On the phone, Emily White sounds warm and personable, the kind of woman who probably makes friends easily. • But the lawyer-turned-author actually is gaining fame as the public face of loneliness. • After her parents divorced in her youth, White felt isolated living with her single mother. Her father visited weekly, and she had numerous friends, but her loneliness persisted. • By her 30s, her sense of disconnection was so strong she began to question why she felt the way she did, and if she was the only one. She journaled throughout this struggle, contacted researchers who studied loneliness and created a blog, in which she asked others in her situation to get in touch with her. • She has gathered her personal insight, research and her blog readers' input in her first book, Lonely: A Memoir, and recently talked with the Times about what she has learned.
You make a lot of distinctions between loneliness and depression in your book. Why was that so important?
I'd had serious depressions in the past and I knew I was dealing with something different. I think we need to recognize that loneliness can be a problem in itself. A lot of lonely people will say that they're depressed because of the stigma attaching to loneliness.
Do you think people are becoming lonelier or that they're now admitting to it more?
I think people are actually getting lonelier. And there's a couple of reasons for that that I talk about in the book, but if you take indicators of sociability — such as how often do you see your friends and family, how many confidants do you have, how much time do you spend alone — what emerges over the past 20 or 30 years is a picture of individuals in America increasingly isolated. I don't think our culture can become more isolated without us reacting by becoming more lonely.
In your experience and research, you discovered that loneliness doesn't just leave an emotional dent.
Researchers have discovered a host of ill effects that attach to loneliness, such as high blood pressure, broken sleep, a compromised immune system. There's been a link found between loneliness and the onset of Alzheimer's disease and impaired cognitive functioning, meaning that if you're lonely you don't solve analytical problems as quickly or as well as nonlonely people.
Do you have any numbers or demographics on who is lonely?
One major demographic that has been tested is income, and I find that interesting in relation to the recession that's going on, in that as your income drops, you're more likely to have trouble with loneliness. Another unexpected finding has been that it is actually younger people who are having more trouble with loneliness. An elderly person might feel okay admitting to loneliness, but someone in their 30s or 20s or their early 40s really doesn't. In study after study it's people in the younger age groups who are going to be testing as more lonely.
You make a direct connection between the trauma of divorce on a child and loneliness in adulthood.
Two New York researchers came to the finding that the experience of having your parents divorce was directly related to loneliness in adulthood, and that the younger you were at the time of the divorce, the more severe the adult loneliness would be.
What other factors can determine who's going to be lonely?
I think genetics plays a really important role in terms of deciding who struggles with loneliness and who doesn't. If you don't have this genetic predisposition toward loneliness, you're going to be buffered against loneliness after, say, a separation or a move.
If you have a friend or loved one who is lonely, is there anything you can do for them?
I think one of the best things you can do for a friend or a partner who happens to be lonely is open up discussion of the subject and acknowledge that you're not seeing it as a case of blame. The other thing is don't offer bad advice. Sometimes just listening is the best thing to do.
Is loneliness a lifelong problem for you?
I think writing the book helped because I now understand a fair bit about loneliness and I can contextualize what I'm going through. But it's still tough. I'm not struggling now the way I was when I was in my 30s. It doesn't feel like something that's going to annihilate me. But it's still a factor in my life.
Dawn Morgan Elliott is a freelance multimedia journalist in Tampa. She blogs about volunteerism at TampaDoGooder.Blogspot.com