In The Positive Power of Negative Emotions, Dr Tim Lomas explains how accepting your negative emotions can help serve as pathways to happiness. He explains that feelings of guilt, sadness and loneliness are normal emotions and, if harnessed correctly, can help us flourish. In the below extract Dr Lomas offers help in transforming feelings of loneliness into feelings of solitude.
If you’re feeling lonely, it’s usually no help to hear, ‘Well, go and find some company then,’ because it’s your very difficulty in doing so that is the root cause of the problem. Urging lonely people to be more sociable is as ineffectual and inappropriate as telling someone who is sad, ‘Oh, for goodness’ sake, cheer up.’ In certain circumstances, though, we can be encouraged to reach out to others and dissolve our loneliness by taking a leap and connecting with strangers. This generally involves stepping out of our comfort zone in some way, adopting an assertiveness or boldness that may be unfamiliar. It’s no easy task, of course, but we can harness our loneliness as a motivational, ‘bondmaking’ force that prompts us to take a chance and make that difficult first step. For instance, you might strike up a conversation with someone you’ve never spoken to before. This is often easier if you push yourself to participate in a structured interaction, like a book group or a dance class, in which the awkwardness of meeting new people is diminished by the fact that you have a shared focus. For those of an older generation, connecting with the grandkids might involve mastering initially unfamiliar gadgets. For those looking for love – and tired of waiting for that spontaneous, star-crossed encounter – it could entail signing up to a dating website.
These latter two examples illustrate the way in which human ingenuity is providing remedies for loneliness. Indeed, we are increasingly adept at harnessing technological innovation to meet our need for interaction . . . even if that interaction is not always with other humans. For instance, a Japanese company recently launched a cute, furry robotic seal named Paro. It responds to human warmth and affection in a lifelike way by purring and dreamily closing its eyes, while its electronic brain continually gathers information on these interactions to develop a character profile of its owner and increase its own lovability. Some readers will probably recoil at this channelling of human affection towards an electronic object, but such inventions can be powerful remedies for isolation. In clinical trials, researchers have found that Paro reduces loneliness and increases wellbeing among the elderly and people who are recovering from serious illness. And if it helps – especially in places like Japan, which has an ageing and increasingly lonely population – then why not make full use of it? For some people, it may not be so different from other forms of non-human companionship, such as the enduring friendship and affection that a dog or a cat can offer.
Sometimes, then, loneliness can be alleviated. Encouraged by our inner Bond Maker, we may feel emboldened to reach out and connect with others. Moreover, experiences of loneliness can increase our appreciation of bond-making, be it with existing connections or with strangers.