The crisis of loneliness

We have never been more connected, or more isolated

Artillery Row

The likelihood of someone in their twenties living alone is now extremely slim, particularly in London. It was already relatively slim when I was that age, although I managed it for three years. This was only possible because, by happenchance, a colleague’s uncle wanted to rent out a few rooms on the ground floor of his house. The rooms were relatively self-contained, but you couldn’t call it a flat – and hence, the rent was just about affordable. 

That little network of streets had plenty of well-tended flora and fauna

I spent some particularly satisfying years in that property. After too many years had been spent on a chaotically misspent youth, to say I welcomed having peace and order in my home environment would be an understatement. A regular highlight was making a large pot of tea on a Saturday morning and spending a few hours reading in a particularly sunny and spacious room, before deciding what to do that afternoon. 

More specific highlights include a neighbour calling over his fence through my open window to offer me a jar of honey he’d just spun from the beehive in his garden. It was central London, but that little network of streets had plenty of well-tended flora and fauna. I could taste the different flowers in the fresh honey, it was mindblowing. My colleague’s uncle was quite elderly, and occasionally invited me to a Sunday roast up in his quarters with similarly geriatric characters he’d invited over after church. Another neighbour asked me to look after their two new kittens when they went on holiday. Just a few months previously, my friends wouldn’t have considered me capable of looking after a pot-plant. 

It’s curious that, while today fewer and fewer are going to live alone, public fears about a loneliness epidemic are likely only to increase. It’s less curious when you consider that solitude and loneliness are not the same thing, and that they can even be considered opposites. Put bluntly, some of the loneliest times people experience are those hours spent in the company of others with whom they can’t connect. Solitude, by contrast, is restorative; something that enables meaningful connection. This is best summarised by the poet Marianne Moore, ‘the cure for loneliness is solitude’. 

The problem thus tends to be medicalised, meaning mitigations are prescribed

The crisis of loneliness often makes the headlines because of its medical impact. Last week, the US Surgeon General compared the phenomenon of widespread loneliness to public health threats like tobacco, drug use, and obesity. The stats make for grim reading – many negative health outcomes are more common in people who feel lonely, even heart conditions and stroke. Neuroscientists now claim that feelings of loneliness in the elderly are sometimes a development of dementia – not just a predictor, but an early symptom of the condition itself.

The problem thus tends to be medicalised, meaning mitigations are prescribed. Solutions are usually less concrete than giving-up smoking or counting calories, though. The Surgeon General’s announcement encouraged the US population actively to seek out contact. In the UK, there have been more specific initiatives, like doctors prescribing that their lonely patients join clubs or interest groups. 

Some interrogate the phenomenon more deeply,  arguing that profound societal changes are at the root of the problem. The term ‘loneliness’ with today’s negative associations only becomes recognisable from around 1800. Before then, to be ‘lonely’ simply meant to be ‘alone’ – a neutral term, like ‘solitary’. Robinson Crusoe spends 28 years profoundly isolated on a desert island, but the 1719 novel doesn’t reference loneliness even once. 

The culprits are therefore predictable: industrialisation uprooting communal life, increasing atomisation and alienation, and the decline of religiosity. It seems logical to claim that, those for whom God is a given fact of life should never feel alone, nor find the world an entirely lonely, meaningless place. 

Given the massive acceleration of the problem in the last two decades, another predictable culprit is obvious: digital technology. It is hinted at by the Surgeon General’s commendation to ‘listen and be present during conversations’. Notwithstanding the obviousness of technology’s role in the crisis, however, it is still paradoxical that living in a permanent state of continual connectedness fosters profoundly diminished capacities of connecting to others in ways which enable flourishing lives.   

Many people make loneliness also about “structural injustice”

Those three years I lived alone were just before smart phones and social media took over. Saturday mornings with a pot of tea were genuinely solitary – unless I tried some stilted old-style texting, or called someone on the landline I shared with the colleague’s uncle. The neighbours I befriended had not already encountered some mediated and sanitised version of myself through photos taken on holiday last summer; or worse, tried to make sense of tweets for which they were really, really, not the target audience. Mutual disclosures were spontaneous and natural, much like the happenchance that had led me to live in the property in the first place.  

Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City brilliantly relates the urban experience of feeling acutely lonely while living in intense proximity to countless others, and this experience is now widespread thanks to technology. 

There are obvious ways by which loneliness can be aided through online connections. But the fact remains that ‘digital communities’ are nearly always self-chosen, relative to what one chooses to self-identify as, and so replace the happenchance of pre-digital communities with perceived and isolated commonalities – shared characteristics and interests. 

Loneliness is a societal sickness – and few people occupying my position on the political spectrum can resist another reason to rail against atomisation, industrialisation, and the decline of religiosity. But what Laing and others don’t seem to notice is that another feature of discussions of societal loneliness involves something that perpetuates precisely the problem presented by technology: connecting with others on the basis of isolated and specific commonalities, and not happenchance.  

That is, many people make loneliness also about “structural injustice” and “forces of stigma and exclusion”. This soon turns to forging solidarities based on shared characteristics and the mutual interest of tackling a perceived injustice. But my beekeeping neighbour and I had almost nothing in common except the happenchance of living in adjacent houses, and it’s grossly wrongheaded to reduce his gift of freshly-spun honey into a transaction of mutual advantage. 

There’s another paradoxical reality at play here. The fewer shared interests you have with another person can mean that more authentic aspects of individual identity are given the space to shine through. As long as an affinity is based only on some specific shared cause, other aspects of the self are inconsequential and hidden. In short, I can be trusted to look after more than a pot-plant – I just hadn’t happened upon a chance to discover that.    

An alternative approach to reading everything through the lens of injustice is to celebrate happenchance. This includes particularly accidents of birth, often treated today as inherently wrong and unjust, requiring an adjustment of that which is assigned at birth into assignments of one’s choosing. Yet the reason why the cure for loneliness is solitude is also because there is a solitary convergence of particular happenchances belonging exclusively to each individual person – and, paradoxically, therein lies the route to genuinely common life. 

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