All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
The Beatles, Eleanor Rigby

“Lonely People Face Higher Risk of Heart Disease,” Science Daily headlined recently, revealing perhaps more than it intended about what alternative medicine calls the mind-body connection in human health. As if we needed to be reminded by science that loneliness is literally a state of heartsickness, heartache, and even heartbreak.

“Lonely individuals tend to perceive their social world as more threatening than non-lonely individuals,” states the study in Psychosomatic Medicine, where the findings were first published. And the problem gets worse as one gets older. For instance, one of the barometers of heart disease, systolic blood pressure, “rose with age in lonely men and women while it remained more stable in men and women who were not lonely.”

Look around you and, if they are not at home hiding under their beds, you will find a fair number of lonely people right in your neighborhood. In fact, you may be one of them. If you are, you may be taking your blood pressure medicine dutifully every day, putting up barricades to the threats of the social world — and waiting for the miracle of romance that, with one forceful whoosh, will pull you out of your misery and into the life of awe, wonder, and joy that you have always imagined for yourself. Umm, love.

According to psychologists, these are some of the symptoms of lonely people. They tend to be self-preoccupied with excessive work, they are unhappy with family relationships, they have negative attitudes towards life, they drift into self-condemnation (and into judgment of others), they have few or no friends, they will often feel worthless, helpless, powerless, unacceptable, and self-absorbed.

Oh, and another important indicator: they hold exceedingly high and unrealistic expectations about relationship, which they often view through rose-colored glasses. When these impractical hopes and aspirations are not fulfilled in ordinary connections with other people, the lonely person will become frustrated and disappointed. Depression follows, and then, if it is allowed to spiral downward, despair.

If one is lonely, what can be done about it? One of the most powerful messages we receive from our culture is that romantic love will heal the pain of loneliness. The refrain is everywhere in our movies and literature, advertising and the Internet. Listen to any lyric from the Great American Songbook of the last fifty or sixty years, and you will get the message: I was alone and forgotten, I was living in Heartbreak Hotel, it was just me and my shadow — then you came along, and now my life is perfect.

But is romantic love the only answer to the problem of loneliness? While it may be true that love heals all, holding out the expectation for the kind of romantic love we read about in books or watch on TV or at the movies to heal a lonely heart might be unrealistic. Can anyone live up to the paragons that are presented to us by popular culture? Can any relationship live up the ideal of courtly and romantic love that has been served up for us since the Middle Ages?

In an era when loneliness is endemic, we may be called upon to create new ways of being in connection with one another. The old model of relationship of one man and one woman (or man/man, woman/woman) — which does not guarantee a rescue from the depths of loneliness, in any case — may be obsolete. Fully half of all marriages end in divorce; figures are not kept on abandoned relationships outside marriage, but we must assume that, without a legal contract, many more than half of all couplings uncouple after a while. Mutually satisfying one-on-one relationships seem to be the exception rather than the rule.

Could community be a new model for relationship? Living together with two or three or four or more people may actually be a way to enjoy the heightened companionship we had on the best days in the old “just me/just you” model. Living in community may not fill all our needs (I am thinking of sexuality), but for those of us of a certain age, having already surpassed the terminal ages of our grandparents, or even our parents, those needs may not be as urgent as they were in our personal past. With time our biology changes; a familial kind of friendship, with its shared loyalties and intimacies, may be enough for us to feel fulfilled.

Our culture offers us precious few models for a second blooming of love in our lives. Instead of forever pining away for the man who got away or for the girl of our dreams who never materialized, experimenting with communal living might be the door to the comfort, security, and joy we had expected, perhaps foolishly, from older ways of doing relationship.

Living in community also has a spiritual dimension. “It is possible that the next Buddha will not take the form of an individual,” says the spiritual teacher Thich Nhat Hahn. “The next Buddha may take the form of a community — a community practicing understanding and loving kindness, a community practicing mindful living. This may be the most important thing we can do for the survival of the earth.”

This new model of relationship could not only heal us from the of misery of loneliness — it might also help to heal our ailing planet, so desperately in need of our attention and affection.

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Author's Bio: 

Joseph Dispenza is a spiritual counselor in private practice. He is a co-founder of LifePath in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, and the author of God On Your Own, and several other books.