- Loneliness is complex. It is not something we have, not something of which we are victims.
- Loneliness concerns the quality of our bonds to others and their mutuality.
- An estrangement from situations and others is often involved—experiences of not belonging or powerlessness.
“It surprises me how much easier it is to tell someone that you are depressed than to say that you are lonely at Harvard.”
So begins a poignant article by then-student, Andrew D. Kim, appearing in the Harvard student newspaper in 2014.1 Depression is easier to talk about, Kim argues, because it “is a recognized illness with a biological basis.” The liberally minded, at least, “understand that the depressed are victims rather than makers of their misfortune.”
Loneliness, by contrast, does not enjoy this objective status. Nor, Kim notes, does it “benefit from the same sympathetic perspective of victimhood.” Loneliness, which “cannot yet be attributed to brain chemistry,” is often perceived instead as “a social dysfunction of one’s own invention.” It is rarely raised as a personal issue, he continues, because the “unspoken assumption” is “that if you are lonely, then you must be unlikeable or socially maladapted.” Consequently, students are afraid to be honest and bury themselves in a fruitless busyness “to drive the emptiness away.”
The trouble with loneliness, in other words, is that subjective experience cannot be eliminated. Talking about a disorder like depression transforms feelings into something more physical, something you have, or perhaps more accurately, something that has you. The personal difficulties I am struggling with and the beliefs that shape my emotional experience disappear, replaced by the abstract it of depression, a malignant external force.2
But Kim does not have loneliness. He is lonely. Without the cover of a disorder category, he is exposed as a person who feels emotional distress. His active relatedness to the world and his painful experience cannot be hidden. His “confessions of loneliness” leave him open to judgments of inadequacy. It is so much safer to be considered a “victim” of depression. Then, all this human messiness disappears from the conversation.
In the years since Kim wrote, loneliness has become a hot topic of public concern. We are now faced, we are told, with nothing less than an “epidemic of loneliness.”
U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy recently revisited the subject in the New York Times, referring to it, as he has before, as a medical concern, a “public health” problem characterized by an absence of “healthy relationships.” Loneliness, for Murthy, is something people often bring on themselves, as he illustrates with both his own experience and that of a friend. It can be addressed by simple choices to “prioritize human connection.” His tick-box recommendations for success: strengthen existing programs “that bring people together,” use our devices less, and “reach out to people we care about” more.
It’s a familiar list, often repeated. Loneliness, in this scheme, is a lack of social interaction. But people like Kim are rightly wary of this reduction. They know that many outgoing people with active social lives are lonely. Where in our society is human connection more prioritized than on college campuses? Yet, despite all their activities and social opportunities, half of undergraduate students in the fall of 2022 scored “positive for loneliness” on the most common measurement scale.3
Kim described his loneliness in various ways. He talked about a lack of “deep, nourishing bonds,” a feeling that “no one truly understands me,” an emptiness and sense of isolation, and the “awful feeling of being encaged” in his own mind. Such characterizations do not suggest a mere lack of social contact or the need for programs “that bring people together.” They suggest an estrangement from others. Not an absence, but a quality, of relations that lack meaningful connection, feel alien, or are non-responsive. Relations, in short, that are “relationless,” that are mute and do not speak.
The element of estrangement stands out in another word that Kim uses for loneliness: alienation. Alienation, though not synonymous, is a helpful concept for thinking about the personal experience of loneliness because it can be defined only in relation to specific contexts or social expectations—to what a person is alienated from. Rather than another abstraction, it can direct our attention to the ways in which people feel disconnected from their social worlds.
Among the possible forms of personal alienation that might relate to loneliness, three feelings stand out: homelessness, insecurity, and powerlessness.
By homeless, I don’t mean a physical condition—being homeless—but a sense of not belonging. Disconnection, for instance, might follow a loss of meaningful others and accompany grief or homesickness or health challenges that restrict interaction. It might reflect a detachment from a situation or community, such as when we do not share the values or goals that are highly regarded by those around us. We might feel homeless when we do not feel respected, or our abilities or accomplishments valued. A sense of disconnection might also arise from a marginalization enforced by others, as when our “type” is disfavored, or we have been singled out and ostracized.
By insecurity, I mean not a lack of confidence or a feeling of anxiety but a distressing awareness of the tenuousness or superficiality of our social relations. The lack of depth and satisfaction may be especially felt in educational and professional settings, which can be highly competitive and where rewards hinge on carefully orchestrated presentations of self. Rather than being cultivated toward genuine friendship, associations are developed for such networking purposes as enhancing prestige or climbing ladders. Rather than being open and honest, relations are characterized by diffuse distrust, invidious comparisons, and mask-wearing. There is an enforced aloneness when no one can afford to be vulnerable.
Finally, by powerless, I mean not so much the inability to control situations, as a perceived lack of self-efficacy to make meaningful bonds. Much in our world is unstable, precarious, unpredictable. The few remaining rules of conduct tend to be negative: what not to do. Lack of guidance and sheer self-protection can lead to a closing off from others. Retreating into ourselves, we may find, to quote Alexis de Tocqueville, confined “in the solitude of [our] own heart.” A truly responsive relationship, one in which both parties speak with their own voice, may seem unattainable. We may doubt not only our ability to reach another person but our ability to make an accommodating response should they be touched or affected by us.
Loneliness, in short, is complex. It defies the language of victimization, on the one hand, and the reduction to merely quantitative terms, on the other. At stake is often an estrangement from our surroundings that is neither external to us nor a matter of the number of people with whom we might interact. Loneliness concerns the quality of our relations, their mutuality, the ways in which they speak or fail to speak to us. If we want to understand loneliness, this is where we have to look.
Facebook/LinkedIn image: NoemiEscribano/Shutterstock
Thanks to Harvard psychologist Richard McNally for bringing this article to my attention.
2. On the distinction between having and being, see Erich Fromm, To Have or To Be? New York: Continuum  2004.
3. American College Health Association. ACHA-NCHA III: Undergraduate Student Reference Group Executive Summary Fall 2022. Silver Spring, MD: ACHA, 2023.