The Holidays Are Time to Rethink Our Relationship With Loneliness
How can we bring ‘holiday orphans’ together without it doing more harm than good?
I see them every year, without exception, starting around Thanksgiving — three or four (never fewer) Facebook posts from friends and acquaintances who are disappointed they’ll be alone for the holidays. They don’t want to impose on their friends (they say it’s demoralizing to feel “like a charity case”), yet they’re frustrated that they have to remind relatives (if they have them) to reach out. These self-described “holiday orphans” are isolated for various reasons. In some cases, alienation or complex relationships divided their families, but in others, relatives simply didn’t bother to ask if the person had somewhere to go.
It’s likely there are others who wish they had holiday plans but feel too embarrassed to express it online, since admitting loneliness is sadly seen, by some, as more shameful than a criminal act. The twisted irony is that according to recent research, they’re not alone.
Experts now use the phrase “loneliness epidemic” to describe modern social isolation, which is not simply isolation from other people, but from people whom individuals feel they can rely on or who truly know them.
In a survey of 20,000 people, the health care company Cigna found that 43% of Americans feel their relationships lack meaning. “One in four Americans (27%) rarely or never feel as though there are people who really understand them,” the study concluded.
The issue is so pervasive, it’s being seen as a health hazard. Earlier this year, the Health and Human Services Department warned that loneliness and social isolation can be “as damaging to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.” Researchers say it’s a problem particularly among seniors. And as my Facebook feed attests, it’s especially pronounced during the holidays.
Throughout most of the year, loneliness can be an invisible problem; it’s hard to look around and know who is feeling alone. But when the holidays arrive, and people end up talking about it on social media, it becomes a glaring issue that’s harder to ignore.
People may have 1,000 acquaintances on social media, but how many are there to really listen, or reach out with a holiday invitation and truly mean it? How many times do people ask the types of questions it takes to truly get to know someone? Our society is leaving holiday orphans out in the cold.
I see hints at loneliness everywhere, particularly among adults in my over-40 cohort. In my online groups, women consistently note how difficult it is to make and maintain friendships at this age. They lament how easy it is to lose a friend over one argument or exchange of words (most marriages won’t end over a single row, but a friendship can). This is not the same as friends simply not seeing each other for a while (I have best friends whom I haven’t seen in years), but it’s about lacking the type of friends who’d have their back in a crisis or just be there to talk during a hard time.
People who are working full-time and simultaneously raising a family in their thirties, forties, and fifties often can’t carve out time to hang out with pals in addition to their other duties. When that time opens up later in life, they realize they haven’t nurtured their friendships the way they used to. (The fantasy of the four Sex and the City friends being able to meet up for brunch every week was just that; it only worked as long as they weren’t simultaneously raising children while tending to their jobs).
There is absolutely nothing wrong with spending a holiday or any other day alone — we can all find joy and peace in a day to ourselves.
Our culture is changing too, making the pang of loneliness feel more acute: Families are getting smaller, they’re scattering, people are marrying later (or not at all) and having fewer children to help care for their elders. With society and traditional family structures changing rapidly over the last few decades — sometimes too quickly for people to realize the effects — researchers haven’t quite figured out how to bring people together in a meaningful way.
Some people assemble “Friendsgivings” for the holidays, but that’s not an option for all. And, to be clear, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with spending a holiday or any other day alone — we can all find joy and peace in a day to ourselves. But it seems that Thanksgiving provokes more anguish in my social media feed than even the December events and festivities — it’s one of the few non-religious holidays that most Americans celebrate, and one that may make people miss the past.
I fondly remember the huge family holiday gatherings I attended in the 1970s, when my mother’s family would squeeze into my aunt’s old white house with creaky wood floors in Elizabeth, New Jersey. It teemed with relatives, laughter, and stories. We didn’t have to impress anyone, just listen to their raspy voices. The last aunt to live there passed away in 1982; the house was sold, and divorces and moves scattered family members like pollen. It was so long ago that I don’t even have a single photo of our gatherings. My Thanksgivings now are with much smaller groups of relations, and I wonder about people who don’t even have that.
Ironically, people have more opportunity than ever to cobble together new “families” through internet groups and meetups these days — but bringing people together with only aloneness in common doesn’t necessarily work, since it takes effort and time to truly get to know people, and some draw others to them more easily than the rest. I have been to Meetup activities and never saw the same people twice, or had much time to talk to those I met. And new friends don’t know someone’s history the way a relative or older friend might. It is, of course, good to have both.
A friend of mine in her fifties recently told me she wasn’t sure whom to put down on her emergency forms when she started her new job. She had a few acquaintances nearby, but no one she felt close to and un-judged by. There is a growing number of people who can’t name one person within a few miles of their residence who they feel truly knows them, whom they trust, whom they’d feel comfortable talking to if they had a problem, whom they’d ask to drive them home from the hospital. Many people several hundred Facebook acquaintances, perhaps a clutch of co-workers, but don’t live within a few miles of a close friend or relative. It’s not a problem until it is.
I think about the topic of solitude more than the average person, as an introvert. In my twenties, I wrote a nerdy single-nerd-in the-city novel — recently turned into a Netflix movie — whose brainy, 19-year-old main character wears loneliness almost as a badge. Yet, she’s upset when her father abandons her for Thanksgiving, as she observes all the celebrations around her. (Her well-meaning therapist tells her to “Join a club,” the type of common, misleadingly easy advice that doesn’t solve that feeling of not-really-being-known.) In the end, she has a peaceful and enjoyable day. Readers have written to tell me the book itself made them less alone, because they felt understood by the character — and I do believe that being alone on a holiday to enjoy one’s company has merit. Still, it’s better to be the one making that choice, and social media FOMO (fear of missing out) can make it hard not to envy others.
One thing that helps, I’ve found, is to be the offerer rather than assuming someone will ask for help if she or he needs it.
Family situations can become quite complicated, but for those that are not, it’d be great if family members could reach out to relatives who are alone without having to be asked to do so (and not just around the holidays, of course).
One thing that helps is to be the offerer rather than assuming someone will ask for help if she or he needs it (there’s just too much shaming in society about aloneness). Earlier this year, I told a few friends in my area that they could put my name and information on their emergency forms if they needed to do so. One friend seemed genuinely glad that I offered. She instantly asked for my phone number and address for her records.
The annual posts by “holiday orphans” have gotten me thinking about what we might do to connect people in the future, while reminding me of relatives of mine who have drifted away over the years. This year, I reached out to an aunt who lives a few hours away. Until recently, she spent holidays with a friend who is no longer available. If she visits, the stories and memories she shares will benefit my family more than we’re benefiting her. Still, she should make no obligation to take me up on my offer. My small attempts to reach out were simply a minor way to make sure someone didn’t feel alone on one day. I’m thankful for so many things and want to share them.
It’s not just Thanksgiving or the holidays. What we’re witnessing is a symptom of so many changes in society, and a reminder that a person’s loneliness can be complicated, without a quick antidote. Right now, there are several Facebook groups for “elder orphans” among the Baby Boomer generation, people who are, for whatever reason, aging alone. As future generations grow older, we’re going to need to start looking for ways to cobble together new communities of people in order to avoid aging alone, and I don’t think monthly BINGO at the clubhouse is going to do it. As a society, we’ve barely begun to think about all of the implications of living longer. In order to confront these changes over the next few decades, we need to rethink our assumptions about how to bring people together and find ways to do it that seem more natural than uncomfortable.