Virginia Woolf once claimed that feelings of loneliness instilled her with a sense of wisdom and creativity, but are creatives more likely to experience feelings of loneliness and isolation than others?
What is Loneliness?
Loneliness is an emotion felt by everyone in some degree but little is know about it due to out inability to quantize the feeling in any measurable way. The feeling of loneliness is unique to each person, with no preordained cause or effect. The effects of long term loneliness can have serious implications on health however, causing depression, increased stress levels, heart problems, reduction in memory and cognitive thought and long-term personality changes.
While many characterise loneliness as a "state of feeling along or isolated", the description does not fit with everyones experience. For many, the feeling of loneliness is more often caused by a an inability to relate to those around them, feelings of abandonment or feelings of being misunderstood. These feelings can continue regardless of social interaction. More alarming than this, one study found that loneliness can be contagious. In a ten year long study which examined the effects on a group of people in which some reported long-term feelings of loneliness, results indicated that people close to someone experiencing loneliness were 52% more likely to become lonely as well. Additional studies have found that people who consider themselves creative thinkers have a much higher chance of these feelings than people who did not consider themselves creative thinkers.
We see the world differently
By definition, a creative thinker is able to see things differently to most. We have spent so much of our time trying to train our brains to think beyond what is presented to use to allow us to excel in our field that it often bleeds through into other parts of our lives. While this is a great skill to have while trying to find a new creative way to present a clients new product or to create a thought provoking piece, this is not always useful in all aspects of life. When a person has spent so long encouraging themselves to see situations in a way others do not, it can become a challenge to find people you relate to because of this outlook. In creatives I spoke to, many said this created a sense of isolation from those around them.
It comes with the job
For most, being alone is a necessary part of the creation process. In most creative fields, creating something is usually a solo exercise which requires full immersion to execute. When you consider this in parallel with the working situation for most creatives, it is easy to see how this can be a huge contributor to feeling alone. There are an approximate 33,000 registered creative agencies in the United Kingdom with a figure of creatives approximately 20 times that. Due to this top heavy ratio in supply vs demand for creatives, the vast majority of creatives work as freelancers, working alone to find work.
A heightened sense of feeling
Let's be honest, us creative folks can be without a doubt sensitive sausages at times. In order to think creatively we need to have a strong sense of feeling and be open to our emotions to create work that will resonate with people. Wether you are a designer, an artists, a photographer, performer, musician or anything in between. This is one thing we all have in common. While I believe that this is the reason why some of the creatives I have worked with throughout the years have been some of the most kind and genuinely lovely people I have ever met, it also means that whatever we may feel, we feel a lot. Although everyone is susceptible to feelings of loneliness or negative feelings in general, being more "in touch" with our emotions creates a heightened sense of feeling and related effects to them in most creatives.
What can I do?
Keep the circle small
As a younger man, I felt like the measure of my happiness was the amount of people around me who would call me a friend. Growing up in the days of Myspace and MSN, friendship was less about meaningful relationships and more a game of Pokemon with human. The goal being to "catch them all" and have the largest number of friends on a profile. This for many was the measure of our worth and popularity. While this may work for some people, for most the end result of this is the "Too many voices, too few ears" effect (blog about this on it's way soon), in which people find it much harder to find meaningful connections around them as they find themselves surrounded by more people.
Instead, I have found a focus on the quality of those around me rather than the quantity provided a much better sense of contentment and positive influence on my mental health. Finding a friend who you can relate to, sees value in your presence and emits genuine care for your being is not just rare but should be treat like gold dust. While everyone will meet a great many people through their journeys in life, it is important to understand the difference between the many and the rare few that provide a meaningful part of your life. Identify these people, nurture and protect those friendship and you will have an ally against your own feelings of isolation.
There has been a huge increase in the rise of co-working and co-living spaces in the last decade. For the solo creative, these often provide fantastic opportunities for freelancers and consultants to meet other people who are experiencing there own similar journeys, find new opportunities to collaborate and help to build communities or creatives and entrepreneurs. With brands such as WeWork and similar opening new co-working spaces in cities across the globe, these provide great platforms for creatives looking for similar minded people.
Although it may seem like a more dramatic leap, co-living can also be a very positive change for those who are particularly suffering with feelings of isolation. Most cities offer co-living (sometimes these are even partnered with co-working spaces) for like minded people to share a living space and support each other on their journeys. This will obviously be accompany by a huge lifestyle change but, depending on how strong the negative effects of loneliness you may be facing are, this is a great way to surround yourself with individuals who will likely understand and support you with this. Regardless of where you live, a quick search online will usually provide you with a number of options for both co-working and co-living if you feel like this is the right move for you.
Stop, collaborate and listen
Yes, I may have just quoted Vanilla Ice but that does not make this point any less poignant. If you are starting to feel the effects of loneliness as a creating, stop and take time to look after your mental health. Most creatives I know are over-workers by design and find the idea of taking time away from what they do sacrilege but, in most cases, you will likely push yourself forward only to the detriment of your mental health and often your work quality. Collaborate with others whenever the opportunity may arise. Working as a creative can often be a solo experience but, if you look for it, there are often a huge variety of opportunities to collaborate on projects. This offers a create platform to meet new people, learn from other creatives and possible impart some knowledge yourself. Even if no opportunities present themselves right now, listen to what is going on around you. Be an active part of your local creative community, show interest in the work of others and opportunities will be much more likely to present themselves.
Join online communities
Thanks to the internet, we are no longer limited by locality. A quick search online will provide a huge list of online groups for creatives to meet and collaborate. Through platforms like Slack, Discord and even social media, there are a wide variety of groups of like minded people online who, in most cases, are always happy to find another creative to join their community. I have found a great deal of very supportive individuals through discord and slack in particular.
On the other hand
While this all sounds rather negative, it is worth considering the quote by Virginia Woolf at the start of this article. For many, loneliness is one of the driving forces of creativity and not just a by-product of it. The feeling is natural in many creatives and not something to be afraid of, it has given us some of the most amazing creative works. Like all things in life, the focus should be on balance. Finding the point where you are able to create what you need to create but managing any negative effects. They may say art is suffering, however, I believe that everyone can find a way to create and still keep themselves feeling healthy. The responsibility is on ourselves to manage this balance.