On what is lost when we spend our lives trying to avoid feeling alone.
n a humid July evening, a young woman in a red dress made her way along the banks of the Seine, walked beneath the Pont Neuf and, tucking auburn tresses behind her ears, sat down next to me. She held her shorthaired terrier under one arm and Susan Sontag’s The Benefactor (1963) under the other. She introduced herself in a hybrid English accent typical of international boarding-school students who think of home not as a singular place but as something seasonal – London in the autumn, the Austrian Alps in winter. Then she introduced her pup. ‘His name is Fortuné,’ she said, extending his paw for me to shake.
I have long thought of myself as a lonesome person, but only that summer, when I met Joséphine, did I begin to understand the true depths of human loneliness. Joséphine had come to Paris three months prior, after reading economics at Cambridge; I had come from Oxford where I read history and thus we hit it off quickly the way that only foreigners who meet in a foreign land are able to do. She lamented that, so far, she had spent each night in her own company, sitting on the terrasse at the Café de Flore, taking the same Niçoise salad and the same Pinot Grigio, and watching couples and groups of friends pass by.
In the weeks following, Joséphine phoned me to join her for dinner, to see her apartment’s library or to attend a variety of events that seemed of dubious legitimacy (a masked ball at her apartment, a boat race outside Paris, a dinner at her estate in Bavaria) and, while I continued to meet with her twice a week on the same bench at sunset, not once did I join her elsewhere.
I can’t say why I declined her invitations: I had come to Paris for solitude and was fearful of allowing another to breach it, but it didn’t end up mattering. As I’d suspected, there was no elsewhere – no boat races, no estate. Joséphine had wanted only someone with whom to talk. She admitted this one evening, as the summer came to a close. Then she stopped showing up. She stopped phoning, too.
Loneliness is a relatively new concept in academia, beginning to trend in the mid-1960s, and becoming prominent only with Robert Weiss’s all-important Loneliness: The Experience of Emotional and Social Isolation (1973). But loneliness studies did not commence in a uniform, rigorous way until 1978, when the creation of a 20-item scale to measure one’s subjective feelings of loneliness and social isolation – the so-called University of California, Los Angeles Loneliness Scale – lent accuracy and comparability between publications.
Still, loneliness remains a slippery concept. After God creates Adam, God says: ‘It is not good that the man should be alone: I will make him a help mate.’ Perhaps with the universality of Genesis in mind, the philosopher Ben Lazare Mijuskovic writes in Loneliness in Philosophy, Psychology, and Literature (2012): ‘[M]an has always and everywhere suffered from feelings of acute loneliness.’ Yet loneliness means different things to different people. Some people feel lonely spending one night alone; others go months with minimal communication and don’t feel a thing. ‘Some may be socially isolated but content with minimal social contact or actually prefer to be alone,’ writes Julianne Holt-Lunstad, the lead author of a 2015 report on loneliness in Perspectives on Psychological Science. ‘Others may have frequent social contact but still feel lonely.’
In spite of such variation, most people don’t choose extended loneliness, or lengthy periods of uninvited solitude, and to hear this unwanted state romanticised – called ‘beautiful’ – is a particular type of sting, the way someone who has been fired or recently divorced might wince at being told it is ‘for the best’. Indeed, there are many serious drawbacks to longterm loneliness, from severe depression to irreparable cognitive damage. In a study on the subject, Holt-Lunstad aggregated data from a range of independent studies within which participants were followed for an average of seven years. She found that people who were socially isolated, lonely or living alone had a roughly 30 per cent greater chance of dying during the study period than those who had ‘regular social contract’.
Interestingly, much of the idealisation of loneliness in art and literature turns out to be a façade. Henry David Thoreau rhapsodised his alone time. ‘I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time,’ he wrote in Walden: Or, Life in the Woods(1854). ‘Why should I feel lonely?… I am no more lonely than the loon in the pond that laughs so loud, or than Walden Pond itself.’ Lo! How romantic to be alone! he begs his reader to think. And yet, Walden Pond sat within a large park that was often swarmed with picnickers and swimmers, skaters and ice fishers. In his ‘isolation’, Thoreau corresponded frequently with Ralph Waldo Emerson; and he went home as often as once a week to dine with friends or eat the cookies his mother baked. Of course he wasn’t lonely: he was so seldom truly alone.
Still, it’s unfair to blame Thoreau – or anyone else who flirts with loneliness yet falls short of truly engaging with it. Loneliness can be a miserable state and people, accordingly, work hard to avoid it. Over the past three decades, Americans have reported decreasing levels of loneliness, and one can assume that this holds true for other first-world countries, where a stream of invention works both directly and indirectly to prevent it: social media, artificial intelligence, virtual reality. The promise is that one can always be connected, or more accurately, constantly engaged in the simulacrum of companionship as mediated by iPhones, the internet or, sometime soon, an artificial being. But, as Olivia Laing shows in The Lonely City (2016), the very technologies that promise to connect us to others serve to sever us, even quarantine us, from opportunities to make genuine connections.
Loneliness can be hell – why would we want any part of it?