A Finnish study last week reported that people who live alone have an 80% increased risk of depression compared to those who live in families. This is of concern particularly because of the rising numbers of people who live by themselves (around a third in US and the UK, and even higher in urban areas). Since the risk of depression was judged by use of drug treatments for depression, researcher Laura Pulkki-Raback argues that the 80% figure may well be an under-estimate as it doesn’t include those who are untreated, or treated in different ways.
The study itself linked living alone to poor housing in women and low social support in men (something that has long been found to be a risk factor for single men). However they are understood, the findings clearly point to the vital social role in depression: a condition which is commonly understood to be both internally caused, and in need of only internal treatments (such as drugs and therapies). We need to move to more biopsychosocial (or even sociopsychobio) understandings of this experience.
The bounded self
Social psychologist Kenneth Gergen points towards one idea which may help to make sense of findings like these. In his book, Relational Being, he argues that in the past few centuries we have come, in the west, to see ourselves as ‘bounded beings’: as singular and separate from others. This is a culturally peculiar belief, according to Clifford Geertz, but one which we generally take for granted as a ‘fact of life’.
Gergen argues that if I accept this view of myself:
‘I must always be on guard, lest others see the faults in my thinking, the cesspools of my emotions, and the embarrassing motives behind my actions … I must worry about how I compare to others, and whether I will be judged inferior.’ (xiii-xiv)
He argues that this view underlies our education and organisational systems which evaluate us individually and encourage constant competition from the start.
Importantly, for our explorations here, Gergen suggests that depression can be located in this way of viewing ourselves The inner critics and overwhelming fears of failure which are so familiar to us are part and parcel of this view of the human being. As well as the relentless self-evaluation, toxic comparison and defensive withdrawal of depression, the familiar sense of meaninglessness and pointlessness can also be linked to disconnection from others since meaning, for most people, is associated with their relations with others.
Speaking specifically about living alone, Gergen proposes that this is something which only really makes sense under this view of ourselves as fundamentally isolated. Alongside statistics on the numbers of people choosing to live by themselves, he cites evidence for decreases in close friendships and increases in loneliness in recent years.
Gergen proposes that an alternative way of seeing things is to regard ourselves as fundamentally relational rather than bounded. This is a view which is common to Buddhist and existential philosophies (which question the separation between self and others and stress interconnection), and constructionist and constructivist approaches (which point out that we become different ‘selves’ in our relationships with different people, and that our self is something that we construct in interaction).
Bounded selves and living alone/together
Returning to the issue of living alone, we could see this as a situation in which the sense of ourselves as bounded and separated is exacerbated, especially in situations where we are also out of work or retired and have very little human contact day-to-day. It is possible to become very inward focused: listening to the loops of self-judgement and critical commentaries that go on within our heads. A vicious cycle is easily set in motion where our negative view of ourselves makes contact with others a frightening prospect, due to fear that they will confirm our self-perceptions, and we withdraw further into ourselves.
Such challenges are not absent for those of us who live with others. The bounded self view is pervasive and we also relate to other people accordingly: looking to our partners, children or parents to affirm and validate a positive view of ourselves, and fearing that they will do the opposite: seeing us negatively in a way that confirms what we dread is the real truth of who we are. This is what Sartre was talking about when he said that ‘hell is other people‘.
However, given the findings on living alone, it seems that – for many of us – contact with others goes some way towards loosening the tight grip on the self. Perhaps when we live up alongside others we have times when the self-and-other distinctions are blurred: as we share a moment, or physical contact breaks down the barriers, or we recognise our own pain or joy in the eyes of another, for example. Maybe we realise how much our own projects in life are bound up with other people, and how much they need us for their own projects, and a kind of mutuality and reciprocation comes from that.
Also, as we relate to different people in our lives we may notice that they, and we, have different sides in different situations, and also that they, and we, change over time. The recognition of our plurality and fluidity both provide relief from the grip of the bounded self. It makes far less sense to judge and evaluate ourselves (or others) when we know that we are multifaceted, and less sense to compare ourselves against others who are constantly shifting just as we are. If we can find the courage together, intimacy with others may even enable of us to reveal our vulnerability and recognise it as something that connects us rather than being something we have to defend so desperately.
So what are the implications of such findings on living alone and depression, and this way of understanding them? Clearly they point to the importance of human contact – but importantly contact which encourages a softening of the bounded self rather than further judgement and competition. We should be cautious, as a society, of policies and practices which leave people even more isolated and withdrawn. Such research should feed into current discussions, for example, of benefit systems and of how we treat older people.
Also it would be good to provide more real alternatives to living alone. At the moment, for many people, the decision is between living as a couple/nuclear family and living by yourself (if you are single or separated from such a unit). We need to expand the options and make it both socially and economically viable to live in other arrangements.
It is not that being alone inevitably reinforces the sense of the self as bounded. We can all probably point to moments of solitude in which we felt connected to others and the wider world, and this is something that can be cultivated in meditation and other solitary practices. It is quite possible to respond to the pain of the bounded self by surrounding ourselves with busyness, people and distraction in ways that become equally problematic. It is useful to consider the ways that we all relate to solitude, to being with others, and to wider community. At all levels we can operate as bounded, separate, units, or shift into a more relational, interconnected, mode.
Find out more:
For another perspective on living alone, based on a qualitative research project on those who live by themselves, see I want to be alone: The rise and rise of solo living (The Guardian, March 30th 2012)