Only the Lonely

A little over a year ago, early in our state’s lockdown, I watched one of my children crumble into a million pieces. She’d held up okay until then. We’d done a lot of family walks, and my kids were still enjoying the novelty of the puppy we’d adopted shortly before Covid became more than a passing mention in the U.S. news. But it was never going to last. “I miss her so much,” said my kid of the friend we’d been talking about. It was almost like I could see every emotional retaining wall break inside her.

Being a serious introvert, I hadn’t fully appreciated until that moment what the day-to-day emotional need for friends really meant to my kid. This was not just missing friends, not just needing the regular social interaction that school brought. This was an absolute need, like food, water, and hugs.

I should have known better. I read a lot about loneliness while researching walking—because the loss of walkable, connected communities has contributed to epidemics of loneliness in several countries, especially among teens and the elderly—and talk with people about it a lot, about what regular human interaction really looks like, about what it feels like to experience true connection as opposed to “not alone,” about the litany of poor health consequences that result from chronic loneliness. And yet, I hadn’t understood that for my own daughter, simply having her family and beloved new dog nearby all day wasn’t enough. I knew enough to know better, but I’d missed it.

Earlier on in the pandemic, I was wary of bringing up loneliness for fear of it being weaponized by “the cure is worse than the disease” hardliners. But a year later it’s still not being treated as the priority it should be. We now have decades of research on loneliness and its related health consequences. The physical damage of chronic loneliness is comparable to the effects of high blood pressure, obesity, or smoking. John Cacioppo, a lead researcher on this subject for years, wrote in his book Loneliness that “the pain of loneliness is a deeply disruptive hurt.” It can, for example, undermine our ability to take care of our physical health:

“Going for a run might feel good when you’re finished, but for most of us, getting out the door in the first place requires an act of willpower. The executive control required for such discipline is compromised by loneliness, and loneliness also tends to lower self-esteem. If you perceive that others see you as worthless, you are more likely to engage in self-destructive behaviors and less likely to take good care of yourself.” 

This relationship is a deep part of our evolution, an internal signal that developed to tell us when we’d roamed too far from the tribe—and kept us from acting selfishly within tribal life in the first place. Selfish behavior could lead to ostracism or exile, which in tribal days could be deadly. There was no such thing as rugged individualism; we evolved to need other people because . . . well, we needed other people. “For social behavior, the warmth of connection is the carrot; the pain of feeling isolated, also known as loneliness, is the stick,” wrote Cacioppo.

Division, mistrust, hate, and tribalism are certainly part of human nature, he wrote. But so equally, or perhaps more, are cooperation and community. Addressing the oft-quoted Thomas Hobbes line about life being nasty, brutish, and short (which was written, by the way, at a time that England had experienced civil war, the beheading of a king, and enormous religious strife—realities that had defined all of Hobbes’s own life), Cacioppo wrote that, 

“The point which the Hobbesian analysis misses is that, if such ruthlessness were, in fact, the defining essence of human nature, we would have never evolved our way out of the rain forest, much less the grasslands of eastern Africa. . . . The driving force of our advance as a species has not been our tendency to be brutally self-interested, but our ability to be socially cooperative.”

So what is loneliness, this strange creature, this nebulous beast that can topple us into depression, isolation, and shame?

Cacioppo has probably the best descriptions. Loneliness is an evolved response that developed in order to protect us from danger. We needed our tribe in order to survive; feeling lonely was our mind-body’s way of telling us that we were alone or isolated enough to put ourselves at risk. That doesn’t mean we can never be alone. As, again, a serious introvert, I have about the same reaction to lacking time alone as my daughter does to lacking time with friends. Worse, actually. I don’t just fall apart. I get cranky and short-tempered. I’ve told my spouse regularly for over twenty years that I need time alone as badly as I need sleep. Alone-deprivation and sleep-deprivation feel almost the same to me.

But needing time alone is not the same as loneliness. It might take more to get me feeling lonely, or it might take different situations. I left my college graduation party after saying hello to my two favorite professors because, I told myself, nobody would miss me, as if I hadn’t just spent four years among friends and teachers I would value for decades, as if I didn’t belong. That was a long time ago now, but looking back I think it was how my loneliness manifested. Leaving a crowd or a gathering of people whose company I enjoyed, telling myself nobody would miss me, was probably a subconscious pre-emptive defensive maneuver against feeling rejected and left out. Now that I’m aware of that response, I can manage it instead of believing it at face value. I am better at differentiating between when I need to be alone, and when I’m feeling lonely.

One of the points made repeatedly by Cacioppo and other loneliness researchers is that a person can feel lonely just as easily among other people as they do when they’re isolated. The key is the lack of connection. To avoid loneliness, you have to feel connected to other people, not just surrounded by them.

The pandemic has put millions, if not billions, of people into a situation where for over a year many important connections have been severed. I feel very fortunate that we have the technologies we do that enable certain levels of connection. For months I was on the phone or Facetime with family almost every day. Even when we started homeschooling, my kids could take music lessons over Skype. My job has been remote or online for nearly twenty years (though the homeschooling has meant far less of it), which has allowed me flexibility and mobility.

But those tools still failed to help most people feel truly connected, not connected in the ways that counter the slow seep of loneliness into your bones. It might get there, someday, if this titanic movement of our digital lives ever manages to shift to serve being human rather than humans serving the tech and the profit drive of its stakeholders. For the time being, though, as I wrote about at length in my book, digital tech like social media does more to exacerbate loneliness than alleviate it, particularly for teenagers. It’s a problem that’s getting worse, not better, the more time we spend online.

There was a beautiful essay in 1843 magazine in 2018 about loneliness (reading it in full requires registering for an account) that repeated the question, “What does loneliness feel like?” like mournful cello refrain, eliciting the physical reality of feeling lonely, the existential self-questioning that comes with it, the way it can overtake your sense of self:

“‘And what does loneliness feel like?’

‘Loneliness is worthlessness. You feel you don’t fit in, that people don’t understand you. You feel terrible about yourself, you feel rejected. Everyone goes to the pub, but they don’t invite you. Why? Because there’s something wrong with you.’”

“‘What does loneliness feel like?’

‘It’s like being offered a full meal, and not being able to eat it.’”

“‘What does your loneliness feel like?’ I ask Fiona.

‘It feels like a bereavement – like an enormous loss of something. And it also feels suffocating – tight and strangling and suffocating, even though it’s an absence.’

‘And what do you do when these feelings become overwhelming?’

‘Nothing. I used to make myself go on bike rides and stuff. Now I just try to put up with it. I think, “this is it, then. This is what loneliness is”.’”

The whole essay delves into the lived reality of loneliness for people, how it manifests in their physical and emotional selves. After seeing its effects directly in my daughter, I could perceive better how harmful loneliness can be in wider society. And in productivity-driven, individualism-revering Western culture, some of loneliness’s destructive capacity lies in society’s adherence to believing that if we feel horrible—depressed, anxious, lonely, worthless, lost, powerless, etc., etc.—then it must be because something is wrong with us. We’ve internalized this so deeply that extracting ourselves from this belief can be an all-consuming lifelong struggle.*

More recently, a team at MIT, which had been studying loneliness before the pandemic hit, backed up reported experiences like these with neuroscientific research. Starting with mice, researchers found that social isolation changed very specific neurons in the brain, pointing to the idea that loneliness has identifiable consequences. (I love the question that Kay Tye, the cognitive neuroscientist who started the research, was exploring: “How does the brain imbue social isolation with meaning?”) When they started studying human brains, they found that loneliness lights up the same areas of the brain as hunger does. As a science writer friend put it to me when we talked about that research last year, “We are literally starved for connection.”

The consequences can go beyond our individual selves. It’s not just that loneliness can prompt such a desperate need to feel belonging and connection that people might, say, join a violent right-wing extremist group, but that government itself can use loneliness as a weapon to undermine resistance. Hannah Arendt wrote that loneliness is the essence of totalitarian governments because it severs people from human connection. (Samantha Rose Hill’s essay on Hannah Arendt and loneliness in Aeon is well worth reading.) In Zeynep Tufekçi’s book on social movements, Twitter & Teargas, she wrote extensively of the role of social media in protest, contrasting and comparing and complementing in-person protests, in ways that few others have. As part of that research, she also wrote about the ways in which repressive governments break movements by making people feel alone: “Fostering a sense of loneliness among dissidents while making an example of them to scare off everyone else has long been a trusted method of ruling.”

In her section on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s idea of the civil rights movement as a “beloved community” and insurgent Zapatista villages in Chiapas in the 1990s, Tufekçi wrote that,

“This affirmation of belonging outside money relationships and of the intimacy of caring for people is the core of what motivates many to participate in protests. It explains the presence of libraries, the sites’ cleanliness, and people’s deeply felt desire and motivation to stand with one another in rebellion. That longing also explains many other aspects of networked antiauthoritarian protest movements.”

The loneliness of activism is something that I’ve been trying to address in my personal connections over the last year. Living in a state that always leaned conservative and has recently taken a hard-right turn, it took me a while to realize how lonely my progressive friends are feeling—probably due mostly to the fact that I wasn’t seeing much of them; the loneliness itself is also partly due to the fact that none of them were seeing much of people who care about the same things they do. The people who were out in the world—service workers, child care workers, etc.—were seeing the worst of those who, to put it bluntly, made it a point of pride to care less about other people’s life and health than they did about their own perceived freedom.

For my progressive friends in Montana, loneliness has been a very effective means of undermining their commitment to activism work without them even being conscious of it, which is partly why I keep directing statewide acquaintances to Forward Montana. The organization does great work on its own, but most importantly, to my mind, its weekly emails and podcasts serve to directly address the loneliness people might be feeling, to bring a spotlight to the (often accurate) perception that those in power don’t care about us or our needs, that we’re not heard, that we’re alone. Loneliness is terribly dehumanizing. It’s partly why I wrote that piece last month acknowledging that things might not be getting better anytime soon but to know that you are not alone is the most important tool we have right now.

Unfortunately, for children and for many adults, repeating this to ourselves isn’t enough. Just before Thanksgiving I ran into an acquaintance at the grocery store who’d recently sent one of her kids back to school. “I had to choose between that and worrying about her committing suicide,” she said. The social isolation was too much, and she’s not the only friend who said something similar after sending their kid back to school.

Over a year into this, and many months into a new presidential administration, and still nobody in charge is talking about loneliness. If our society weren’t completely inside-out as far as values go, loneliness would be right up there with making sure that highest-risk people are protected from the virus. We’d be addressing both things together, protecting the most vulnerable while doing the best we could to mitigate loneliness. But even with Dr. Vivek Murthy—who published Together, a book about loneliness and community last year, and who made loneliness one of his top priorities later in his service as Obama’s Surgeon General—back as Surgeon General, I am hearing . . . nothing.

Loneliness is a signal from our evolutionary selves telling us that something is not right. The face that loneliness reached epidemic proportions in many countries even before the pandemic tells us that something is deeply wrong with the structures of our societies. Not that we needed another sign. This one, like depression and anxiety, feels like a species-wide scream being smothered under the comforts of consumerism and the demands of productivity. It would probably be less expensive in the long run to start asking what the problem is trying to tell us than spending yet more money and resources covering up the symptoms.

We can’t silence the screams forever. 

*I highly recommend Johann Hari’s book about depression, Lost Connections. While he was originally criticized for questioning the efficacy of antidepressants, I’m not sure that those critics read the book. He does go deeply into the flawed and thin research on antidepressants, but also writes extensively of their usefulness in many situations, including his own life. As with so many things, it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. More importantly, the book is largely about the societal structures that make so many of us feel isolated and powerless in the first place, leading to or exacerbating significant rates of depression and anxiety. His point being that it might not be only about a chemical imbalance, but also about the structures we live in that can make life feel meaningless, or individuals feel worthless. It’s worth noting that when Stockton, California, reviewed its experiment in Universal Basic Income, the city found that rates of depression, anxiety, and stress among those receiving UBI decreased by levels comparable to clinical trials of Prozac. And their UBI was only $500/month.

Olivia Laing’s book The Lonely City is also a tremendous examination into the author’s own overwhelming loneliness, and how loneliness becomes political as well as personal (the book interweaves her own experience of loneliness after moving to New York, with the AIDS crisis that erupted in tandem with the artistic movements of New York City in the 1970s and 1980s.)