Is solitude the price of independence? Interview with anthropologist Hilde Schäffler

"Most people don't even dare admit to feeling lonely.

By Lisa Waldvogel

In the graphic novel Seek You, published in French and German only by Helvetiq, American author Kristen Radtke depicts loneliness through her memories, current events, history and science. At the same time, Helvetiq magazine went to meet Hilde Schäffler, project manager at the Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH) and socio-anthropologist specialising in loneliness, who offers a more European perspective on the subject.

What is loneliness, according to you?

Hilde Schäffler: Loneliness is subjective suffering. It's a lack of trusting relationships, an imbalance between what you experience and what you want. Loneliness is also a social pain, which is not at all metaphorical. In fact, the pain caused by social exclusion reaches the same region of the brain as physical, somatic pain.

Kristen Radtke describes loneliness as a "silent epidemic". Do you agree?

From an epidemiological point of view: no, because loneliness is neither transmissible nor a disease in itself.

On the other hand, loneliness is a health risk factor that opens the door to disease. The metaphor is striking. And the silence of which Kristen Radtke speaks underlines the shame associated with loneliness: the feeling of being nothing and nobody and of having failed to build social relationships. Most people don't even dare admit to feeling lonely. Why loneliness? On the one hand, loneliness is a common human experience. Everyone feels lonely from time to time or for a period of time. In The Banquet, Plato uses a beautiful image: human beings were spheres that were divided. Since then, they have been in search of their second half. We think of the soul mate, but that also applies to society: we seek to be completed by the other. We need to see our image reflected in the mirror that is the other to know who we are. On the other hand, in today's society, what we value most is independence and freedom. Nobody has the right to tell us what to do or when to do it. No-one should interfere with our choices. If I want to get up at 2pm and eat crisps on the sofa, that's my right. But the price I have to pay is loneliness.

What is the influence of new technologies? 

In short: they don't improve anything. According to the latest studies, digital media are making the situation worse. Behind a screen of happiness, a large number of friends, a filtered world, it's easy to feel left out, excluded. Superficial relationships increase our sense of loneliness. What we need are trusting relationships, regular contact and physical (not virtual) encounters. The pandemic has reminded us of this.

How do you detect loneliness in a population?

Living alone is an example of a risk factor for loneliness. So we can look at the rate of single-person households. But also the rate of chatting - which is probably low in Switzerland, by the way - where it is difficult to go beyond polite exchanges and where it takes a long time to build friendship. People are afraid of being disturbed, which can lead to mental health problems and loneliness. Mental illnesses make it difficult to participate in society: the people around you distance themselves and the social network dwindles (unlike an accident, where the tendency is to actively support and help the person concerned).

What is the situation like in Switzerland? 

The figures are relatively stable: around a third of the population say they sometimes feel lonely, and between 5-10% often or very often, according to FSO surveys. Women (of all ages), people with an immigrant background and young people have a greater feeling of loneliness than others. Loneliness does not only affect the elderly.

Are there any issues we leave out when we talk about loneliness?

We often forget that there are solutions to help us cope. There are telephone helplines all over the place that listen to lonely people and/or organise tandems. You also have to start by accepting that the feeling exists and that it's normal: it's a feeling, nothing more and nothing less. You can try to relieve the stress associated with it and work on yourself: review your expectations of others to better manage rejection, reflect on your own social and communication skills and try to improve them. Contact with others then becomes easier. And at the level of our cultures and societies, we need to develop greater openness and mutual assistance.