Nothing can excuse these killers for the actions they took against innocent people. But how could feeling lonely generate such vicious actions? No one can understand the pain of loneliness unless you have been there yourself, feeling it like a constant shadow against your back, day in and day out. Being a lone mass killer is an extreme, atypical reaction to loneliness, but loneliness has driven people to do many a strange thing. Another story that was recently in the news talks about a woman that keep a dead body for two years because she did not want to be alone. But what about ordinary folks? Would ordinary folks to outlandish things to fit in and feel accepted? Social psychologists have done a number of experiments to show just how far people will go to fit in and obey authority. One of these experiments was done by Stanley Milgram, who showed that individuals would be willing to deliver painful shocks to other people when instructed to do so:
The fact of the matter is that loneliness can have a profound effect upon us and sadly many of us do not realize or acknowledge this fact. Loneliness is often not treated as a serious issue that can have serious consequences on our behaviors and our health. There are not very many organizations focused exclusively on loneliness, compared to other organizations dedicated towards addressing social issues such as hunger, obesity, or smoking. I am sure the average person does not think of loneliness in the same drastic context as hunger. And yet, if you take the time to look, you will see that loneliness is making as much of an impact as hunger or any other major, popular issue right now.
The fact of the matter is that loneliness is a response to a basic need of every human being, arguably in much the same way as our need to eat, sleep, or breathe. Baumeister and Leary have argued that the need to belong is a basic, fundamental human need, in much the same way as any other basic, human need we have. And what happens when we cannot fulfill our need to belong? The same thing that happens when we have a need to eat but no food is available. We feel hungry, but in this case, we call this hunger, loneliness. Loneliness is response to our social need, it is our bodies telling us that we are not getting the social interaction, the sense of belongingness that we require. And just like hunger, if it continually goes unfulfilled, it has negative consequences on our health. To some degree, hunger is easier to fulfill than loneliness, all we need to do is provide food. But for many of us, being able to build a sense of connection is difficult, very difficult. It is almost as if we have not developed the ability to feed ourselves and thus have trouble getting that sense of connection. We can also very easily see someone who is starving and in need of food, but it is a lot harder to spot someone who is lonely.
Until society acknowledges that loneliness is as much of a social issue as other basic needs such as food and shelter, we will have problems stemming from loneliness continuing to persist in our society. And it is a growing problem, not just in the elderly, but across all age groups as well. A recent study in Norway suggest that 40% youth ages 18-29 feel lonely "often" or "quite often." And another study in Australia show that at least 30% of Australians feel lonely, up from 10% ten years ago.
I, for one, will not stand by and wait for another tragedy to happen, wait for someone else to come to the rescue for those who feel lonely and isolated, for those who are longing for connection and cannot find one. I have hosted the Web of Loneliness for over 10 years. I am now moving onwards and upwards to establishing the Web of Loneliness Institute to find ways to raise awareness, and help the lonely. If you are willing to follow me on this journey, contact me, I'd be happy to have you along!