Loneliness – The great Emptiness


Anne-Sophie Keller, Ralf Kaminski



Director Ivan Engler looking through a window

They are in the thick of it, yet they feel alone: four people suffering from loneliness talk about how they deal with it. Roger Staub, Managing Director of the Pro Mente Sana Foundation, explains in addition why it is so important to fight against this common illness.

Ivan Engler in truth has everything you need to be happy. He is a good-looking director in a loving relationship with a well-established, large circle of friends and acquaintances. The man from Winterthur does not lack for external recognition and affirmation, either. Yet there are times when all this is, quite simply, irrelevant. 

«I doubt myself a lot. I feel so alone and question everything. Do I still have any friends? Do I want their company? Have they anything to say to me? Do they think I'm an OK person? At such moments I feel very afraid,» admits the 49-year-old. The colder coronavirus days in autumn then led to him developing symptoms of depression: «I woke up some mornings and cried.» 

Yet loneliness is also an ally and a muse for Engler: «Only when I'm alone in the room can I write. My figures come to life and become part of my circle thanks to being on my own.» But that gnawing, cold, empty feeling is sometimes difficult to cope with. «In these times, when we are linked to each other virtually to such a degree, the feeling can sometimes seemingly be banished, through the affirmation that seems to come with a few "likes". But it's just not genuine.»

A third of the population often feels lonely

Ivan Engler is the only one who is prepared to be named here. The stigma of loneliness is still great: it's only losers that feel lonely. The ones that don't have any friends and don't "belong" - so the prejudice runs. However, studies show that a third of the Swiss population often feels lonely. It is not easy to overcome this feeling. «It takes empathy from the people around you,» says Engler. «Or else you need an anchor - for many that could be religion, walks in the countryside or a pet.» 

Engler describes himself as a doer. If he is feeling bad, he bakes a cake and then asks on Facebook if anyone would like to come round and collect a piece. «By easing the loneliness that others are feeling, I ease my own. Sharing your fears can help.» 

Y. S. from Schaffhausen has had a similar experience: «I agonised about it for a long time, thinking I was the only one feeling this way.» The 23-year-old often felt very lonely, even as a teenager. «But I couldn't talk to any of the people around me about it.» It was only when a colleague admitted having similar feelings to him that he realised he was not alone in this. «And at that moment I realised there are some things I can change.» 

Working with a psychologist, Y.S. was able to find a healthy approach to dealing with his emotions. It started with trying to better understand what was at the root of this feeling. «I was a late addition to the family - and I was the centre of attention. I got so much love and attention that I never had to learn to be self-sufficient.» Whereas before he had fought against loneliness, these days he is able to accept this feeling is there. 

In a second step in his therapy he learnt coping strategies: «Every evening I record what was good or memorable about the day. I ask myself what gave me pleasure and what made me stronger.»

Sleeping on it often helps

In moments like these it becomes clear to him that the loneliness is mostly playing out in his head: «It helps to remain objective. So that's when I think: I have parents who are there for me. I have colleagues nearby that I can go and see. And that I chose to live on my own.» 

If that doesn't do anything for him, then it can help simply to sleep on it: «Things generally look better the next day. If I am rested, I am less vulnerable to negative feelings.» 

Would having a partner help? «For a long time I thought that the bad feelings are bound to go away if you have a partner. But you can feel very lonely in a relationship, too.»

Initiatives to combat loneliness

Migros Culture Percentage promotes the coming together of people: it brings together people from the same area to cook in company, to tell each other stories or visit a museum with a companion. 

Tavolata: Over 500 groups throughout Switzerland meet up regularly to cook and eat together. Many are happy for guests to dine with them and they welcome new members. Simply contact a Tavolata group near you.  

Attending a storytelling café is a good opportunity to get to know new people. A colourful mix of people come together to tell stories of their life experiences and share thoughts and memories. Every story will be heard! 

Tandem at the Museum (TaM) is aimed at all who like visiting a museum – preferably with a companion. Anyone interested should contact one of 35 TaM guides throughout Switzerland.  

Men and women who have had to flee their home countries can come into contact with their new fellow citzens through conTAKT-museum.ch. On a joint visit to a museum, people from different cultures get to know and understand each other. 

Various corona containment measures, such as the wearing of masks and limited group numbers, will apply at the event locations. 


Alone in company. C.W. from Zurich knows this feeling well. The 25-year-old student works as a teacher and has been in a relationship for many years now. She spends her whole day surrounded by people and is anything other than on her own. But it is precisely this feeling that haunts her. «There are days when I just cry like a baby.» 

She feels lonely when she feels she is misunderstood: «If I get the feeling the other person doesn't understand my concerns or fears, then I feel that I must not be genuine. That's like being stabbed in the heart,» is how she describes it.

Even though these moments are incredibly emotional, she also senses a great emptiness and retreats into her shell. As a child, situations like this would pull the rug from under her feet - today she is better able to filter these feelings: «It's fine at work, but I still find it difficult in relationships. And I also don't want to let go of things that affect me deeply.» 

She finds it difficult to accept the feeling of loneliness and to talk about it. «But not talking about it only causes the loneliness to grow. It's a vicious circle.» C.W. wants mental health to be an issue that is taken even more seriously by society. «Mental health plays an essential role in our well-being. That's become even more apparent during the coronavirus crisis: social contact helps to preserve our mental health.» 

In addition, she would like to see greater solidarity between people: «We maintain close relationships within our families and circles of friends, but not when it comes to our neighbours, unfortunately.» For one thing is clear: it's a given that those neighbours across the way feel lonely from time to time, too. 

«For me, the time I spend on my own seems like lost time. I can't even bring myself to cook something - or enjoy a quiet weekend in,» explains O.S, aged 27 and from Zurich. «There's a stigma attached to going to a concert on your own. Oh, so you couldn't find someone? No mates, eh? Being on your own is seen as something very negative,» he says.

Little steps count for a lot

He, too, is in a relationship and has a good job. The fact that he lives in a city, surrounded by people, is not necessarily an advantage in his view: «You often get the feeling you're missing out on something. Two weeks ago I wanted to have a quiet weekend and spent Saturday night home alone. I didn't know what to do with myself.» Suddenly, time slowed almost to a halt. «I became restless, but also passive at the same time,» he recounts. 

At moments like that, little steps count for a lot, he says: «For example, rousing myself to cook a proper meal for myself.» Recognising that it's fine to do things on your own is a process that will take some time to bed down. «But just to accept that I'm still not at the point I want to be has helped me. And that it's OK to give myself the time I need.»

Portrait of Roger Staub, Managing Director of the Pro Mente Sana Foundation

Roger Staub (63) is Managing Director of the Pro Mente Sana Foundation

«As unhealthy as drinking, smoking and being overweight all at once»

Roger Staub, one in three people in Switzerland feel lonely, sometimes or often; the young and old and migrants are particularly affected by this. That sounds like a lot of people ... 

... we think that, too. All the more since Switzerland is one of the richest and most contented countries in the world. And the life expectancy of someone suffering from loneliness is 10 to 20 years lower. Being lonely is as bad for health as drinking, smoking and being overweight all at once. 

How come there are so many lonely people? 

In recent years their numbers have clearly grown. One important reason is our achievement-oriented society. Only someone who has a job can have a place in it - and either you perform or you're weak. The young, the old, migrants or those on the periphery can very quickly feel isolated in that sort of set-up. Increased individualism and the trend toward self-realisation are also not helpful, as they bolster egotism - which can, on the one hand, leave you lonely; and on the other, reduce your capacity to empathise with others. And about 1.3 million people are currently living in a single household in Switzerland, with the trend on the increase. That increases the risk of becoming lonely, if there's a lack of social contact or it's made more difficult because of external circumstances. 

Has the coronavirus amplified the problem? 

Without a doubt. Some went into isolation because they really are afraid of the virus. Others took the «social distancing» and «stay at home!» messaging from the authorities too literally. Many did as they were told and became lonely - when the point was, they should be avoiding large gatherings of people and keeping a safe distance generally.  

Do those that were already lonely feel a bit better because many more people are now in the same boat? 

A case of: if everyone's suffering, I won't suffer as much? No, I don't think so. But there are certain psychological effects: nobody has to worry they're missing out on something exciting because, quite simply, nothing's happening. So they can stay at home, stay calm and read a book. 

Is the coronavirus making Advent easier for lonely people? 

Perhaps it's a bit more bearable for some this year, because most other people can't meet up with family and friends as usual. But the cold, dark months get many people down anyway. The best Christmas present this year would be to contact people who are in a bad place. Lonely people, especially, get a boost if you talk to them and show an interest in them. 

But people who lead busy, seemingly successful lives sometimes feel lonely. How does that come about? 

It could be someone who thinks they are not getting the attention and appreciation they deserve: they may feel lonely. Or someone who believes their opinions and feelings are misunderstood. It seems to me that self-esteem plays a critical role here - the more people like themselves, the more solid the basis is for their mental health. 

What can you do if you feel really lonely? 

Tell yourself to contact someone - a relative, a colleague, a friend - and follow through on it. If you really have no one, I would recommend a self-help group or psychological counselling. It's hard to go to a club or other type of meeting, because it is a massive challenge to go by yourself to a place where everyone knows each other. But perhaps you can find someone who'll go with you? 

What could society do to make things better? 

It could promote greater integration and inclusion, for example, more multi-generational homes; or the building of retirement/care homes in the centre of towns, not on the edge. It could promote social cohesion as the opposing model to self-realisation. It is difficult to be happy on your own, no matter how successful you may have been in life. Together is always better and more fun. 


Pro Mente Sana offers counselling on Tel. 0848 800 858 or through promentesana.ch. Support can also be sought frominclousiv.ch.

Photo/stage: Mali Lazell