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Lessons on Facing Loneliness From Philosophy

Wisdom traditions teach the value of solitude for clarity and peace.

Key points

  • Philosophers reframe solitude as an opportunity for reflection, deep work, relaxation, and growth.
  • Science shows that each mood has its wisdom.
  • Even when it is painful, loneliness can teach us about ourselves.

Virtually everyone in human history has experienced loneliness, and the diverse traditions that reflect their collective wisdom can offer excellent guidance for facing loneliness and living well. While approaches from psychological science challenge loneliness by targeting its psychological and behavioral mechanisms, philosophers negate loneliness by embracing its positives. Reframing isolation as an opportunity for reflection, deep work, relaxation, and growth, philosophers aim to transform loneliness into meaningful solitude.

Wisdom in Solitude

The idea that time alone is valuable has a long history in wisdom traditions. In Petrarch’s view from 1356, solitude is a source of freedom and virtue that “rehabilitates the soul, corrects morals, renews affections, erases blemishes, purges faults, (and) reconciles God and man.” Or, as musical artist Drake echoed 666 years later, “I’ve been losing friends and finding peace. Honestly, that sounds like a fair trade to me.”

Other thinkers have embraced loneliness even with its sharp edges. The Buddhist meditation master Chögyam Trungpa claimed the lonely state of having “nothing around you that you can hang onto” is a window through which to “meet one’s real ego without clothing.”

By Luca Signorelli - Own work Georges Jansoone (JoJan) Taken on 30 April 2008, CC BY-SA 3.0
Petrarch advocated for solitude as a spiritual cleanse.
Source: By Luca Signorelli - Own work Georges Jansoone (JoJan) Taken on 30 April 2008, CC BY-SA 3.0

Nietzsche elevated solitude to political significance as a protector from oppression, writing “Wherever there has been tyranny, there the solitary philosopher has been hated, for philosophy offers an asylum to a man into which no tyranny can force its way.” Hannah Arendt observed that a lonely population is ripe for totalitarian domination. For this reason, dictatorial regimes use ideology to enforce a desperate kind of isolation without solitude. "The self-compulsion of ideological thinking," Arendt wrote, "ruins all relationship with reality."

Importantly, these philosophers are not advocating constant solitude or praising chronic loneliness. They appreciate its value as one element of a good life that also includes family and rich friendships. No matter how philosophically valuable one’s solitude is, too much time without meaningful contact with others will inevitably mutate into a more toxic loneliness. Arendt, again, wrote, "What makes loneliness so unbearable is the loss of one’s own self which can be realised in solitude."

It is also worth mentioning that philosophers may be a class of people who particularly appreciate solitude. It is certainly true that some of us are more prone to loneliness than others; some feel lonely when surrounded by friends, while others feel satisfied despite being objectively isolated.

Science and Philosophy Align

The optimistic philosophies on solitude’s clarifying power are broadly supported by evidence from scientific work. Work examining narratives of solitude showed that many people of all ages feel that being alone can be invaluable as a way to improve one’s competencies and as a reminder of the the value of one’s social connections. In addition, normalizing loneliness can help to find greater joy even amid loneliness.

Used with permission from Amelia Kaveladze
Solitude provides the room to explore the beauty of life beyond social relationships.
Source: Used with permission from Amelia Kaveladze

Moreover, emotion researchers have argued that seeing one’s problems through the bluish tint of loneliness offers a fresh and useful perspective that one might miss in a satisfied emotional state—each mood has its wisdom. Solitude might also be a time to reflect on one’s more and less valued relationships, as a strained relationship causes as much stress as a supportive one brings joy. Finally, meditation has been shown to reduce feelings of loneliness, which may be consistent with the philosophical idea that a calm appreciation of the present moment (rather than desperately reaching for any available interaction) is a wise way to face loneliness.

While psychological science focuses on effective strategies for facing loneliness head-on, philosophy shows us that solitude itself can be a valuable teacher. Together, science and philosophy offer robust guidance for living well in a complex world.

Final Thoughts

Loneliness can be a profoundly heavy burden, but a wealth of scientifically supported and time-tested guidance is available to help confront it effectively. In overcoming loneliness, we can begin to contribute to a less lonely world for others as well.

Part 1 of this series describes the growing global efforts to create a less lonely world. Part 2 introduced the best-supported skills from psychological science for challenging loneliness.

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