The Perils and Privileges of Loneliness

Then stirs the feeling infinite, so felt In solitude, where we are least alone. —Lord Byron 

Loneliness is a complex and unpleasant emotional response to isolation or lack of companionship. It can be either transient or chronic, and typically includes anxiety about a lack of connectedness or communality.

Loneliness is so painful that, throughout history, solitary confinement has been used as a form of punishment and torture. More than just painful, loneliness is also damaging. Lonely people eat and drink more, and exercise and sleep less. They are at a higher risk of developing psychological problems such as alcoholism, depression, and psychosis, and physical problems such as infection, cancer, and cardiovascular disease.

Loneliness has been described as ‘social pain’. Just as physical pain has evolved to signal injury and prevent further injury, so loneliness may have evolved to signal social isolation and motivate us to seek out social bonds. Human beings are profoundly social animals, and depend upon their social group for sustenance and protection. Historically and still today, to be alone is to be in mortal danger.

Causes of loneliness

The infant is especially dependent upon others, and loneliness may evoke and evolve from early fears of abandonment and neglect.

In later life, loneliness is an outcome of social isolation or an absence of meaningful social relationships.

It can be precipitated by breakup, divorce, death, or the sudden loss or undermining of any important long-term relationship. Such a split entails not only the loss of a single meaningful person, but also of that person’s entire social circle.

Loneliness can also result from disruptive life events such as moving schools, changing jobs, immigrating, getting married, or having a child; from social problems such as racism or bullying; from psychological states such as shyness, agoraphobia, or depression; and from physical problems that restrict mobility or require special care.

Loneliness is a particular problem of industrialization and modernization. One American study found that, between 1985 and 2004, the proportion of people reporting that they had no one to confide in almost tripled. In 1985, respondents most frequently reported having three close confidants; in 2004, nought close confidants.

These findings may be explained by such factors as smaller household sizes, greater migration, heavier media consumption, and longer life expectancy.

Large conglomerations built on productivity and consumption at the expense of connection and contemplation can feel profoundly alienating.

Aside from being intrinsically isolating, long commutes can undermine community feeling and compromise time and opportunities for socializing.

The internet has become the great comforter, and seems to offer it all: news, knowledge, music, entertainment, shopping, relationships, and even sex. But in the longer term, it stokes our envy and longing, distorts our needs and priorities, desensitizes us to violence and suffering, and, by creating a false sense of connectedness, entrenches superficial relationships at the cost of living ones.

The paradox of modern living

Man has evolved into one of the most social of all animals. Suddenly, he finds himself apart and alone, not on a mountaintop, in a desert, or on a ship at sea, but in a city of men, in reach but out of touch.

Such is the paradox of modern living.

Despite our fear of being alone, our society is highly individualistic and materialistic, so much so that people are no longer called people but individuals; and no longer defined by their social role or needs and aspirations but by their commercial function or consumer status.

A doctor is no longer a doctor but a healthcare provider or service provider, and his or her patients are no longer patients but clients, consumers, or service users. Anyone with an involvement or interest in their relationship is a stakeholder. Stakeholders include investors, creditors, commissioners, managers, administrators, suppliers, collaborators, contributors, commentators, and competitors.

All these parties train in communication, negotiation, and conflict handling skills, and schedule time and organize activities for team building, group bonding, and networking. Yet they cannot find the opportunity or humanity to listen, think, or feel, or even to exercise elementary common sense.

In March 2013, while facing the Health Select Committee to defend his record over the death of patients admitted to Stafford Hospital, the then Chief Executive of the National Health Service (NHS) Sir David Nicholson confessed to Members of Parliament that “during that period, across the NHS as a whole, patients were not the centre of the way the system operated.”


Some people actively choose to isolate themselves from the rest of society, or, at least, not to seek out social interactions. Such ‘loners’ (the very term implies abnormality and deviousness) may be on a spiritual or religious quest, or simply dislike or distrust others. Of course, not all loners actively choose to be lonely, but many do.

Timon of Athens, who lived at around the same time as Plato, began life in wealth, lavishing money upon his flattering friends and, in accordance with his noble conception of friendship, never expecting anything in return. But when he ran out of money, all his friends deserted him, reducing him to the hard toil of labouring the fields. One day, as he tilled the earth, he uncovered a pot of gold, and his old friends returned just as quickly as they had left him. Rather than take them back, he cursed them and drove them away with sticks and clods of earth. He publically declared his hatred of mankind and withdrew into the forest, where, much to his chagrin, people sought him out as some kind of holy man.

The psychology of loneliness

Did Timon feel lonely in the forest? Probably not, for loneliness is not simply a response to isolation or lack of companionship, but a response to their perceived lack.

Because Timon no longer valued his friends or their companionship, he could not have desired or missed them, even though he may have pined for a better class of man, and, in that limited sense, felt lonely.

Broadly speaking, loneliness is not an objective state of affairs, but a subjective state of mind, a function of desired and achieved levels of social interaction, and also of type or types of social interaction. Thus, lovers often feel lonely in the specific absence of their beloved, even if completely surrounded by friends and family.

Lovers who have been jilted feel far lonelier than those who are merely apart from their beloved, so it is not only social interaction in itself that matters, but also the potential for, or possibility of, social interaction.

Conversely, it is common to feel lonely within a marriage because the relationship is no longer validating or nurturing us, but instead diminishing us and holding us back. As the 19th century writer Anton Chekhov cautions, ‘if you are afraid of loneliness, do not marry.’

Ironically, marriage comes about not merely or even mostly out a desire for companionship and sexual intercourse, but also and above all from a desperate desire to escape from the loneliness that plagues us throughout our life, from a desperate desire to escape from our inescapable demons.

And so it can only be a matter of time before the loneliness resurfaces, often with a vengeance; for, ultimately, loneliness is not the experience of lacking, but rather the experience of being, and inalienable from the human condition.

Existential loneliness

On this account, loneliness is the manifestation of the conflict between our desire for meaning and the total absence of meaning from the universe, an absence that is all the more glaring in modern societies which forsake traditional and religious accounts of meaning and replace them with thin truth.

So much explains why people with a strong sense of purpose and meaning, or simply with a strong narrative, such as Nelson Mandela or St Anthony of the Desert, are protected from loneliness, irrespective of their actual social circumstances.

St Anthony of the Desert sought out loneliness precisely because he understood that it could bring him closer to the real questions and real value of life.

After spending 15 years in a tomb and 20 years in an abandoned fort in the desert of Egypt, his devotees persuaded Anthony to leave the seclusion of the fort to instruct and organize them, whence his epithet, ‘Father of All Monks’ (‘Monk’ and ‘Monastery’ derive from the Ancient Greek ‘monos’, ‘alone’).

Anthony emerged from the fort not ill and emaciated as people had been expecting but healthy and radiant, and lived to the grand old age of 105, which in the 4th century must in itself have counted as a minor miracle.


St Anthony did not lead a life of loneliness, but one of solitude.

Loneliness is the pain of being alone, and is damaging. Solitude is the joy of being alone, and is restorative, even empowering.

Our unconscious requires solitude to process and unravel problems, so much so that our body imposes solitude upon us every night in the form of sleep. Historically, people have delivered themselves from the oppression of the other or others by entering into a trance state, a phenomenon which, as a psychiatrist, I sometimes observe in my patients.

By removing us from the distractions, constraints, and judgements visited upon us by others, solitude frees us to reconnect with ourselves and derive ideas and meaning.

The 19th century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche argues that men without solitude are mere slaves because they have no choice but to parrot culture and society. In contrast, anyone who has unmasked society naturally seeks out solitude, which becomes the guarantor of a higher level of values and achievements. In The Dawn, Nietzsche writes,

I go into solitude so as not to drink out of everybody’s cistern. When I am among the many I live as the many do, and I do not think I really think. After a time it always seems as if they want to banish my self from myself and rob me of my soul.

Solitude delivers us from the hustlebustle of everyday life into an eternal and universal consciousness which reconnects us with our present, past, future, and deepest human nature, and also with the natural world, which quickens into our muse and companion. This lends us the depth and distance to dissociate from earthly concerns and bitter and irrational emotions, and stimulates problem-solving, creativity, and spirituality.

Solitude enables us to regulate and adjust our life, and, in so doing, to create the strength and security for deeper solitude and the meaning that guards against loneliness. Just as loneliness opens up a vicious circle, so solitude opens up a virtuous circle.

The life of St Anthony may leave the impression that aloneness is at odds with attachment. But this need not be the case, so long as the one is not pitted against the other. For the early 20th century poet Rainer Maria Rilke, the highest task of lovers is that each stands guard over the solitude of the other.

Sadly, not everyone is capable of solitude, and, for such people, aloneness merely results in loneliness. Younger people often find aloneness difficult, while more mature people may relish it and actively seek it out. So much suggests that solitude, the joy of being alone, stems from a state of maturity and inner richness.

Concluding remarks

Far from being a scourge, aloneness has an important role to play in any human life, and the capacity and ability for solitude are a pre-requisite for individuation and self-realization.

In his book of 1988, Solitude: A Return to the Self, the late psychiatrist Anthony Storr convincingly argues that,

The happiest lives are probably those in which neither interpersonal relationships nor impersonal interests are idealized as the only way to salvation. The desire and pursuit of the whole must comprehend both aspects of human nature.


McPherson, M et al. (2006): Social Isolation in America: Changes in Core Discussion Networks over Two Decades. American Sociological Review 71 (3): 353-75.

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  1. Apologies to the reader of this Comment having read Neel Burton’s latest blog posting. He, the Comment reader, is passing from the sublime to the ridiculous. I do, however, share an observation my own notwithstanding. When I stopped caring so much about my loneliness, loneliness no longer bothered me – or, as I surmise our blogger would have it, awful loneliness becomes empowering and joyful solitude. As ever, Dr Burton, thanks for describing the ‘obvious’.