The Long History of Loneliness In the West

By Fay Bound Alberti. Originally published at

Contemporary notion of loneliness stems from cultural and economic transformations that have taken place in the modern West

‘God, but life is loneliness,’ declared the writer Sylvia Plath in her private journals. Despite all the grins and smiles we exchange, she says, despite all the opiates we take:

when at last you find someone to whom you feel you can pour out your soul, you stop in shock at the words you utter – they are so rusty, so ugly, so meaningless and feeble from being kept in the small cramped dark inside you so long.

By the 21st century, loneliness has become ubiquitous. Commentators call it ‘an epidemic’, a condition akin to ‘leprosy’, and a ‘silent plague’ of civilisation. In 2018, the United Kingdom went so far as to appoint a Minister for Loneliness. Yet loneliness is not a universal condition; nor is it a purely visceral, internal experience. It is less a single emotion and more a complex cluster of feelings, composed of anger, grief, fear, anxiety, sadness and shame. It also has social and political dimensions, shifting through time according ideas about the self, God and the natural world. Loneliness, in other words, has a history.

The term ‘loneliness’ first crops up in English around 1800. Before then, the closest word was ‘oneliness’, simply the state of being alone. As with solitude – from the Latin ‘solus’ which meant ‘alone’ – ‘oneliness’ was not coloured by any suggestion of emotional lack. Solitude or oneliness was not unhealthy or undesirable, but rather a necessary space for reflection with God, or with one’s deepest thoughts. Since God was always nearby, a person was never truly alone. Skip forward a century or two, however, and the use of ‘loneliness’ – burdened with associations of emptiness and the absence of social connection – has well and truly surpassed oneliness. What happened?

The contemporary notion of loneliness stems from cultural and economic transformations that have taken place in the modern West. Industrialisation, the growth of the consumer economy, the declining influence of religion and the popularity of evolutionary biology all served to emphasise that the individualwas what mattered – not traditional, paternalistic visions of a society in which everyone had a place.

In the 19th century, political philosophers used Charles Darwin’s theories about the ‘survival of the fittest’ to justify the pursuit of individual wealth to Victorians. Scientific medicine, with its emphasis on brain-centred emotions and experiences, and the classification of the body into ‘normal’ and abnormal states, underlined this shift. The four humours (phlegmatic, sanguine, choleric, melancholic) that had dominated Western medicine for 2,000 years and made people into ‘types’, fell away in favour of a new model of health dependent on the physical, individual body.

In the 20th century, the new sciences of the mind – especially psychiatry and psychology – took centre-stage in defining the healthy and unhealthy emotions an individual should experience. Carl Jung was the first to identify ‘introvert’ and ‘extravert’ personalities (to use the original spelling) in his Psychological Types (1921). Introversion became associated with neuroticism and loneliness, while extroversion was linked to sociability, gregariousness and self-reliance. In the US, these ideas took on special significance as they were linked to individual qualities associated with self-improvement, independence and the go-getting American dream.

The negative associations of introversion help to explain why loneliness now carries such social stigma. Lonely people seldom want to admit they are lonely. While loneliness can create , lonely people have also been subjects of contempt; those with strong social networks often avoid the lonely. It is almost as though loneliness were contagious, like the diseases with which it is now compared. When we use the language of a modern epidemic, we contribute to a moral panic about loneliness that can aggravate the underlying problem. Presuming that loneliness is a widespread but fundamentally individual affliction will make it nearly impossible to address.

For centuries, writers have recognised the relationship between mental health and belonging to a community. Serving society was another way to serve the individual – because, as the poet Alexander Pope put it in hisAnEssay on Man (1734): ‘True self-love and social are the same’. It’s not surprising, then, to find that loneliness serves a physiological and social function, as the late neuroscientist John Cacioppo argued: like hunger, it signals a threat to our wellbeing, born of exclusion from our group or tribe.

‘No man is an island,’ wrote the poet John Donne in a similar spirit, in Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions(1624) – nor woman either, for each one formed ‘a piece of the continent, a part of the main.’ If a ‘clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less … any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind’ . For some of us, Donne’s remarks take on special poignancy in light of the UK’s departure from Europe, or the narcissism of Donald Trump’s US presidency. They also return us to medical metaphors: Donne’s references to the body politic being destroyed is reminiscent of modern loneliness as a physical affliction, a plague of modernity.

We urgently need a more nuanced appraisal of who is lonely, when and why. Loneliness is lamented by politicians because it is expensive, especially for an ageing population. People who are lonely are more likely to develop illnesses such as cancer, heart disease and depression, and 50 per cent more likely to die prematurely than non-lonely counterparts. But there is nothing inevitable about being old and alone – even in the UK and the US where, unlike much of Europe, there isn’t a history of inter-familial care of the aged. Loneliness and economic individualism are connected.

Until the 1830s in the UK, elderly people were cared for by neighbours, friends and family, as well as by the parish. But then Parliament passed the New Poor Law, a reform that abolished financial aid for people except the aged and infirm, restricting that help to those in workhouses, and considered poverty relief to be loans that were administered via a bureaucratic, impersonal process. The rise of city living and the breakdown of local communities, as well as the grouping of the needy together in purpose-built buildings, produced more isolated, elderly people. It is likely, given their histories, that individualistic countries (including the UK, South Africa, the US, Germany and Australia) might experience loneliness differently to collectivist countries (such as Japan, China, Korea, Guatemala, Argentina and Brazil). Loneliness, then, is experienced differently across place as well as time.

None of this is meant to sentimentalise communal living or suggest that there was no social isolation prior to the Victorian period. Rather, my claim is that human emotions are inseparable from their social, economic and ideological contexts. The righteous anger of the morally affronted, for instance, would be impossible without a belief in right and wrong, and personal accountability. Likewise, loneliness can exist only in a world where the individual is conceived as separate from, rather than part of, the social fabric. It’s clear that the rise of individualism corroded social and communal ties, and led to a language of loneliness that didn’t exist prior to around 1800.

Where once philosophers what it took to live a meaningful life, the cultural focus has shifted to questions about individual choice, desire and accomplishment. It is no coincidence that the term ‘individualism’ was first used (and was a pejorative term) in the 1830s, at the same time that loneliness was in the ascendant. If loneliness i sa modern epidemic, then its causes are also modern – and an awareness of its history just might be what saves us.

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70 comments

  1. Henry Moon Pie

    Where once philosophers asked what it took to live a meaningful life, the cultural focus has shifted to questions about individual choice, desire and accomplishment.

    An example of that philosophical quest:

    Attain to upmost Emptiness.
    Cling single-heartedly to interior peace.
    While all things are stirring together,
    I only contemplate the Return.
    For flourishing as they do,
    Each of them will return to the root.
    To return to the root is to find peace.
    To find peace is to fulfill one’s destiny.

    Tao Te Ching (John Wu, trans.)

    I’m an only child who has always enjoyed, even needed substantial time alone. While I’m fortunate to have family around me and enjoy their company, I still take plenty of alone time for reading, listening to music or just thinking.

    If loneliness arrives with modernity–and Capitalism–then the problem may be more with the empty and often conflicting cultural norms and values that came with it rather than an increase in being alone.

    Reply
    1. Arizona Slim

      Roger that. I also am an only child. Very early in life, I learned the difference between being alone and being lonely.

      Reply
        1. Jonathan Holland Becnel

          Thirded.

          Altheaux i tend to gorge on Solitude/Oneliness until i get the proverbial ‘Ants in my Pants.’

          Then its WHOAAAA EXTROVERSION TO THE EXTREME.

          In the end, i believe Socrates/Plateaux said it best- ‘the City (aka polis aka politics) is the Man writ large.’

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        2. TMX

          Our society is rife with loneliness, but it’s declared an all-out holy war against solitude. Search for “loud libraries” for one odious example. Mandatory “in-your-face” manners are part and parcel.

          Reply
      1. perpetualWAR

        I am not an only child, but was able in a big family to cordon off myself with books. I still find I require lots of alone time with books for my sanity.

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    2. In the Land of Farmers

      Many people do not understand what loneliness is and Henry, you are a good example. To have a family that you know is there for you, you can be alone without loneliness. To have a community behind you also enables one to be alone without being lonely. Taking alone time is not being lonely, it is being alone.

      I can tell you I am terribly lonely. My family abandoned me during a health crisis and I was forced to move from a community I lived in for 20 years because I could not afford the rent, thus leaving behind my social ties. I am a white, disabled, 50 year old male. It has made me contemplate suicide quite often.

      Attaining emptiness has nothing to do with being alone, in fact I argue the opposite. To return to the root is to rejoin with the world like river water rejoins with the ocean. It is more about rejoining community because you understand that even when you are alone in that state you are still part of a community. Alone time becomes meaningless.

      The increase in loneliness is mostly a result of capitalism which functions as a replacement for all the things a cooperative community can provide. My therapist is nothing but a social prostitute to me, the restaurant is a familial prostitute, and so on. Capitalism wants to, needs to, split apart the community and family.

      Reply
      1. Rojo

        I hear you.

        I’m an introvert who loves his alone time. And until recently I probably would’ve been one of those like at the top proclaiming that maybe if you’re lonely, you’re dull.

        But I lost my job and many of my friends had to leave the city (S.F.). I didn’t have enough money to travel to see my extended family or do anything with the few friends I have left. I was without a tribe.

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      2. anon

        Capitalism wants to, needs to, split apart the community and family.

        Yes, the generation versus generation dialogue, which has been incessantly pushed by people such as Ivy Leaguer, , self proclaimed Gen Xer, , is just one ghastly (and for inhuman purposes) example of that.

        The Technocracy, which has now produced countless ways to Communicate; with an inverse effect of no one even answering their phone — and many times, even their door — anymore, as predators have been allowed to commoditize and overrun all of those means of communication, is yet another example. I know two people, both disabled, who have had so many menacing predator phone calls that they’ve shut off their phones for days, further cutting them off from receiving a call from someone who loves them, and cares about them. (My experience was that the FCC is utterly worthless as to such calls, when I tried to make a complaint, they demanded to know the address of the predator (of course the address was impossible to determine on my end) before going any further.)

        I feel for both you and Rojo, I’m so sorry about your brutal experiences, a warm tight embrace to both of you. I’m currently at large threat of being economically forced out of an area I’ve lived and worked in for the majority of my adult life into homelessness, with a 60% rent increase (yes, that is sickeningly legal here) around the bend. My close circle of loved ones are too beleagured and limited themselves to assist.

        Capitalism is increasingly making millions forever transient, heart achingly lonely, despondent and rootless; so many, dying far too young.

        Reply
        1. The Rev Kev

          Those two disabled friends? It might be an idea to suggest to them to tell close friends and family to ring them but hang up after three rings and then ring right back. That way they will know that it is from someone that they want to speak to.

          Reply
          1. anon

            Doing that does nothing to relieve the psychological trauma of realizing that most of one’s very, very frequent phone calls are from predators (which is why they cut their phones off [1]). Frankly, it appears that many of these predators are calling the most vulnerable because the US Government have done nothing to prevent such lists beings sold of those on Disability, and/or Social Security. Those lists could only emanate from the US Government’s own databases and those of awarded Social Security Administration contracts..

            [1] and calling one’s Telephone Company, such as AT&T (as one person did for awhile), now ends up in the person being gouged extra monthly charges for services which actually end up blocking important calls, from say Doctors calling from private numbers, versus AT&T putting a tap on a person’s line, which should be free when they’re being malevolently harassed, it used to be.

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    3. ewmayer

      Thanks for the passage form the Tao. W.r.to “Each of them will return to the root” —

      Note that the translated passage takes on an added shading when one considers that the Chinese use the term “family root” in place of the Wstern “family tree”. I always like the visual imagery thus connoted, that of one’s more-distant ancestors being deeper in the ground but still connected to the whole and in fact vital to the living tree.

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    4. Jay Caplan

      It’s maybe time to (re)read Philip Slater’s lovely 1970 book The Pursuit of Loneliness. Though it was a response to a particular moment in N. American society, it speaks to us today.

      Reply
  2. Clive

    As my mother-in-law rightly remarked this weekend (she didn’t put it in these terms, but did correctly identify the fundamentals which are in play), class is also now much more a factor in loneliness.

    Not being lonely involves, usually, meeting up with people. Phone calls are not the same thing.

    It goes without saying that, if you’re meeting someone (or a group), you have to have somewhere to meet. The cheapest option is to go to each other’s houses. Which is fine if you’re living in a place which can pleasantly accommodate social gatherings. As she said, this was okay for her as her house has a large reception room where you can serve tea of coffee, biscuits or sandwiches and spend an hour or so without feeling you’re too enclosed. She also has outdoor space for when the weather permits. In addition, you can park up in her driveway without having to walk, so for older friends who aren’t that mobile, it’s all possible. But conversely, for friends who aren’t in that situation, it gets a little awkward.

    Several have had to downsize into small retirement complex accommodation. There, the kitchen usually forms part of the living area or else is so close by that if you’ve got a washing machine or dishwasher on, it’s intrusive to conversation. So visits need planning and if you don’t plan, it’s a little too obvious how small a space you’ve got (and you inevitably compare yourself to others). And spending more than an hour in a c. 10-12 ft. sq. living room gets a little claustrophobic.

    The problem is easier solved for those who moved into retirement buildings which have a common lounge area. But there, parking is an issue — my mother-in-law recalled incidents where a small gathering had been arranged, but people had counted on driving and being able to park at the complex. When this wasn’t possible, due to limited space, people got delayed (driving round to find a parking space then walking, at a slow pace for some) added to the stress. That kind of thing makes for a pernicious disincentive to visit and plan get-togethers.

    Notice, too, how a lot of this is underpinned by access to a car. Running a car is expensive, especially so for those on a fixed income.

    I said that is was perfectly acceptable to meet up in cafés, malls, department stores and so on, which is an alternative. I was curtly — but correctly — admonished that I could only say that because £8-10 on a coffee and sandwiches wasn’t anything exceptional for me, but do that once or twice a week and you notice the impact on a smaller budget.

    Another aspect I wasn’t really aware of but on which I was put firmly in my place was when you’ve got the same problem but at the other end of the scale. My mother-in-law was sort-of friendly with another couple who are very affable (she’s known them for decades but they were always slightly above her in terms of income and assets, this gap has grown from the small-but-noticeable to a great yawning chasm over the past 10 years or thereabouts as invested capital has gone through the roof along with the value of upscale property ownership), which was all very nice. However, sitting in their £1M+ apartment overlooking uber chi-chi Sandbanks harbour makes you feel decidedly the poorer. Even though they’re not snobby or materialistic types, discussions inevitably turn to what you’ve been doing, how’s the family getting on and suchlike.

    Hearing about their plans to sail on Cunard across the Atlantic for a couple of weeks in Spring (“and we thought we’d add a week in New York, it’s simply ages since we’ve been…”), how “we really like the car, but it’s three years old in April so we’ll have to think about changing it then…” and the stellar careers of their offspring in medicine, investment banking and something impressive-sounding in the civil service… well.. as my mother-in-law remarked, it’s amazing how you can feel like suddenly you’ve not much in common (having decided to refrain from complaining about being hit with a £395 bill the previous day from the vet for her cat having a couple of teeth extracted; this my mother-in-law probably could have done with unburdening on someone, blimey, I certainly heard enough about it, but evidently she didn’t want to come over as being strapped for cash). And how she’d rethink her plans to ask her friend to meet up for coffee in a chain café because the lady of the couple she’d visited remarked how much she liked the new waterfront restaurant that’s opened down the coast (lunches from £25/head).

    Part of me wanted to advise that you shouldn’t let things like relative affluence influence friendship and social interactions because, for a true friend, this simply doesn’t matter. But I uncharacteristically stopped short of dispensing my homespun wisdom there, because another part of me knew that just wasn’t the case at all. These things can end up mattering. Pretending that they don’t isn’t going to cut it.

    And suffice to say, I can’t see class distinctions (and their root causes) going away any time soon.

    Reply
    1. el_tel

      I get this. Plus the published literature (together with heaps of anecdotal evidence from gerontologists in the anglo-saxon developed world) shows that whilst if you’re old with a spouse, losing your independence (health) may not be such a *huge issue* (since your spouse is there to help) compared to the loneliness of losing your spouse….but losing health as a single/widowed woman is a particular kicker, since the *perception* (whether true in reality or not) of loss of INDEPENDENCE causing existing social network breakdown and “moving into a home” is huge…whereas widowers continue like their married counterparts….worried about loneliness (rather than independence) – typically their generation were not used to constructing social networks outside of the work context and the thought of their wife dying first fills them with fear….and indeed if their wife *does* die first they typically don’t last long according to epidemiological data. Loneliness is very nasty if you’re not equipped to deal with it (typically by being adept at making friends in various contexts and not simply “in the workplace”).

      Reply
    2. grayslady

      I’ve never thought of income as part of the definition of “class”; to me, that word signals education and upbringing. Otherwise, I agree with everything you say. The real loss from the devastation of our small towns is that getting together didn’t necessarily involve planning something or going somewhere that cost money. People would drop by if they were out for a walk, and the common courtesies required nothing more than a glass of lemonade or iced tea to accompany good conversation. The absence of money to “do” things can definitely affect the ability to maintain certain friendships.

      Reply
      1. Clive

        Yes, I’ve a suspicion that “class” means slightly different things to me here in England as it might do to folks in the US.

        If we accept the premise that a lot of loneliness is the lack of someone to talk to, then the inevitable next consideration after determination of who we can talk to is that we also have to have somewhere to talk and something to talk about. Which is where your identification of the fraying of the fabric of community — especially in small towns — comes in.

        I would add, further, that I also suffer from an additional problem that while I’ve no shortage of people who want to talk to me, most of them bore me to tears after about 5 minutes. I doubt this will lessen as I get older (if anything, it seems to be getting worse). So I do wonder if a lot of the initiatives to address loneliness, which seem to involve plonking someone — anyone — down to talk to a lonely person is an overly-simple and not-especially effective fix. It would make me feel worse, most likely. But that comes under the heading of “self-inflicted problem”, perhaps.

        Reply
        1. johnnygl

          Carrying on a conversation skillfully and reading your audience is a practiced skill. Some people just need some coaching and practice!

          Reply
  3. el_tel

    One of the “gods” of health economics gave one lecture a year to us mere mortals taking the MSc in health economics. As part of the group eschewing traditional “welfarist” economics (talking about “utility” and “choice”) he espoused the maximisation of what he called human “flourishing” – an admittedly difficult-to-define state in which humans can both have as many choices available but also, crucially, achieve things that give their life meaning, whatever these are – part of this informed the Capability Approach which explicitly allows for the possibility of “natural loners” who may choose “few friends” and who may flourish in other ways.

    This “extra-welfarist / non-welfarist” approach (though *NOT* typically the Capability Approach flavour of it) is the dominant type in much of Europe, Canada and Australasia…in theory anyway. In practice, its implementation looks not so different from the welfarist approach still used in the USA.

    Reply
  4. Carolinian

    Trying to blame it all on Darwin seems a bit much except insofar as Darwin and science have undermined religion which was always a strong socializing force (for good and ill). Perhaps a simpler and less groping explanation is in order: more people in modern, affluent America live alone because they can. We are wealthy enough for one person to live alone in a house or apartment, to travel alone in a personal vehicle, to experience the rest of society alone via electronic appliances. In short we have evolved as social creatures but are now able to be social without any actual physical encounters or . So perhaps you could blame it on TV and computers which for some elderly and others make loneliness bearable and therefore possible.

    But the article’s suggestion that modern “ideas” have somehow made us more alienated seems off. Individualism isn’t a new thing or human nature either. What have changed are the means.

    Reply
    1. Anarcissie

      So modern ideas have not made people more alienated, but modern means have. They alienate themselves because they can, and they want to. So why aren’t they happy?

      Reply
      1. Carolinian

        Perhaps they have a strain of “affluenza.” The point I’m trying to make is that economic circumstances may contribute to isolation since poor people have so many fewer opportunities to “get away from it all”. And also they tend to be highly dependent on family and relations. As a movie guy I can report that those “come dressed as the sick soul of Europe parties”–as Pauline Kael used to call Antonioni-esque art films from the sixties–always seemed to involve aristocrats and the upper middle class.

        Reply
    2. Epistrophy

      “Trying to blame it all on Darwin seems a bit much …”

      In my view, the work of Darwin, Malthus and Galton (who were associates) cast a long black shadow over history. Their theories led to a dark, cold, savage and soul-less approach to humanity that provided the moral foundations for some of the most egregious mass crimes in human history.

      I prefer the theories of , who developed a more elemental (geochemist’s) view of evolution that did not contain the savage ‘survival of the fittest’ philosophy of the theories of Darwin and his cohorts. Vernadsky included the concept of noosphere (the realm of human thought and with it the ability to transmute matter); this completely changes the role of humanity in the evolutionary process. It has proved to be an accurate depiction of the current state of evolution and was something that Darwin could not visualize.

      Buckminster Fuller pointed out that the theories of Darwin, Malthus and Galton were developed before the periodic table had been completed and at a time that metallurgy (alloy technology) was virtually unknown. During 1982, just before he died, Fuller concluded that Malthus was wrong and that the primary danger to humanity was instead the rise of mega-corporations spanning the globe that would ultimately disrupt or block access to resources. He wrote a book on it called the ; his final written work. If you read this book (it is not easy reading), much of it will seem prophetic, especially in light of the 2008 Financial Crisis. Fuller concluded that these huge and interlocked international corporations had become inhuman; “living” and virtually unstoppable entities.

      In any case, returning to the core theme of the post, I find myself surrounded and too busy with many people (including family) to be alone, but I often feel lonely. So yes, the article is interesting and contains a number of valid points.

      Thank you Yves for sharing it with us.

      Reply
  5. linda amick

    As an Ancient Greek and Philosophy major and grad student I came to pin much of the blame on the shift basically brought about through Descartes of an infinite universe. Juxtapose this with the Aristotelian notion of a universe as closed and a living organism with all parts in sympathy with all parts. An infinite universe allows for all kinds of abuses by humans. Metaphysically, there is no responsibilities to others (humans and living organisms) as change to infinity can theoretically fix everything. In a finite universe there is a responsibility to care for everything and everybody as we are the highest life form (we have rationality) and are shepherds to this wonderful living organism. I always felt we derailed from truth and are just witnessing the consequences.

    Reply
  6. Wukchumni

    The wilderness is a lonely place compared to the teeming hordes encountered in a metropolis near you.

    Once in awhile i’ll have a ‘perfect game’ where I see not another soul on a dayhike.

    A few years back when out with a friend on a 5 day trip, we didn’t see another person until late on the last afternoon, when an oncoming hiker broke the streak.

    But generally, you run into other people all the time in brief glimpses if they’re heading the other direction, or longer if they’re headed the same way as you.

    In my experience, people are much more likely to talk to strangers in the wilderness, than in a city setting.

    You also take away the various electric tethers from the equation, i.e. social distractors, combined with obviously a common interest, and a really lonely place sparkles with conversation often enough.

    Reply
    1. Jonathan Holland Becnel

      Reminds me of Ancient Crossroads- Lares in Homeric Greek- wherein meeting strangers is almost sacred. Zeus would seriously FUCK YOU UP if you didnt treat a stranger well.

      Reply
        1. Norm de plume

          Well, the Greeks were Indo-European and an emphasis on the guest/host relationship (both same word in proto-IE) is a core part of the cultural inheritance.

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    2. Norm de plume

      Great comment, aligns with and illustrates a comment above that loneliness and being alone are not the same thing. In fact the type of natural solitude you describe can bring on a feeling of joy that seems the opposite of loneliness.

      Seems to me the real quarry here is not loneliness, but depression. I have known some chipper individuals on their own and some sad sacks surrounded by family and friends.

      But I guess chicken/egg is in play here – how many depressed lonesters can trace the root of their affliction to the fact of being alone? And does being alone in a crowded city in particular foster an anomie that is indistinguishable from loneliness?

      I wonder how a program of walks in your wilderness, punctuated by the odd human encounter, might impact on the mental well-being of lonely, depressed city people.

      Reply
      1. Wukchumni

        I wonder how a program of walks in your wilderness, punctuated by the odd human encounter, might impact on the mental well-being of lonely, depressed city people.

        It’d be good therapy, with the added bonus of nobody keeping score, usually the litmus test for things we do.

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  7. Michael C.

    Think there is any relationship to the rise of loneliness and the rise of capitalism? Capitalism of course is highly dependent upon the false belief that individuality takes precedence over community and that we are separate independent entities who are solely dependent upon our own actions for outcomes. Try cutting off your breath for five minutes and see how independent one is. Interconnectedness. It’s a fact of our reality, and capitalist and libertarians can bloviate on and on about an Ayn Randian world, but it just doesn’t pass the text of dependent origination. No surprise the term “loneliness” and capitalism both arose around the same time.

    Reply
      1. Brooklin Bridge

        What is the most popular and widely sold game in American history? Monopoly, where there is but ONE winner ALONE, as the name of the game implies, by destroying virtually every one else economically as the very definition of winning.

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        1. The Rev Kev

          You could say the same thing about the TV series “Survivor” where you revel in scheming and back-stabbing your way to be the sole person standing for the big pay-off.

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          1. Brooklin Bridge

            Or about The Apprentice, Trump’s TV series, or about most any Reality TV series. They all come from the capitalist ethos where the Rugged Individual makes his or her way in the jungle (marketplace) of exclusionary competition ostensibly by personal merit, but in reality by ruthless elimination of opponents (as well as the whole notion of social cohesion in the process), or monopoly.

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            1. Brooklin Bridge

              There is a story about one of the “elders” of an Australian native tribe who after hearing about some of the Western games, observed, “What sort of crazy people would make games where everyone else must loose so that one person can win? Where is the fun in that?”

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        2. lyman alpha blob

          The game’s original intent was to show people the evils of capitalism. But capitalists rarely miss an opportunity to co-opt something they can bastardize and sell for a profit.

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          1. anon

            Sigh, but of course, under Capitalism, the only definition of Game its most fervent supporters understand, is: Prey. Likewise, the word Board (as in Board Game); which, to them, means: Elite Predatory Strategy Directors.

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    1. Carolinian

      Rand the Russia refugee and Commie hater thought the alone-ness was part of what made her characters heroic. No Central Committees for her. Of course she herself didn’t mind being surrounded by a circle of acolytes for whom she could function as commissar.

      But the current Russiagate hysteria shows that tribalism can also be bad. Clearly there needs to be a middle ground between our social needs and freedom of thought and the rights of individuals.

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      1. Arizona Slim

        Through my study of the Russian language, I am learning that the Russian people are on to something. They put a lot of emphasis on family and other social relations. They also live in a place where people have to help each other out. No one gets through the Russian winters alone.

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        1. clarky90

          The Eastern Orthodox Church is essentially the same today, as it was in AD 33. The Apostles of the first Century would be comfortable with the liturgy of 2018. They would feel at Home, not homeless.

          In my opinion, people are lonely for “The Transcendent” (aka, God).

          Disregard the fake happiness that is, “for sale”.

          Mark 8:36
          “For what does……..?”

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          1. Norm de plume

            Yes, the loss of existential certitude and an implicit raison d’etre must have contributed to the malaise, whether we call it loneliness or more specfically depression.

            When you consider that this religious decay (thanks Darwin, thanks Nietzsche) occurred at much the same time as capitalism began to colonise all human relationships, safely and profitably atomising and/or commodifying them, it’s a wonder more of us aren’t closer to the edge. Losing your inner peace and outer support structures in one hit…

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            1. cat's paw

              “Thanks Nietzsche.” Modest suggestion: consider reading what he actually wrote about the death of god. If you get to feeling ambitious read what he wrote about Darwinian evolution.

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              1. Norm de plume

                (Sigh)
                Do you think you could manage one more sentence, to save me some time, and let me know what gaucherie the anodyne words I typed above have committed? While I cannot claim to have read much Darwin in the original Kentish I have read most of the other fellow.

                Nietzsche was the first to understand the real import of natural selection and its bombshell effect on the supernatural philosophical tradition that had existed since Plato. Darwin discovered, Nietzsche explained. Both played central roles in the detachment of millions from an almost innate but entirely imaginary origin myth, complete with moral code and ultimate post-mortem destination.

                To me, that loss left a hole that helped provide some space for modern anomie, and worse.

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    2. Dr. Robert

      I’d say the mobility required of the capitalist economy’s “human resources” is the main driver of loneliness in society. Even in the age of skype, , and long-distance calling, physical distance has a way of breaking down all but the strongest of social ties. My great-grandmother’s generation basically all stayed in or near their home town. There was a thriving social life where basically everyone was members of a church, a social club, and an extended family that mostly stuck around. Each successive generation saw fewer and fewer family members and members of their childhood social cohort depart for opportunities elsewhere. At the same time the social institutions that previous generations supported and participated in declined, never to be replaced. More often than not what replaced society was television. Today this social displacement has become the norm rather than the exception, and only the poorer rural areas are able to maintain some level of social continuity, not because everyone is sticking around, but because everyone who does stick around is from those communities. In my area the Amish seem to be filling the void left by a declining rural population, as their population continues to grow rapidly.

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      1. jrs

        yes actual material constraints on people’s actions matter a lot, ideology not so much so. So the need to move for work yes this matters and people sometimes see it as a survival strategy and in this world, they aren’t wrong. Although this is actually declining some, the need may still be there, but people are simply not moving as much, boomers did it more, subsequent generations are doing it less. Even long commutes drain time away from community.

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      2. Summer

        Because over time, in small communities a family can get a reputation, positive or negative.
        The ones with a positive reputation may be resting on the laurals of deeds of ancestors and the ones with a negative (or no expectation either way) tend to have descendants with an uphill battle.
        Even small communities can have monopolies, elitism, etc that cause the exodus.

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  8. Wukchumni

    From my time in SoCal, there’s a great anonymity to the wealthy desert enclave, where neighbors barely knew of each others existence, and mostly acknowledged one another from roughly the shoulders on up, when encounters in self propelled chariots called for social decorum in the guise of a wave, that showed you care.

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  9. DJG

    I’m not sure: I think that the problem is less loneliness than isolation. The article makes an implicit contrast between earlier times, when most people lived in villages, where their relatives, neighbors, and the structure of the local parish supported them. Even the large city of ancient Rome, some 1 million inhabitants, was organized by vicus. A vicus was a small “village” in the city, with its own board of elders and its own identity, and feast day, of course.

    The U S of A currently is remarkably segregated by race, age, and class. Americans don’t even seem to notice. Yet the proliferation of expensively maintained dogs in my neighborhood is a sign of nervousness, isolation, and unmet emotional needs–a friend of mine who lives in Rome (where there are fewer dogs around) pointed out that dogs in the city are a sign of loneliness.

    The article also makes a few basic mistakes: Intraverts are psychological types who are self-motivated and self-possessed. Intraverts don’t look to social situations to shore up their moral structure. Extraverts tend to rely more on social situations to set the tone of their behavior. So the continuing canard that introverts are discriminated against or suspect is a tad obsolete. Naturally, extroverts (who may be the majority) find introverts strangely difficult to motivate–but that is an aspect of the extroverts’ universe.

    Medicine relying on the four humors was empirical. One only has to look at Galen or at the School of Salerno, which includes work by several medieval women who were physicians, to see the empirical mindset and the generally fairly good results. What medical care has to do with Darwin, as asserted, is beyond me.

    In many cultures, too, loneliness has had a creative and emotional function. I think of saudades in Portugal and Brazil. Rebetiko singing in Greek culture has a similar function. Then there is U.S. rhythm and blues. Melancholy may be a better word for normal loneliness.

    But the atomization of the personality, and the inability of people to be able to sustain themselves in our materialistic and over-mediated culture, may be what this article is trying to diagnose. The baroque capitalism in which we are immersed is all glitter and no sustenance. As Clive points out above, it is class warfare by other means.

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    1. perpetualWAR

      “Dogs in the city is a sign of lonliness.”
      I beg to differ. Sometimes, it’s a sign you just love dogs. I have lived with dogs virtually my entire life, barring the first 2 years in college. But the remaining years in college, I got a dog. And I have suffered living in some crap apartments to do so. So, again, sometimes living with dogs is simply loving dogs.

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      1. Arizona Slim

        Here in Tucson, I’m finding the same thing that DJG is. A lot of dogs that serve as, shall we say, surrogates for human offspring and/or human friends.

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  10. Off The Street

    academic link provides some useful information to supplement your morning or afternoon coffee or tea, as the case may be. Imagine being a homesteader, where loneliness was only one of several problems, starting with food. The next farm or ranch may have been a day’s ride, and was what passed for neighborliness and assistance beyond self-help. Ahh, those were the days.

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  11. Thuto

    I come from a small town in South Africa, but live in a big city so i’m ideally positioned to dispute the notion of SA being an individualist society. Maybe the author’s assertion is underpinned by observations of my white counterparts in big city SA, but a more realistic picture of where SA sits on the individualism-collectivism continuum would have benefited from an excursion into small town SA (and into townships just outside the big cities).

    While it is true that even suburban, middle class blacks in Joburg/Durban/Cape Town are having their collectivist leanings weakened through ad nauseam bombardment of media inducements to adopt a more individualist mindset, to classify SA as an individualist country is way off the mark.

    On the link between the rise in individualism and capitalism, it is clear that the fracturing of a more collectivist mindset benefits capitalism as an economic organizing principle/regime. Growth, that panacea to all our ills that shifts the gears that drive the capitalist machine (and society if the capitalists are to be believed) forward, depends on many “individuals” owning things (even things that are ideally owned “communally”, but communal ownership is bad for growth). Depending on their predisposition, the leap from an individual consumer to a lonely individual is not a large one for some people so I totally agree that the rise of capitalism has driven the rise in rates of loneliness.

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  12. Eclair

    One of the many bonuses in helping out on our cousin’s farm in the NW corner of Pennsylvania, has been the opportunity to become friendly with people in the very conservative Amish communities that are springing up in this rich agricultural area.

    Once you get beyond the prayer caps, 18th century garments, beards and buggies, you realize that what really sets the Amish apart from their English neighbors, is their strong sense of social connectedness.

    Sometimes it drives our capitalist cousin crazy, as the Amish ‘boys’ inform him that they will not be digging potatoes on Thursday because the Cousins from Minnesota are visiting Eli And family and everyone is gathering to meet, eat and share the news. Or Grandfather Levi has died and the all-day funeral will be on Wednesday. The stock gets fed and, of course, food is cooked, but visiting, talking and finding out who is doing well, who might need some financial and/or emotional help, who is ready to look for a spouse or is about to ‘retire’ are paramount.

    And, Sunday’s are without fail a day of rest, prayer and socializing.
    Houses are built or remodelled (one young woman calls it “making the house Amish”) to have a kitchen area large enough to host the every other Sunday service for the entire community. Complete with midday meal and mid afternoon coffee and baked goodies. It’s talking to God in the morning and to your community in the afternoon.

    No one gets left behind. No one starves or becomes homeless. No one dies alone.

    As long as you follow the rules.

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    1. Anarcissie

      ‘As long as you follow the rules.’

      That’s the problem. When people live in a close-knit community, whether it’s a family, a village, a gang, a commune, they have to follow the rules. But people want to do what they want to do, so they want to break away from the rules and do as they please. Modern life gave some of them the material means to do that. I’ve observed this in four generations of an Italian-American family from close up. The earlier generations feel oppressed by the rules, the later ones, partly broken free, are beginning to feel alienated and atomized, and they do not support each other the way the earlier ones did.

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    2. Arizona Slim

      Shhhh! I have a story to tell about those rules.

      My father was an avid participant in the shooting sports, and I have to confess that he passed that trait on to me. However, for a variety of reasons, I’m no longer a regular at the range.

      Any-hoo, he was a member of a private gun club, and it was located in rural Chester County, PA. An Amish family lived across the road, and guess what: The father loved shooting. He had nothing but the best in rifles, let me tell you.

      Since Chris was forbidden to be a member of anything, and the gun club knew it, the club cut him a deal: You keep an eye on the range when we’re not here, and you do any needed repairs and maintenance, and we’ll let you shoot here for free.

      Believe me, that range was kept in tip-top condition, and oh, man. Chris could put his shots in the black. Oh, could he ever.

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    3. Eclair

      I have been thinking about “rules.”

      Every society has them. In a small, close-knit community where everyone knows everyone else, it is much more difficult to ‘break’ the rules. Or, one of the rules is, that here are certain rules that may be bent or circumvented. You just have to know which ones.

      And, people internalize the rules of their society/community, so that they become, not rules, but ‘they way the world works.’ Most people accept that and live their lives accordingly. There are always the rebels, the anarchists, the different ones, who go off and try to find a community with a set of rules that is more to their liking. How boring life would be without them!

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  13. Louis Fyne

    from my armchair, it’s interesting that East Asia/Confucianism formalized one’s social responsibilities to family Maybe, intuitively or explicitly, to address some of the points above. (I imagine lots of other cultures do too, Confucius popped into my head when I read this).

    While Christianity addresses the family, it’s not quite in the same institutionalized way as Confucianism.

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  14. JUA

    There’s also the fact that dense middle class neighborhoods where it’s easy to meet people (I’m from Boston and I’m thinking of any of the squares like Harvard Square, or any town center in New England) are now priced out of reach for people who couldn’t buy housing back in the mid-1990s when it was last still affordable, which naturally includes everyone under 50 and many over that.

    With older activists and “small property owners” refusing to allow new housing to keep pace with population growth, these neighborhoods have been both gentrified and geriatrified, so they’re vastly less interesting places than they used to be.

    If the Jackpot comes quickly and kills off everyone over 60, it will be at best mixed emotions for a lot of people in my age bracket (I’m about 40). We could finally enjoy the world they enjoyed at our age. I mourn the Boston I glimpsed as a teenager in the 1990s.

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  15. The Rev Kev

    I find it remarkable that as individualization has been more intensified – or should it be called atomization? – that many of the younger generation find it hard to deal with actually being alone and not in a group. Not sure how they would make out in a sensory deprivation tank. Perhaps too that is why social media is such a big part of people’s lives now in that it is a saccharine substitute for real human bonds. Maybe this dislike of loners that I see comes down to the fact that we are becoming a more cookie-cutter culture where some behaviour is looked at askew. As in ‘You like being alone?’, ‘You don’t have this attitude on refugees’, ‘You don’t shop with Amazon?’
    Slim is right. There is a big difference between being alone and being lonely. The former can be by choice where the later may be out of your hands. Social conventions come into it as well such as the one in the US where apparently being a single, unaccompanied women is seen as a threat of some kind. I have said it before and I will say it again. A lot of the trouble that we have with human relations comes down to the fact that if human civilization was an actual person, we would be in our early teens in terms of emotional maturity. And this whole thing about loneliness and simply being alone is just an example of it.

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  16. perpetualWAR

    I recently moved from Seattle (the city known for “the Seattle Chill”) to a smaller city in the eastern part of WA state. My experience in moving to a smaller city has been delightful. Neighbors actually meet and assist each other. It is refreshing, especially moving from a city that is chilly in that aspect.

    I have always lived alone in my adult life. I have no TV or internet, barring what little time I access via my phone. I love the silence and the introspection that most of our society lacks.

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  17. Roxan

    Being surrounded by people is no guarantee one won’t be lonely, especially for women. Men are often not sociable, so marriage is no solution, and it’s not easy to continue socializing with friends you had before marriage. When I was in India, one of my relatives confessed how lonely she was, and we became BFF. Rajhani and her husband, two young boys, lived in two rooms and had good middle-class jobs, but his parents hated her because it was a ‘love marriage’ and never forgave her. Her old mother lived with them, functioning as a servant, and Rajhani worried she would have to put her out to live on the street, as was the custom for widows. I saw many old women trying to eke out a living picking trash. So…lots of company, but no companionship! My sister-in-law caused trouble for everyone, just as she did for me. Families can have many bitter feuds that make life miserable. I don’t know the solution to loneliness but I wouldn’t count on relatives.

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  18. Adam Eran

    To add to the “Bowling Alone” point…America has cast its loneliness and alienation in concrete in the form of suburban sprawl. The streets are designed for autos, with pedestrians treated as an afterthought. One must drive everywhere significant, except perhaps to walk the dog. The random encounter with neighbors and strangers–i.e. the experience of “society”–is denied most sprawl inhabitants. Even the public spaces have been privatized. We no longer have the town square, we have the mall.

    This has been a long term project, underway since the 1950’s. Only relatively recently have town planners and architects called “New Urbanists” been paddling in a different direction.

    One recent success: California now mandates “Complete Streets” (streets that accommodate pedestrians and cyclists) for all new development.

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    1. anon

      One recent success: California now mandates “Complete Streets” (streets that accommodate pedestrians and cyclists) for all new development.

      Huh? Recent? Success? I promptly searched that online and drew a blank as to recent California Legislation.

      Could you be referring to this ten year old, obviously vague and toothless Mandate, which has done nothing in the slightest in making the Republic of California more social, except in extremely wealthy communities, where ‘folks’ have the time to leisurely walk and bike — while others are working 2 to three jobs, sometimes well past retirement age, to ward off homelessness and can’t even begin to appreciate sidewalks as they pray their car doesn’t break down so they can make it to the next job (or live in the car, if that fails) from communities where they’ve lived (many have been born in) for decades:

      For Immediate Release October 3rd, 2008 [PDF File]

      Governor Schwarzenegger signed into law on September 30th Assembly Bill
      1358, the California Complete Streets Act of 2008 authored by Assemblyman Mark
      Leno (D-San Francisco).

      I’m pretty sure sane civil engineers have always attempted to do this:

      The new law requires cities and counties to include complete streets policies as
      part of their general plans so that roadways are designed to safely accommodate all
      users, including bicyclists, pedestrians, transit riders, children, older people, and
      disabled people, as well as motorists.

      Lastly, apparently: Starship Technologies, et al Delivery Robots; Security Robots; and Scooters — overtaking and littering sidewalks with abundant safety and privacy violation concerns — weren’t foreseen in that mandate?

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  19. Roland

    Cicero’s De Senuctute quotes Scipio Africanus as saying that, “he was never better occupied than when he had nothing to do, and never had better company than when he was by himself.”

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    1. The Rev Kev

      Scipio Africanus – one of my heroes. The latest trend is to downgrade his reputation but that quote rings true with what I have read of his character. Someone who at heart was an outsider but who saved the Republic by being so.

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  20. E pur si muove

    “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”

    ― Blaise Pascal, Pensées

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