young University in Utah, said in a press release. She presented two meta studies at an American Psychological Association meeting earlier this year, reported Quartz.

The first, which involved 148 studies representing more 300,000 participants, found that greater social connection was associated with a 50 per cent reduced risk of dying early.

A second took in 70 studies, representing 3.4 million people from the United States, Europe, Asia and Australia. It found that isolation, loneliness and living alone had an effect on the risk of dying younger equal to that of obesity.

"Rates of loneliness have doubled since the 1980s," wrote Dr Vivek Murthy in the Harvard Business Review about loneliness as an "epidemic". Speaking to The Washington Post, the former US surgeon-general said: "The reduction in lifespan (for loneliness) is similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day... So if you think about how much we put into curbing tobacco use and obesity, compared with how much effort and resources we put into addressing loneliness, there's no comparison."

Quartz said previous studies have found that a third of Americans are lonely, and that 18 per cent of British adults feel lonely "always" or "often".

We're like rows of gingerbread men baked in the same predicament. Our gingerbread hands reach out but never touch.

With alarming terms like "epidemic" said by experts, the authorities in ageing societies should reach out more to the lonely.

Meanwhile, if you're lonely, save yourself and reach for your inner loner.

Reach for your own wonderful gingerbread hand.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 17, 2017, with the headline 'The loner way to help cheer up the lonely'. Print Edition | Subscribe