If you’re lonely this Christmas, I doubt you’ll feel any better for being repeatedly told how pitiful your situation is. I don’t want to play down the real problems of loneliness or put people off reaching out to those who would rather not be alone over the holidays, but I can’t help but worry that well-meaning concern is making many people feel worse.
It’s a bit like the unrelenting message we’re all getting about the health risks of poor sleep. For every insomniac it prompts to seek useful help, I bet it leads many others to worry even more about their irregular sleep patterns, only making the problem worse.
Loneliness has become pathologised, when in some sense it is simply the human condition. “We live, as we dream – alone,” says Marlow towards the end of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. We can surround ourselves with company and even enjoy deep connections with a few special individuals, but at the end of the day our experience of the world is uniquely ours.
With enough social interaction most of us can keep this sense of existential isolation in check. Those who feel self-consciously lonely simply feel the separateness of their own existence more acutely.
The emphasis on how unfortunate it is to spend Christmas alone also obscures the obvious fact that solitude and loneliness are not the same thing. Very few people don’t value time by themselves. We differ only in how much solitude we can tolerate. And to some extent we can learn to be more or less comfortable in our own company.
If you doubt this, ask yourself and people you know well how happy they are going to cinemas, concerts, the theatre or restaurants alone. I have often met people who would not dream of doing any of these things unaccompanied, trapped by the internalised cultural expectation that they are essentially social occasions.
Banging on about the awfulness of being alone only reinforces the unhelpful assumption that doing such things alone is “sad”. But, having lived more of my adult life alone than in a relationship, I have learned to enjoy most things by myself. The main barrier to doing so is simply excessive self-consciousness.
You don’t need to pretend that being by yourself is the ideal in order to be happy with it. During my bachelor years I was always ready to admit that it would be better to be in a really good relationship. But it is also be much worse to be in a bad one and, let’s face it, many couples demonstrate this all too well.
Remembering that many partnerships and families are far from the cosy ideal might serve as a helpful reminder that solitude is just as likely to be an escape as a deprivation. Open your ears and you’ll find no end of people complaining about the trials of putting up with family, the pressure to make the perfect Christmas, or the sheer exhaustion of yuletide sociability. The same people who superficially feel pity for the solitary also often envy them.
Like many cheesy expressions, “If life gives you lemons, make lemonade” has only become a cliche because it contains a juicy kernel of truth. If you find yourself alone, embrace the upsides. You’ve got a pass on enforced jollity, endless preparations for the “big day”, putting up with the obnoxious relative and pretending to be delighted with presents that only show the giver doesn’t know or doesn’t care about you.
I’m not suggesting it’s always easy for those who are alone to feel good about their situation, especially when it is a result of old age or poverty, with no possibility of change on the horizon. It’s natural for many of the involuntarily solitary to crave company at Christmas, and more of us should set an extra place at the Christmas lunch table for them. But it’s important to remember that lacking company is not a character fault and does not necessarily lead to misery. Being alone may be a problem, but making the lonely feel like sad freaks is an even bigger one.
Julian Baggini is a British philosopher and the author of several books about philosophy, including A Short History of Truth (Quercus). He also runs the website Microphilosophy.