Susie Rushton: Loneliness can be a companion, too

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The Independent Online

When does pleasant solitude tip over into loneliness? At what point does pottering about the house turn painful and tinged with blue thoughts? For me, there's a clear time frame.

I can happily spend 72 hours without human interaction. People: I don't need them. Not when there's that back issue of the New Yorker I've been trying to read for days, not to mention a mound of ironing and the second half of a Curb Your Enthusiasm DVD. And that's before I've even begun staring into space, or looking out the window ... the possibilities are endless.

Of course, the amount of solitude we enjoy is to a degree personal preference. I know some oddballs who could easily manage a week without seeing anybody else, whose psychological makeup, in fact, requires they have regular periods in social quarantine; others (for the sake of argument let's call them big babies) might only last an hour on their own at home before trotting off to the nearest Starbucks for a chat with strangers in the coffee queue. Either way, keeping one's own company, having time to hear clearly the internal monologue – forget Virginia Woolf; it's just a posh term for thinking about food, or whether it's time for a nap – is a far from unhealthy state. Lonely? Perhaps. But it feels good.

Bad loneliness, though, is something else. Bad loneliness is a profound sense of isolation, a feeling that isn't even fixed by seeing friends and family. It's a detachment felt in one's soul, and it is increasing in the age of long-distance social networking, punishing working hours and a high divorce rate, according to a report by the Mental Health Foundation. The pressures of modern life are creating an "epidemic of loneliness", resulting in, as the Daily Mail put it, "an Eleanor Rigby generation". More than one in 10 people in Britain describe themselves as "often" lonely, with the 18-34 age group most fearful of loneliness. Women are more likely than men to report depression as a result of the loneliness. It is tempting to say that humans have always felt lonely, that it's a natural sensation. Even at its worst it is usually a passing phase, frequently sparked by a major life change such as a new job, a house move or separation from a partner. But the report goes on, "once loneliness becomes chronic, it is difficult to treat", and the result, as you might expect, is depression and drug and alcohol abuse.

Indeed loneliness – the bad sort – is indistinguishable from mild depression. And yet it isn't really taken seriously, partly because it exists on a variable scale of experience. Associated with the unlovely and the outcast, there's also embarrassment to admitting you're lonely, which might account for the gender difference in this report, men being generally more reluctant to admit to any illness, physical or mental. What's curious about these findings though are the sufferings of youth; 18- to 24-year-olds are twice as likely to feel lonely as those over 55. Is it really the fault of Twitter, Facebook and Bebo? If bad loneliness is about feeling disconnected from others, social networking could be a useful tool to stay in touch with friends.

I wonder if younger people really do feel lonelier, or if it's just that they haven't yet learnt to tolerate the feeling, eventually turning it into a positive. Nobody should have to cope with chronic loneliness, but accepting it is a feeling which does arise is something we do as the years pass – which is lucky, since there'll be plenty of scope for loneliness when one's friends are all dying of old age. Maybe I'll even finish watching that Curb DVD.

Soak up the sun at your peril

I wonder if we'll be allowed any more sunshine after last weekend's performance. Finally the cold weather abates and the skies turn blue and the girls across the nation pull their flowery sun dresses from the back of the wardrobe. As one, the English advance out into the heat to spend a long, hot Sunday in a back garden, splayed out in the park or sitting at a picnic table outside a pub. That's eight hours of hot, unclouded sun and the other thing that sends us doolally: alcohol, mostly in fermented apple juice form. The result was coruscating, blood-coloured sunburn on necks, legs, arms and chests.

I know we don't get much practice at sitting in the sun, but why do we persist in believing that UV rays here are somehow less harmful than those abroad?

Maybe the sun makes us not just foolish but irrational. After all, if you ask any of these walking wounded how their weekend was, they'll beam through their third-degree burns and say, "wonderful".

Don't desert this island

Even as soldiers and police try to take control of the civil breakdown in Kingston, holiday-makers around the world will be wondering whether to cancel their trip to Jamaica. They should postpone their decision. The violence in the capital is a new low for a nation struggling with corruption, but it happens more than 100 miles away from the tourist resorts on the north coast of the island, and far from Montego Bay.

It may be said of all the Caribbean islands that visitors see little of the "real" place, but this is truer than most on Jamaica. The majority of tourists, many American, are made to feel afraid of leaving their all-inclusive resorts here, creating a commercial segregation that plays into the hands of corrupt officials and the all-powerful dons.

Those that do leave their hotels find the best island in the Caribbean, a place that, while it has profound problems – its murder rate is legendarily high, and its record on violence against gays abhorrent – also possesses extraordinary cultural and natural assets that do not, unlike so many of its neighbours, merely service a tourist fantasy.

s.rushton@independent.co.uk

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