The History of Loneliness  | The New Yorker


The loneliness epidemic, in this sense, is rather like the obesity epidemic. Evolutionarily speaking, panicking while being alone, like finding high-calorie foods irresistible, is highly adaptive, but, more recently, in a world where laws (mostly) prevent us from killing one another, we need to work with strangers every day, and the problem is more likely to be too much high-calorie food rather than too little. These drives backfire.

Loneliness, Murthy argues, lies behind a host of problems—anxiety, violence, trauma, crime, suicide, depression, political apathy, and even political polarization. Murthy writes with compassion, but his everything-can-be-reduced-to-loneliness argument is hard to swallow, not least because much of what he has to say about loneliness was said about homelessness in the nineteen-eighties, when “homelessness” was the vogue term—a word somehow easier to say than “poverty”—and saying it didn’t help. (Since then, the number of homeless Americans has increased.) Curiously, Murthy often conflates the two, explaining loneliness as feeling homeless. To belong is to feel at home. “To be at home is to be known,” he writes. Home can be anywhere. Human societies are so intricate that people have meaningful, intimate ties of all kinds, with all sorts of groups of other people, even across distances. You can feel at home with friends, or at work, or in a college dining hall, or at church, or in Yankee Stadium, or at your neighborhood bar. Loneliness is the feeling that no place is home. “In community after community,” Murthy writes, “I met lonely people who felt homeless even though they had a roof over their heads.” Maybe what people experiencing loneliness and people experiencing homelessness both need are homes with other humans who love them and need them, and to know they are needed by them in societies that care about them. That’s not a policy agenda. That’s an indictment of modern life.

In “A Biography of Loneliness: The History of an Emotion” (Oxford), the British historian Fay Bound Alberti defines loneliness as “a conscious, cognitive feeling of estrangement or social separation from meaningful others,” and she objects to the idea that it’s universal, transhistorical, and the source of all that ails us. She argues that the condition really didn’t exist before the nineteenth century, at least not in a chronic form. It’s not that people—widows and widowers, in particular, and the very poor, the sick, and the outcast—weren’t lonely; it’s that, since it wasn’t possible to survive without living among other people, and without being bonded to other people, by ties of affection and loyalty and obligation, loneliness was a passing experience. Monarchs probably were lonely, chronically. (Hey, it’s lonely at the top!) But, for most ordinary people, daily living involved such intricate webs of dependence and exchange—and shared shelter—that to be chronically or desperately lonely was to be dying. The word “loneliness” very seldom appears in English before about 1800. Robinson Crusoe was alone, but never lonely. One exception is “Hamlet”: Ophelia suffers from “loneliness”; then she drowns herself.

Modern loneliness, in Alberti’s view, is the child of capitalism and secularism. “Many of the divisions and hierarchies that have developed since the eighteenth century—between self and world, individual and community, public and private—have been naturalized through the politics and philosophy of individualism,” she writes. “Is it any coincidence that a language of loneliness emerged at the same time?” It is not a coincidence. The rise of privacy, itself a product of market capitalism—privacy being something that you buy—is a driver of loneliness. So is individualism, which you also have to pay for.

Alberti’s book is a cultural history (she offers an anodyne reading of “Wuthering Heights,” for instance, and another of the letters of Sylvia Plath). But the social history is more interesting, and there the scholarship demonstrates that whatever epidemic of loneliness can be said to exist is very closely associated with living alone. Whether living alone makes people lonely or whether people live alone because they’re lonely might seem to be harder to say, but the preponderance of the evidence supports the former: it is the force of history, not the exertion of choice, that leads people to live alone. This is a problem for people trying to fight an epidemic of loneliness, because the force of history is relentless.

Before the twentieth century, according to the best longitudinal demographic studies, about five per cent of all households (or about one per cent of the world population) consisted of just one person. That figure began rising around 1910, driven by urbanization, the decline of live-in servants, a declining birth rate, and the replacement of the traditional, multigenerational family with the nuclear family. By the time David Riesman published “The Lonely Crowd,” in 1950, nine per cent of all households consisted of a single person. In 1959, psychiatry discovered loneliness, in a subtle essay by the German analyst Frieda Fromm-Reichmann. “Loneliness seems to be such a painful, frightening experience that people will do practically everything to avoid it,” she wrote. She, too, shrank in horror from its contemplation. “The longing for interpersonal intimacy stays with every human being from infancy through life,” she wrote, “and there is no human being who is not threatened by its loss.” People who are not lonely are so terrified of loneliness that they shun the lonely, afraid that the condition might be contagious. And people who are lonely are themselves so horrified by what they are experiencing that they become secretive and self-obsessed—“it produces the sad conviction that nobody else has experienced or ever will sense what they are experiencing or have experienced,” Fromm-Reichmann wrote. One tragedy of loneliness is that lonely people can’t see that lots of people feel the same way they do.

“During the past half century, our species has embarked on a remarkable social experiment,” the sociologist Eric Klinenberg wrote in “Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone,” from 2012. “For the first time in human history, great numbers of people—at all ages, in all places, of every political persuasion—have begun settling down as singletons.” Klinenberg considers this to be, in large part, a triumph; more plausibly, it is a disaster. Beginning in the nineteen-sixties, the percentage of single-person households grew at a much steeper rate, driven by a high divorce rate, a still-falling birth rate, and longer lifespans over all. (After the rise of the nuclear family, the old began to reside alone, with women typically outliving their husbands.) A medical literature on loneliness began to emerge in the nineteen-eighties, at the same time that policymakers became concerned with, and named, “homelessness,” which is a far more dire condition than being a single-person household: to be homeless is to be a household that does not hold a house. Cacioppo began his research in the nineteen-nineties, even as humans were building a network of computers, to connect us all. Klinenberg, who graduated from college in 1993, is particularly interested in people who chose to live alone right about then.

I suppose I was one of them. I tried living alone when I was twenty-five, because it seemed important to me, the way owning a piece of furniture that I did not find on the street seemed important to me, as a sign that I had come of age, could pay rent without subletting a sublet. I could afford to buy privacy, I might say now, but then I’m sure I would have said that I had become “my own person.” I lasted only two months. I didn’t like watching television alone, and also I didn’t have a television, and this, if not the golden age of television, was the golden age of “The Simpsons,” so I started watching television with the person who lived in the apartment next door. I moved in with him, and then I married him.


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