Why be lonely? Many reasons, such as losing a partner or a close friend; breaking up with someone; being tied to the house through having to care for someone; getting old and finding that the world is rushing past.
Or moving to a new area far from family or friends; being marginalised because of race or colour or disability; recovering from abuse and feeling unable to trust anyone.
Or feeling unlikeable, or being shy or afraid to make contact.
Imagine a single parent or a carer who comes into money and can afford to hire someone to give them a break so they can go out and meet people. How would they feel?
If just thinking of that possibility fills them with pleasure then they are lonely. It’s just force of circumstance that is the problem.
People who are lonely through force of circumstance – too old or infirm to leave the house, or marginalised because of poverty or race or colour, or being far from family or friends – need other people to reach out to them and would welcome the contact if it happened.
If, on the other hand, the thought of meeting people fills them with dread then there is a more serious problem.
If they experience being with other people as a trial, they would want to avoid it. Or they might put on a mask and go through the experience but be isolated from it.
They might fear that other people would detect that there is no substance to the relationship.. nothing beyond the politeness and the jokes… no down-time in which to get close and to share inner feelings.
Or maybe the person doesn’t think much of the people they are in contact with and takes the position that they are waiting for the other people to step up to the plate and be deeper and more meaningful in their interactions.
Yet when the person who suffers from loneliness asks themselves whether maybe they should make the first move to deepen relationships, they are inactive and retreat and play the same record of the inadequacy of other people, over and over.
This is bordering on a mental health problem and if someone is clinically depressed then they need treatment just as much as they would if they had a physical disease that can be treated by medication.
But perhaps it is not clinical depression, but unhappiness caused by dissatisfaction with one’s situation.
Right back as far as the Old Testament one can read:
Be happy with all the good that your God has given to you and to your household and to the Levi and to the stranger who lives in your community. [Deuteronomy 26.11]
I think the reference to ‘the Levi and stranger’ are to people who are better off and to those who are worse off than you.
A person who is not content will look at their situation and recoil from it. And they won’t be happy because they are always in a state of recoiling from their situation.
There’s a danger too for the person who takes the advice to be happy to heart but doesn’t think it through.
Being content with what one has doesn’t mean being satisfied with anything and everything.
The message is to be happy with the good. It doesn’t say to be content and to sit like a sloth.
What the advice from countless sources surely means is that being happy with the good in one’s life is a firm foundation from which one can explore what life has to offer.
As for what to explore, the question is what will bring real rewards and what will bring rewards that are illusiary.
And trying to figure that out ahead of time may be wise, but equally it is the journey of discovery that makes the person.
Stepping back a moment, there is another more fundamental message in the advice to be happy with the good. The implied message is that people need to be told that because they don’t do it.
People don’t need a law or advice to tell them not to chew stones. But people need a law and advice telling them not to steal.
And in the same way, people need to be told to be happy with the good because the tendency is to be unhappy.
I read an interesting angle on depression recently but unfortunately I can’t find the source or I would give the attribution. What the writer said was that depression is sometimes the result of poor planning.
The writer gives the example of a young man who wants to date a popular young woman.
He knows she likes dancing so he invites her to a dance. She refuses and he is depressed.
The writer says that the problem is that the young man gave all the power over his happiness to the young woman.
And, of course, he can’t control her.
Instead, he would be better served by taking dancing lessons, becoming a good dancer… one that young women want to dance with. Then the chances are much better that he’ll have success with someone he wants to be with.
That’s the message: do things you can control to make your life better and don’t get lost in dreams that depend on something or someone one cannot control.
And a second message is that making a bad decision that gives over one’s happiness to circumstances or to someone else isn’t necessarily going to cause a depression that’s terminal, but it is one piece in a jigsaw of pieces from which a person can build a prison for themselves.
People who are trapped in negative thinking tend to extrapolate from single events to a world view. A bad interaction convinces them that they are no good. A more balanced view would be to recognise that it was just one interaction and that they can learn for the future.
Of course, being in a positive la-la land is just as unrealistic.
Anything that helps people get a greater understanding of the relationship between their thoughts and feelings and how it plays out in their behaviour, is going to be helpful. It’s all good if it shows people that their negative thought patterns are creating a prison… and gives them a way out.
Let me finish with a message from the famous psychologist Viktor Frankl, the author of Man’s Search For Meaning.
Frankl says very forcefully something that I also believe – that optimism is an obligation because it is realistic to look to the highest in people in order to get the very best out of what is actually there in people.