Loneliness—the sense of isolation and alienation from society—has always been a part of the human condition, much discussed by philosophers and theologians. In the past few years, however, loneliness has garnered increasing political interest and has been framed as a significant social problem. In October of last year, Theresa May’s government, inspired by the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness, announced a national strategy designed to tackle the epidemic of loneliness in Britain. The proposals included appointing a minister for loneliness to oversee strategy and allowing GPs to offer social prescriptions, such as cookery classes, walking clubs and art groups, to lonely patients, to help tackle the feeling of isolation.
Historically, loneliness has usually been associated with the elderly, often portrayed as sad, excluded and abandoned by their families and communities. However, younger people are increasingly seen as the new face of loneliness. The Office for National Statistics has reported that sixteen- to twenty-four-year-olds “reported feeling lonely more often than those in older age groups.” The study even suggests that older people are more “resilient” to worries and fears about loneliness and that such feelings decline with age.
The language used in this debate is often superficial and intensely medicalised, which follows a trend of framing profound social problems and existential experiences in quasi-scientific terms in the hope of finding quick solutions. Loneliness is frequently described as an epidemic and a public health concern, as if it were a contagion that must be contained. All sorts of claims have been made about the links between loneliness and health problems, such as higher blood pressure, reduced lifespan and lower cognitive ability, hence the frequent analogies with obesity and smoking. Scientists are supposedly even designing a pill to cure loneliness.
This is absolute folly. There is no doubt that many people are lonely and the experience can cause tremendous anguish, but it is wrong to talk about loneliness as if it were a new social development or to compare it to a behaviour that causes as much harm to our health as smoking twenty cigarettes a day. Loneliness is an intensely personal experience, which most of us struggle to understand and come to terms with, which is why one must always be sceptical of attempts to turn these existential feelings and emotions into a quantifiable set of things that can be measured. As anyone who has gone to a party or social gathering and felt completely isolated from the group surrounding them will concur, loneliness is as much a mental disposition as a physical separation from people.
The current politicised discussions around loneliness reflect social anxieties about the atomisation of society, the breakdown of community, the fragmentation of social and national solidarities and the growth of a ruthless cut-throat individualism, which benefits the greedy and selfish few at the expense of the many, who are condemned to lives of disappointment and isolated alienation.
Indeed, we lead more individuated existences than ever before. For most of human history, people lived communally, cheek by jowl with their extended families and local communities. But urbanisation, the rise of capitalism and the birth of modern industrial societies caused these old communal structures to disintegrate, reorganised family relations and broke what Karl Marx calls the “umbilical cord of the primordial community.”
Many societies in recent decades, particularly in developed countries, are going through massive social and cultural changes. For the first time in human history, increasing numbers of people are living on their own and settling for singledom. The number of single-person households in Britain has risen by 16% to 7.7 million over the two decades from 1997 to 2017. This number is projected to hit 10.7 million by 2039, according to recent data from the Office for National Statistics. Similarly, in the United States there are 35.7 million single-person households, comprising 28% of all households. In 1960, single-person households represented only 13% of all households.
However, I don’t think these developments should be viewed as negative. Too often, we conflate living alone with social isolation and, for a long time, a stigma has been attached to those who live alone, particularly women, as social failures, who are either to be pitied or condemned for refusing to grow up, get married and start a family. People who are more ecologically inclined lament the rise of single-person households because it requires more space and resources to house people in their own individual dwellings, instead of with family or roommates, which lessens efficiency and increases the environmental impact.
Nevertheless, a distinction ought to be made between loneliness and solitude. Solitude is simply the state of being alone, while loneliness is a feeling of sadness and alienation because one feels isolated and has no friends or companions. As Paul Tillich once stated: “Loneliness expresses the pain of being alone and solitude expresses the glory of being alone.” The real value in solitude is that it is an opportunity for contemplation, self-reflection and self-discovery, or, as Hannah Arendt once put it, a chance to have a “silent dialogue of myself with myself.” For Arendt, solitude was not the same thing as loneliness: “though alone, I am together with somebody (myself) that is.” Being able to be alone and confident in oneself is a prerequisite to being able to socialise with others and connect with a wider community. How can we hold meaningful conversations with others if we can’t do so with ourselves?
Likewise, living alone, or simply having a room of one’s own, as Virginia Woolf famously suggested, can very much help in this quest. It can provide a sphere in which you can carve out your own total autonomy, create a sanctuary decorated to your own tastes over which you have complete sovereignty, a haven of comfort and freedom away from external pressures and control: a place where you can be free from the demands of the community and everyday life, free to be yourself and think about your existence, your seemingly insignificant place in the world and how you can create meaning for yourself.
Loneliness isn’t a disease that can be cured by a special pill designed by scientists. It is a part of the human experience that we will all have to confront at some point in our lives and to medicalise it is not only to deaden and dull what can be a valuable experience, but to mystify an experience that doesn’t have a cure. It is only by creating meaning and harnessing the creative value in solitude that we can confront loneliness effectively.