According to a recent study, many people prefer to give themselves a mild electric shock than to sit in a room alone with their own thoughts.
Loneliness can be defined as a complex and unpleasant emotional response to isolation or lack of companionship. It can be either transient or chronic, and typically includes anxiety about a lack of connectedness or communality. The pain of loneliness is such that, throughout history, solitary confinement has been used as a form of torture and punishment.
More than just painful, loneliness is also damaging. Lonely people eat and drink more, and exercise and sleep less. They are at higher risk of developing psychological problems such as alcoholism, depression, and psychosis, and physical problems such as infection, cancer, and cardiovascular disease.
Loneliness has been described as 'social pain'. Just as physical pain has evolved to signal injury and forestall further injury, so loneliness may have evolved to signal social isolation and stimulate us to seek out social bonds. Human beings are profoundly social animals, and depend on their social group not only for sustenance and protection but also for identity, narrative, and meaning. Historically and still today, to be alone is to be in mortal danger of losing oneself.
The infant is especially vulnerable and dependent, and loneliness may evoke early fears of helplessness and abandonment. In later life, loneliness can be precipitated by the loss of any important long-term relationship. Such a split entails not only the loss of a single meaningful person, but also, in many cases, of that person’s entire social circle. Loneliness can also result from disruptive life events, including even joyous ones such as getting married or giving birth; from social problems such as racism or bullying; from psychological states such as shyness, agoraphobia, or depression; and from physical problems that restrict mobility or require special care.
Loneliness is a particular problem of industrial societies. It affects all segments of society, but is most prevalent and protracted in the elderly. According to a poll carried out in 2017 for the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness, three-quarters of older people in the U.K. are lonely, and more than half of those have never spoken to anyone about how they feel. A full 39 percent of respondents agreed with the statement that ‘sometimes an entire day goes past and I haven’t spoken to anybody’. These stark findings may be explained by such factors as smaller household sizes, greater migration, higher media consumption, and longer life expectancy. Large conglomerations built on productivity and consumption at the expense of connection and contemplation can feel profoundly alienating. The Internet has become the great comforter, and seems to offer it all: news, knowledge, music, entertainment, shopping, relationships, and even sex. But over time, it stokes envy and longing, confuses our needs and priorities, desensitizes us to violence and suffering, and, by creating a false sense of connectedness, entrenches superficial relationships at the cost of living ones. Man has evolved over several millennia into one of the most social and interconnected of all animals. Suddenly, he finds himself apart and alone, not on a mountaintop, in a desert, or on a raft at sea, but in a city of men, in reach but out of touch. For the first time in human history, he has no material need, and therefore no pretext, to interact and form attachments with his fellow men.
We tend to think of lonely people as single people, confusing people who are lonely with people who are alone, and people who are alone with people who are single. But people who are single are not necessarily alone, and people who are alone are not necessarily lonely. Conversely, it is possible and even common to feel at our loneliest when completely surrounded by partner, friends, and family. Based on extensive research, Bella DePaulo of the University of California has argued that, in aggregate, single people are in fact more sociable, self-sufficient, and fulfilled than married people despite the disadvantages and discrimination that they are made to suffer. Many people choose to remain single, and some even choose to isolate themselves, or, at least, not to actively seek out social interaction. Such ‘loners’—the very term is pejorative, implying as it does abnormality and deviousness—may revel in a rich inner life or simply dislike or distrust the company of others, which, they feel, comes with more costs than benefits.
Timon of Athens, who lived at around the same time as Plato, began life in wealth, lavishing money upon his flattering friends, and, in accordance with his noble conception of friendship, never expecting anything in return. When he came down to his last drachma, all his friends deserted him, reducing him to the hard toil of laboring the fields. One day, as he tilled the earth, he uncovered a pot of gold, and all his old friends came tumbling back. But rather than welcome them with open arms, he cursed them and drove them away with sticks and clods of earth. He publically declared his hatred of mankind and withdrew into the forest, where, much to his chagrin, people sought him out as some kind of holy man. Did Timon feel lonely in the forest? Probably not, because he did not believe that he lacked for anything: as he no longer valued his friends or their companionship, he could not have desired or missed them—even though he may have pined for a better class of man and, in that limited sense, felt lonely.
Broadly speaking, loneliness is not so much an objective state of affairs as a subjective state of mind, a function of desired and achieved levels of social interaction and also of type or types of interaction. Lovers often feel lonely in the single absence of their beloved, even when completely surrounded by friends and family. Jilted lovers feel much lonelier than lovers who are merely apart from their beloved, indicating that loneliness is not merely a matter of interaction, but also of the potential for or possibility of interaction. Conversely, it is common to feel lonely within a marriage because the relationship is no longer validating or nurturing us but diminishing us and holding us back. As the writer Anton Chekov warned, 'If you are afraid of loneliness, do not marry.' More often than not, marriage results not merely or even mostly from a desire for the permanent companionship of a single person, but also and above all from an urge to flee from our lifelong loneliness and escape from our inescapable demons.
Ultimately, loneliness is not the experience of lacking but the experience of living. It is part and parcel of the human condition, and, unless a person is resolved, it can only be a matter of time before it resurfaces, often with a vengeance. On this account, loneliness is the manifestation of the conflict between our desire for meaning and the absence of meaning from the universe, an absence that is all the more glaring in modern societies which have sacrificed traditional and religious structures of meaning on the thin altar of truth.
So much explains why people with a strong sense of purpose and meaning, or simply with a strong narrative, such as Nelson Mandela or St Anthony of the Desert, are largely protected from loneliness regardless of the circumstances in which they might find themselves. St Anthony sought out loneliness precisely because he understood that it could bring him closer to the real questions and value of life. He spent 15 years in a tomb and 20 years in an abandoned fort in the desert before his devotees persuaded him to withdraw from his seclusion to instruct and organize them, whence his epithet, 'Father of All Monks' ('monk' and 'monastery' derive from the Greek monos, 'alone'). Anthony emerged from the fort not ill and emaciated, as everyone had been expecting, but healthy and radiant, and lived on to the grand old age of 105, which in the 4th century must in itself have counted as a minor miracle.
St Anthony did not lead a life of loneliness but one of solitude. Loneliness is the pain of being alone, and is damaging. Solitude is the joy of being alone, and is empowering. Our unconscious requires solitude to process and unravel problems, so much so that our body imposes it upon us each night in the form of sleep. During the daytime, certain people can deliver themselves from the oppression of others by entering into a trance state. This practice tends to be more common in traditional societies, although I have on occasion witnessed it in some of my patients. By removing us from the distractions, constraints, and opinions imposed upon us by others, solitude frees us to reconnect with ourselves and with the world and to generate ideas and meaning. For Nietzsche, men without the aptitude or opportunity for solitude are mere slaves because they have no alternative but to parrot culture and society. In contrast, anyone who has unmasked society naturally seeks out solitude, which becomes the source and guarantor of a more authentic set of values and ambitions:
I go into solitude so as not to drink out of everybody’s cistern. When I am among the many I live as the many do, and I do not think I really think. After a time it always seems as if they want to banish my self from myself and rob me of my soul.
Solitude removes us from the mindless humdrum of everyday life into a higher consciousness which reconnects us with ourselves and our deepest humanity, and also with the natural world, which quickens into our muse and companion. By setting aside dependent emotions and constraining compromises, we free ourselves up for problem solving, creativity, and spirituality. If we can embrace it, this opportunity to adjust and refine our perspectives creates the strength and security for still greater solitude and, in time, the substance and meaning that guards against loneliness.
The life of St Anthony can leave the impression that solitude is at odds with attachment, but this need not be the case so long as the one is not pitted against the other—as, unfortunately, it so often is. For the poet RM Rilke, the highest task of lovers is that each stands guard over the solitude of the other. In Solitude: A Return to the Self (1988), the psychiatrist Anthony Storr convincingly argues that:
The happiest lives are probably those in which neither interpersonal relationships nor impersonal interests are idealized as the only way to salvation. The desire and pursuit of the whole must comprehend both aspects of human nature.
Be this as it may, not everyone is capable of solitude, and for many people, aloneness will never amount to anything more than bitter loneliness. Younger people often find aloneness difficult, while older people are more likely, or less unlikely, to seek it out. So much suggests that solitude, the joy of being alone, stems from, as well as promotes, a state of maturity and inner richness.
Wilson T (2014): Just think: The challenges of the disengaged mind. Science 345(6192), 75–77.
Siddique H (2017): Three-quarters of older people in the UK are lonely, survey finds. Theguardian.com, 21 March 2017.
DePaulo B (2016): What no one ever told you about people who are single. Plenary address to the APA, 5 August 2016.
Chekov A (1921): Note-Book of Anton Chekhov. Trans. SS Koteliansky & Leonard Woolf.
Nietzsche F (1886): Beyond Good and Evil 2, 49. Trans. Helen Zimmern.
Nietzsche F (1881): The Dawn of Day, 491. Trans. John McFarland Kennedy.
Rilke RM (1902): Letter to Paula Modersohn-Becker, dated 12 February 1902. Trans. Jane Bannard Greene & MD Herter Norton.
Storr A (1988): Solitude, p. 202. Flamingo.