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Concept: Loneliness

Sofia Piecuch


Chronic loneliness is a unique and wicked problem. It is present in every culture yet heightened in countries that do not have large levels of social support. Chronic loneliness is aggravated when combined with poverty and other forms of exclusion. Though historically prevalent among the elderly across the globe, in some places in the Global North chronic loneliness is experienced the most by young adults. The societal developments that have led to the new preoccupation with loneliness include a global increase in life expectancy, a decrease in birth rates, an increase in the number of people living alone, and most recently the Covid-19 global pandemic. The individual reasons that create the conditions for chronic loneliness span from material poverty to the lack of a work-life balance. This paper categorizes the experience of chronic loneliness, itself, as a poverty. It offers the lens of Integral Human Development (IHD) as a method to address the complexity of chronic loneliness. At the local level, an IHD lens enables the community to identify which individuals are most likely to be experiencing chronic loneliness. At an international level, it calls for dialogue on building and strengthening social connectedness. At the individual level, it invites relationship-building, especially friendship, as a means to mitigate the chronic loneliness among family, friends, and acquaintances.

I. Introduction

Over this past decade, the concern for the problem of chronic loneliness has made the headlines. In 2017, the former US American Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy, published a popular article in the Harvard Business Review that drew more attention to the conversation (some would say debate) about the existence of an “epidemic of loneliness,” which he claimed to be “the most common pathology” that he witnessed in his medical practice (4). While some question whether loneliness is in actuality worse today than ever before, it is undeniably a current problem. However, there is a lack of confidence in existing measures aimed at addressing chronic loneliness, as they fail to account for the complexity of this problem, which does not seem to have a clear solution.

Among the critics of clear-cut solutions to combating chronic loneliness, Sophie McBain (2019) writes, “[m]aybe loneliness is a 21st-century epidemic, a modern illness requiring an urgent response, but it’s also so much more than that. There are so many ways to be lonely, so many paths to loneliness, that it seems absurd to imagine there’s a cure” (85). Yet, showing the importance and timelessness of this topic, Colin Killeen (1998) writes a few decades ago:

Nursing literature looks at loneliness from a rather basic, superficial perspective, when discussing whether such a traumatic state of being can be solved, but this is not a solution as such. It is such an innate part of the human psyche, that it cannot be solved like a puzzle; it can only be alleviated and made less painful. This can only be achieved by increasing humankind’s awareness of this distressing condition that everyone has to endure in some way, shape or form, some time during their lives… (762).

Both McBain and Killeen recognize the complexity and urgency of this problem. They also question straightforward solutions, and even the possibility of a solution.

While the problem of loneliness is multifaceted, I feel slightly more optimistic that the individuals I have previously quoted. Ever since my introduction to the Integral Human Development model, I felt the need to explore if this ambitious and intricate approach offers a path towards mitigating the deep suffering that chronic loneliness is causing in the lives of millions of people around the world.

In his encyclical Populorum Progressio, Pope Paul VI (1967) writes that development, “[t]o be authentic… must be well rounded; it must foster the development of each man and the whole man” (par. 14). No one gets left behind in this model. These words have immense weight: “each man,” means “everyone”—not just the materially poor in faraway countries, but my postman, my boss, and including myself—and “whole man,” means every facet of the human, whether it be physical, emotional, psychological, spiritual, relational or intellectual—in short, every part of the human existence that is necessary for flourishing. Paul VI also says, “[t]his is what will guarantee man’s authentic development—his transition from less than human conditions to truly human ones” (par. 20). I argue that “less than human conditions” are present, not only in situations of visible social and material inequalities, but also, invisibly, in places where chronic loneliness is experienced the most. In this case, the integral human development lens has the potential of helping people become “artisans of their own destiny” (Paul VI par. 65) and of supporting nations in becoming the “architects of their own development” (par. 77).

II. Defining Terms – A Working Definition of Chronic Loneliness and its Justification


The German poet Michael Hofmann (2008) wrote about loneliness in his piece entitled Night (248):

It’s all right
Unless you’re either lonely or under attack.
That strange effortful
Repositioning of yourself. Laundry, shopping,
Hours, the telephone-unless misinformed-
Only ever ringing for you, if it ever does.
The night-yours to decide,
Among drink, or books, or lying there.
On your back, or curled up.
An embarrassment of poverty.

Reading Hofmann’s lines through an IHD lens, I would label loneliness (and specifically chronic loneliness) as one of Paul VI’s “less than human” conditions. This loneliness is starkly different from that described by the Englishman, William Wordsworth (1802), who wrote:

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed-and gazed-but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils (Wordsworth)

Wordsworth ultimately describes the concept of “solitude” in his poem, “I Wondered Lonely as a Cloud.” Solitude, which receives a positive connotation here. Rokach (1990) says that, “[s]olitude, unlike loneliness, is often referred to as a positive, pleasant experience that is conducive to replenishing one’s energy and resources, and that affords one the time and space to reflect, be creative, or just enjoy rest” (42). “Loneliness,” on the other hand, receives a negative connotation, less from the lack of human company and from more the lack (“the poverty”) of a sense of self-value (“enough-ness”). This is supported by the definition of loneliness, as “…the feeling of being alone in spite of longing for others. The lonely experience a sense of utter aloneness as well as aimlessness and boredom” (Younger 59). I believe that Sarton does not elaborate on the term “aloneness” (“Alone”), probably because its meaning is value neutral: being literally “separated from others.”

Social Isolation

In the literature discussing “loneliness,” this concept is often used interchangeably with “social isolation,” though the terms have different meanings. Essentially, “loneliness is the subjective distressed feeling of being alone or separated,” while “social isolation” (which implies a choice) is the objective physical separation from other people (living alone)” (“Social”). Researchers Caitlin Coyle and Elizabeth Dugan (2012) supported this difference in their Health and Retirement Study of approximately 12,000 individuals in the United States, where they found that loneliness and social isolation had a very small positive correlation of 0.2 (1346). This is supported by a study conducted in Denmark and Switzerland, countries that have the highest share of people living alone in the world, but where 25% and 26% of their elderly reported experiencing loneliness—much lower when compared to 13 other developed countries (62% of Greeks, 47% of Italians, etc.) (“Self-reported”). Yet, just like being alone does not imply loneliness—we all know that it is possible to be in the company of others and still feel this.

While “social isolation” and “loneliness” are not correlated, researchers do not intend to gloss over an association between the terms; hence, both topics are usually addressed together in research. In the development and validation of the Canadian Social Isolation Index (SII) to identify social isolation amongst the elderly in Canada, researchers found that “definitions began to move away from defining social isolation as entirely objective or subjective and towards the development of multi-pronged definitions that included the objective and subjective dimensions” (Wister 180). The authors shared that “loneliness and isolation share many precursors and outcomes” and are “correlates of health and well-being in middle and later life… including mental health, frailty and chronic illnesses and mortality, as well as life satisfaction and happiness” (180). The authors note that both concepts are associated with old age, widowhood, living alone, low educational achievement, low income, and the absence of children. They add that people who are particularly susceptible to chronic loneliness include those who have life-long illnesses, are frail, are immigrants, act as caregivers, live in rural areas, and have difficulties with technology due to its price, complexity, and unfamiliarity. Snell (2017) in his analysis of the rise in “solitaries” or single-person households, finds that “[i]n quantitative studies of subjective loneliness, lone living is almost always the strongest explanatory variable when analysing loneliness, often linked to allied conditions (for example, divorce or bereavement)” (5). Snell finds that the rise in solitaires around the world is due to increases in numbers of divorce, an increase in life expectancy, lower marriage and birth rates, weaker links to kin, higher standards of living, as well as population shifts (22). This shows that, although chronic loneliness is particularly visible among the elderly, anyone can experience it and major life decisions can change how people experience it.

Chronic Loneliness as Poverty

No human being has been spared from undergoing loneliness, which is clear if we look at its many causes and its wide reach. According to Cacioppo and Cacioppo (2018) and their Evolutionary Theory of Loneliness (ETL), loneliness is a healthy “biological warning signal that alerts an individual to potential damage to the social body and motivates the individual to repair or replace perceived deficiencies in social relationships” (140). The ETL shows that loneliness is meant to be temporary, which is why its chronic state is so problematic. This article addresses chronic loneliness, which I would like to categorize, as Hoffman did, as a “poverty.”

When I employ the word “poverty” in reference to chronic loneliness, I refer to its understanding in Catholic Social Teaching as “exclusion.” Charles Clark (2011) writes that:

Poverty cannot be reduced to being merely an economic phenomena or outcome, such as low income. Poverty can be social, political, cultural and spiritual as well as economic, and often these are interconnected… All forms of poverty, that is all exclusions, can be individual or structural and most often are both, as they reinforce each other, and it is hard to separate individual and collective causes and effects neatly (8).

As the causes of chronic loneliness are complex and multi-faceted, I argue that multiple layers of exclusions can be experienced by a person that go by unobserved and unaddressed. This is supported by Mills, Zavaleta and Samuel (2014), who highlight that deprivation of social connectedness, specifically manifested in social isolation, shame and humiliation; is a clear dimension of poverty. The researchers underscore the “multidimensional nature” of poverty, which allows the exploration of “how people experience deprivations and sufferings in some dimensions and not in others, and the ways that these dimensions can interact” (3).

The previous paragraphs show that “loneliness” has a negative connotation (besides offering a helpful warning signal that one needs social interaction). It is different from but connected to “social isolation.” It can affect anyone, it is subjective, and, in its chronic sense, it can also be considered a form of poverty. For these reasons, in light of IHD’s aim to allow the whole person and all persons to thrive,chronic loneliness could be defined as the sustained feeling of being unable to imagine that one is valued in one’s uniqueness and the doubt that one occupies a cherished place in another person’s life. Therefore, chronic loneliness consists of a dual poverty of relationship and a poverty of self-concept.

III. Loneliness in Human Development and IHD Literature

There is little mention of loneliness, especially in its chronic form, in the literature of Integral Human Development. In Populorum Progressio there is one line that explicitly references loneliness. This is in the light of giving hospitality to young people so that, “they may be shielded from feelings of loneliness, distress and despair that would sap their strength” (Paul VI 12).

Every few years the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) publishes a Human Development Report which evaluates human-centered development based on the “Human Development Index.” In the 2014 report, “loneliness” was mentioned one time under the section on “Ageing with dignity—an elusive reality for many.” The report highlighted that “[u]ntimely death of a partner, inadequate access to affordable physical and health care, exclusion from participation in society, homelessness, loss of autonomy, institutionalization, lack of social contacts and loneliness—all add to the vulnerabilities of older people” (“Human Development Report 2014” 70). The section goes on to talk about older women, particularly those who are widows and without children, who are especially vulnerable to abuse and abandonment. The concept was not mentioned in the most recent reports, which were released in 2016 and 2019. In 2016, there is mention of “social isolation” as a threat to girls who become child brides (79), however this is not the same thing as “loneliness,” as the social circumstances that create and force this social detachment do not depend as much on a subjective experience.

Catholic Relief Services’ (CRS) “A User’s Guide to Integral Human Development,” currently the most practical document on the use and implementation of IHD in development work, does not mention loneliness. However, in the section defining the different “assets” that people rely on to earn a livelihood and to endure shocks, CRS lists spiritual and human assets (Heinrich 6). These include, “education, religious faith, individual health, life experiences and wisdom, intelligence, livelihood skills and physical strength” (Heinrich 6). Social assets include family, friends, religious groups, and membership organizations (6).  Loneliness can result from lacking a combination of these spiritual, human, and social assets.

The problem of loneliness is mentioned in relation to fulfilling certain UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). For example, World Health Organization (WHO) has declared 2020-2030 to be the decade of Healthy Ageing (“Healthy”). In order to achieve its goals, the WHO is looking to a number of SDGs, one of them being Goal 2 (Zero Hunger), through which the organization aims work in “recognizing and supporting older people who are poor, isolated and lonely to access healthy meals (“Healthy”). Loneliness is also a factor in addressing target 16.2 under Goal 16 (achieving “peace, justice and strong institutions”), which seeks to “end abuse, exploitation, trafficking and all forms of violence and torture against children” (“16.2”). The UN writes that “[m]ost girls and boys who are exposed to violence live in isolation, loneliness, and fear and do not know where to turn for help, especially when the perpetrator is someone close and on whom they depend for their protection and well-being” (“Violence”).

The Oxford Poverty & Human Development Initiative (OPHI) has identified that there are five missing dimensions of poverty that have been overlooked to measure poverty in large scale surveys (“Missing”). These are quality of work, empowerment, physical safety, psychological well-being and social connectedness. Nested under social connectedness, the OPHI recognizes that shame, humiliation, and social isolation all play a role in allowing for social connections (“Social”). Social isolation is mentioned, as chronic feelings of subjective social isolation (which is the same as loneliness) has serious health consequences that can be just as or more detrimental to one’s health as lack of exercise, as obesity or as smoking.

Joseph Stiglitz, Amartya Sen, and Jean Paul Fitoussi (2009) formed the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress and conveyed the limits of GDP as a measure of economic performance and social progress. They found that addressing social isolation was vital to increase levels of well-being. Whether or not this “well-being can be sustained over item depends on whether stocks of capital that matter for our lives (natural, physical, human, social) are passed on to future generations” (Stiglitz et al. 10). They write that individuals and societies benefit from social connection, because “people with more friends live longer…because of the biochemical effects of social isolation, and…because health systems are more effective in areas of higher social capital” (Stiglitz et al. 183). They recognize that more research is needed on this topic to give their claims more strength.  

In general, the literature focusing specifically on loneliness, particularly in its chronic form, in conjunction with international development and IHD is sparse. However, the sources stated previously interestingly show that loneliness is an issue that both aggravates and is aggravated by other issues such as poverty, violence, illness, etc.

IV. Why Should IHD Address Loneliness?

Loneliness, especially chronic loneliness, is a problem that is so multifaceted and often imperceptible that only a combination of collective effort and individual commitment can address its root causes. The challenge of addressing loneliness is what some would refer to as a “wicked problem,” “one for which the diagnosis, definition, and cause are unclear and effective actions to deal with the problem requires narrowing the gap between what is and what ought to be” (Williams et al. 8). According to Williams and Braun (2019), the challenge arises when societies decide that loneliness is no longer a private concern, but a public one (8). It makes sense that IHD, which looks at the intricacy and complexity of human beings and societies, would be a suitable lens through which to seek solutions this problem. If we are to take the goal of IHD seriously, then all people and countries must be involved in addressing loneliness, some being more apt at doing so than others.

Including a space to address loneliness in the IHD framework answers Lori Keleher’s (2017) challenge for IHD to “either go beyond, what is typically seen as the scope of development or stretch development ethics to recognize human development as ‘building a world where every [person]… can live a fully human life’” (32). In her article “Toward an Integral Human Development Ethics,” Keleher calls for both secular and religious development ethicists to use the IHD framework, which is not often used outside of Catholic circles (32). This way our world would have more development practitioners who would use this lens to consider people’s wide array of needs and think about how to get people from all backgrounds to work together in solidarity (30-31).

When looking at the problem of chronic loneliness, an IHD lens invites us to rethink development work by swapping the typical roles of the “givers” and the “receivers.” In this case, the “poor” are those who suffer from loneliness. The “rich” are those who are not lonely and have a duty to share their presence, friendship, and kindness with those who are poor. Keleher writes:

“The philosophical underpinnings of integral human development requires not only that the poor are relieved of their poverty, but that the poor and the rich stand together in a relationship of solidarity as members of the human family. This solidarity is grounded in a mutual recognition, it is clear to those who have an abundance of resources that they ought to use those resources for the good of the whole (31).

Aware of this responsibility, it is necessary to then ask: who is most likely to be experiencing loneliness in my community? According to the Mental Health Foundation’s 2010 report, those that are vulnerable are in the middle of big life transitions (e.g. moving, switching jobs, loss of a loved one, divorce, a newborn, older children leaving home), in situations where they are cut off from society (e.g. losing a job, experiencing poverty, suffering from mental illness and reaching old age), where they need high levels of support (e.g. disabilities, addictions, caretaking and being a single parent), or are where they belong to minorities (Griffin 6). It is a collective responsibility to accompany these groups and enact policies to assist them, particularly with providing them supportive social networks. This would be fulfilling the work of IHD in one’s community.

At an international level, looking at levels of loneliness turns the tables on our conceptions of “rich” and “poor” nations. The countries that are suffering the most from loneliness are Japan and the UK. Newspapers in Japan have reported on the plight of the elderly who die in solitude (Onishi), who shoplift in order to live in community in prison (Fukada), and who rent family members (Morin). The Campaign to End Loneliness was launched in 2011 to assist 1.2 million elderly people who report being chronically lonely and 9 million generally lonely in the UK (“About”). The United States also exhibits this poverty, with a 2020 report showing that 8 in 10 members of Generation Z, 7 in 10 of Millennials, and half of Baby Boomers (Parker et al.)[1] experience loneliness (“Loneliness”). The report attributed this phenomenon to a “lack of social support and infrequent meaningful social interactions” and “[a] lack of ‘balance’ in one’s daily activities – doing too much or too little of any given thing (e.g., sleep, work),” among other reasons (“Loneliness”). While the US, Japan, and the UK place first, third and sixth on the World Bank’s 2019 GDP rankings (“GDP”), they exhibit a blatant poverty of social connectedness.

Paul VI wrote in Populorum Progressio, “[n]ations are the architects of their own development, and they must bear the burden of this work; but they cannot accomplish it if they live in isolation from others” (14). Countries have much to learn from each other, therefore high-level discussions on the topic of chronic loneliness would be beneficial to understand how to build the opposite: social connectedness, which has proven an even greater need since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. This is how an IHD lens could be incorporated at an international level.

The final question to ask is: what each of us can do individually to address the poverty of chronic loneliness? Populorum Progressio states that IHD “demands great generosity, willing sacrifice and diligent effort” on the part of the rich” (9)—in this case, the “rich” being the socially apt. This means that part of addressing chronic loneliness requires that kindness, friendship, and dedication be shown by the socially endowed to the lonely.

In figuring out how best to respond to the problem of chronic loneliness, we can look at development ethics, which wrestle with the “ends and means of development” (Keleher 26). Lori Keleher’s fourth domain of ethical reflection offers helpful insight. She lists (1) meta ethics (what is good and true?), (2) normative ethics (what ought we do?) and (3) applied or practical ethics (what ought we do in specific situations?), and adds her own (4) personal or integral ethics. This domain is the “the level at which we as individuals must consider the moral dimensions of our particular actions as an individual part of the various realms of life in which we participate” (Keleher 26). In other words, integral ethics move us to ask: what positive impact are we capable of in our respective spheres? Keleher goes on to give the disclaimer that:

[p]ublished work at this level will be difficult and may be best approached by identifying what questions individuals should ask, rather than issuing ridged one-size-fits-all commands that must always be followed regardless of an individual’s particular circumstances. Nevertheless, engaging in this level of ethical inquiry is of vital importance as it allows us to think critically about how we might integrate our understanding of reality with our daily behaviors (27).

Using integral ethics in development is a call beyond human-centered project and program. It is about how we make decisions and how we treat others each day. Integral ethics asks what each person could do to address chronic loneliness in his or her own sphere. What relationships and friendships could be grown to make it known to another person that they are valued and cherished in their uniqueness, thus addressing their poverty of relationship and of self-concept? As there is no recipe for friendship and because there are a variety of relational needs in the world, every person has something unique to contribute to this endeavor. However, at least making someone know that they are seen, is a step towards helping them recognize their value.

V. A First Case—My Personal Experience with Con-solatio

La soif la plus grande de l’homme, c’est d’une présence—Man’s biggest thirst is that of a presence. These words are often cited by the Catholic organization Con-solatio to describe their response to this need for a human presence in places where people experience deep suffering. My journey serving and living in an intentional community with Con-solatio began in 2016 and led me to spend time with Latin American immigrants in the projects in Brooklyn, share meals with white-collar workers in Geneva, work alongside people at a garbage dump in Dakar, and drink coffee with housewives in Naples. Through these experiences I witnessed the universal cry—the thirst—for a human presence. Indiscriminate of gender, nationality, race, or economic status, loneliness is the deepest suffering and most acute poverty that I have witnessed.

I met Fiorella* in Italy in January of 2019. She lived with her five boys in one tiny room across the street from the Con-solatio, which was in a small city on the outskirts of Naples. Ever since her husband left, Fiorella had been the sole breadwinner for the family; however, as she was illiterate, her work options were limited. She seemed to have an eternal cold, probably due to the exhaustion from working most of the day and not having much time to rest (once she came to Con-solatio to visit and spent 20 minutes sleeping on our couch). Usually left to fend for themselves, the diet of her children, then ages 3 to 15, consisted of chocolate bars, sugary drinks, and chips, which had left them visibly malnourished. These boys were mischief-makers, notorious for skipping school and being violent towards other children and adults.

Fiorella, was far from the perfect mother, but I do think she was trying the best she could. As we would often stop by to visit her (when we could find her!) and would invite her kids over to our house to play games or to cook, we came to know Fiorella very well. It is that friendship that led to action. Fiorella began to trust us to ask for help. As she was illiterate, she would often ask for assistance in filling out documents for her children’s schools. Once she even asked if, every now and then, she could leave some money for safekeeping at Con-solatio so that she would not be tempted to spend it. She never ended up doing this, but it was her idea. I was very moved by her expressions of gratitude, which were often gifts of food, that I knew had come to her through government aid. On our side, our friendship with Fiorella led us to think about connecting her with the soccer league at our local Catholic church. It had teams in the age groups of her boys and could serve as a useful outlet for them. Over time, thanks to the wonderful coaches, we saw the kids grow more responsible, self-confident, and peaceable. Whenever the boys skipped school or gravely misbehaved and Fiorella felt overwhelmed, she would ask us to help her speak to the boys’ coaches, whom the children respected. They could temporarily suspend the child from practice if this were appropriate (the team required that the children behave in school and submit homework to participate).

This is a very simple story, but I believe it is an example of how integral ethics could be put into practice. It explains how the integral or personal responsibility that comes with establishing a friendship with someone can assure a lonely person of their social connectedness, as well as of their personal agency and value. Friendship becomes a place where people are accepted for who they are and where they give and receive help.

VI. A Second Case Study—Meeting Point International (MPI)

The following case study shows how personal/integral ethics in relationships can overflow into bringing life to communities. The need to address loneliness in aid and development work and the power of doing this can be seen in the life and work of Rose Busingye, president of Meeting Point International in Uganda, whom I met at a gathering last year. Busingye is a nurse who began working with HIV/AIDS patients in Kampala 1992. She and other health workers would distribute antiretroviral medications to women in slums who were HIV-positive; however, many of them refused to take their medication. Busingye found that these women were so stigmatized by their community that they came to believe that their lives were meaningless. She decided to invest in developing personal relationships with them; she listened to them and told them that they were loved and that their lives had value. Soon enough, the women began taking their medications and expressed that they preferred getting their medicine from Busingye rather than from other health workers. Responding to their prolonged sense of exclusion, Busingye created a group to which these women could belong, which eventually became Meeting Point International (MPI).

One day, the women told Busingye that they wanted her to open a school for their children. They said that their lives changed when she told them they were loved and that they had value. They wanted their children to go to a school that taught them the same thing. Though Busingye knew nothing about opening a school she collaborated with the mothers to do exactly this. Today three pre-primary-, primary- and high schools serve around 1000 children.

When news arrived that Hurricane Katrina had decimated New Orleans, the women of MPI were determined to send money to support the hurricane victims (“Impoverished”). One woman, who knew that HIV/AIDS would be her cause of death said, “When I die, my children will be left like those in America. Someone will have to care for them. I want to care for someone also. I want to give a lunch, or at least a malaria treatment.” Busingye shared that the mothers believed that “those people who are suffering, they belong to us. They are our people. Their problems are our problems. Their children are like our children” (“Impoverished”). To raise money, 200 women broke rocks for several weeks and donated most of their earnings to the Katrina relief fund. Others made money by selling food, furniture, and jewelry. In the end, the women were able to donate 1.6 million Ugandan shillings, between $800-$900, to Katrina survivors.

As a result of all these events, MPI has articulated on its website that its mission is to support “…the most disadvantaged persons and communities of Uganda, with a particular focus on Women and Children, in their struggle of better life and development having as priorities to assist the suffering victims of HIV/AIDS, to promote education at all levels and to commit to poverty alleviation” (“The Vision”). However, its vision is ultimately, “…to offer friendship where persons are looked at and embraced for their infinite value and they are not reduced to their sickness or limitations.” 

VII. General Lessons

It is amazing to see how the investment of Busingye’s person in the lives of the HIV+ patients she is serving has created a ripple effect. This is exhibited in the women’s interest in having their children gain the same sense of dignity and self-worth that they received in their relationship with the Busingye and in their collective effort to raise money for Katrina survivors. To a smaller extent, the friendship with Fiorella, gave her the confidence that, though life is hard, she is not alone. She has friends in her life who are willing to help her read, encourage her agency, and take interest in getting to know and supporting her children.

Part of addressing the problem of loneliness is the need to create a culture that forms human beings who are willing to recognize and walk through life with those who suffer from loneliness. Through friendship and intentionality, they can help people recognize their inherent value, their talents, and their uniqueness. Henri Nouwen writes:

When someone listens to us with real concentration and expresses sincere care for our struggles and our pains, we feel that something very deep is happening to us. Slowly, fears melt away, tensions dissolve, anxieties retreat, and we discover that we carry within us something we can trust and offer as a gift to others. The simple experience of being valuable and important to someone else has a tremendous recreative power. (80)

These efforts to address the problem of loneliness constitute what I like to call, “slow development.”[2] It takes time to start a friendship and for someone to emerge from their loneliness. Nevertheless, once they do, the world has gained an individual who is ready to share their unique set of gifts with their community and who is now capable of helping many others, as well. This is successful integral human development at the smallest and most basic level.

VIII. Conclusion

Chronic loneliness is a unique and wicked problem. It is present in every culture yet heightened in countries that do not have large levels of social support. Chronic loneliness is aggravated when combined with poverty and other forms of exclusion. Though historically prevalent among the elderly across the globe, in some places in the Global North chronic loneliness is experienced the most by young adults. The societal developments that have led to the new preoccupation with loneliness include a global increase in life expectancy, a decrease in birth rates, and an increase in the number of people living alone (and we may now add the Covid-19 pandemic to the list). The individual reasons that create the conditions for chronic loneliness are a wide array that span from material poverty to the lack of work-life balance.  

The causes and possible solutions to chronic loneliness are so varied that an IHD lens is helpful to deal with this level of complexity. If chronic loneliness— the sustained feeling of being unable to imagine that one is valued in one’s uniqueness and the doubt that one occupies a cherished place in another person’s life— is a widespread issue, then it needs to move from the private to the public sphere. There are already several campaigns targeting loneliness (for example in England and Scotland (Young)), but to address chronic loneliness internationally a high-level discussion on the topic would be helpful. This would allow for the exchange of ideas between countries that do not suffer from this phenomenon and those who do. At a community and societal level, it is possible to design policies that would improve social support networks, after identifying those most likely to experience chronic loneliness. To address the problem individually, a special level of ethics—personal or integral ethics—is needed. Applying integral ethics to development work is a call to seek human thriving not only in the confines of projects and programs, but to allow it to carry over into all areas of life. Our relationships and friendships, as exemplified in the two case studies above, are especially powerful in helping those who are chronically lonely and thus become a form of slow development.

Moving forward there are two clear needs. First, we need more research on chronic loneliness, especially in and from the Global South. Most studies on this topic have been conducted in the Global North and by researchers from this same part of the world. It offers an incomplete picture of the extent of this issue. Furthermore, the perspectives of different researchers would be interesting, as their global positionality could allow them to identify different problems and offer new solutions. Second, we need development professionals and organizations to build the issue of chronic loneliness into their projects and programs. This thorough approach will allow for communities around the world to see an improvement in the ability of all their members to thrive. 

It is impossible for human beings to stop being lonely; we need this feeling to be driven to seek social connection. However, chronic loneliness is not natural. Using an IHD lens, it is possible to begin to be intentional about mitigating—and hopefully someday eradicating—this problem.


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[1] Pew defines Generation Z as being born after 1996, millennials are born between 1981 and 1996, while Baby Boomers are between 1946 and 1964

[2] This concept was inspired by my encounter with the “slow food” movement, which emphasizes the importance of local, good quality food and its traditions. This movement was created in response to the fast-food culture. Read more about “slow food” at: