Can we forge a better relationship with loneliness?
It’s a question that feels especially appropriate on Valentine’s Day, the holiday most linked to the lonely-hearted.
Over two decades since Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone” sounded the alarm on social isolation, and almost three years since COVID lockdowns began, we regularly speak about an epidemic of loneliness in the United States.
But for all the chatter in the popular press, loneliness remains a relatively taboo topic. As psychiatrists Jacqueline Olds and Richard S. Schwartz observed in their 2010 book “The Lonely American,” this nation, especially — with its self-reliance obsession — has created a culture of shame around what is an “ordinary human emotion.” So much so that they noted most of their patients “were more comfortable saying they were depressed than saying they were lonely.”
But what if we embraced the upside of loneliness?
“I’m quite fascinated by loneliness. It can be really beautiful when you turn it over,” the Canadian singer and songwriter Carly Rae Jepsen muses in the introduction to her latest album, “The Loneliest Time,” which samples different flavors of loneliness — from the breezy brutality of “Beach House” (a bop about trying to find a connection on dating apps, the hook goes: “I’ve got a beach house in Malibu, and I’m probably going to hurt your feelings”) to the lead single, “Western Wind,” which Jepsen wrote after losing her grandmother.
“The Loneliest Time,” born out of the pandemic, was what first got me thinking about how narrow our cultural framing of the subject remains. But that’s slowly changing. The album is part of an emerging body of art and scholarship that could help us imagine a wider story about loneliness in this country and around the world.
“The history of loneliness is fundamental to understanding its prevalence and meanings in the 21st century. And yet this history has been virtually neglected,” notes sociocultural historian Fay Bound Alberti in her 2019 work, “A Biography of Loneliness: The History of an Emotion.”
Bound Alberti dates what we now call “loneliness” back to the relatively recent 1800s, when the term shifted in use from referring to physical distance — how far you lived from town — to the emotional state associated with a perceived lack of company.
Modern loneliness, Bound Alberti argues, could only arise within a certain set of conditions — its invention dependent on “the formation of a society that was less inclusive and communal and more grounded in the scientific, medicalized idea of an individual mind, set against the rest.” It was the “philosophical and spiritual framework” of the industrializing world, then, that allowed for the condition of loneliness to take off.
But as Amherst College’s Amelia Worsley writes in the forthcoming “Routledge History of Loneliness,” while loneliness “could not have always signified what it does today” the “complexity of early references to loneliness has been overlooked” with some scholars of earlier periods going as far as to argue that throughout history “there has always been something like the experience that is today called loneliness.”
The “Routledge History of Loneliness” includes research from scholars like Hannah Yip and Thomas Clifton, experts in Renaissance-era British literature who recently held a digital conference exploring early modern loneliness. The online meeting examined how historical subjects’ views on loneliness compare with our own today. As it is now, Yip and Clifton conclude, loneliness was “a symptom of a system which at times alienates, isolates, or sidelines individuals.” And the balms for loneliness back then won’t be surprising: it’s “compassion and community,” they write, quoting the 17th-century poet and priest George Herbert’s poem “Denial”: “They and my minde may chime / And mend my ryme.”
Jepsen said something similar in conversation with author and critic Hanif Abdurraqib, who notes that on the album “there wasn’t any shame around loneliness or the idea of loneliness or the realities of loneliness, but it also wasn’t some finger-waggy thing — ‘You just got to be good at living alone.’”
“I don’t think loneliness, the cure for it, is being really good at being alone,” Jepsen said. “I think loneliness actually breeds a real human need for connection. Reaching for that is what I wanted from this album, and I think that’s why it has a hopeful spin on it. It’s not ‘Be OK on your own.’ It’s natural to want to reach for people; we should. That’s what life is about. So let your loneliness make you brave.”
The more we understand the history of loneliness, the more we can start to see it as a force like any other — one that can push us toward introspection and action and community. Just like 500 years ago, when the balladeers sang about being alone, turning on “The Loneliest Time” can be taken as an invitation to embrace how this tangle of emotions can connect us to the larger human experience.
Jackie Mansky is senior editor at Zócalo Public Square, where a version of this essay first appeared.