Loneliness Is Not About “Being Alone”

and other musings from ‘A Philosophy of Loneliness’.

One of you recommended that I read Lars Svendsen’s A Philosophy of Loneliness. I’m a few months late, but I’ve finally finished it. As someone who spent most of his early life is a state of perpetual loneliness, there was a lot in this book to think about and relate to.

What follows are a few musings on my favorite bits from the book.

Loneliness is my friend

The first thing to understand is that — in most cases — loneliness is good.

Humans have emotions for a reason. We experience “bad” emotions like anger, fear, or sadness because they help (or helped) us survive. Fear helps me run from angry lions. Anger helps me fight off enemies.

When I was lonely, my loneliness pushed me to make friends. It encouraged me to talk to strangers on the street. Without loneliness, I guess I would still be lonely.

Emotions are usually good, but sometimes they go out of control. Sadness can turn into crippling depression. Anger can turn into abusive rage.

A sign that loneliness has gone out of control is that you’re always lonely.

If you’re lonely for a few months after your beloved Grandmother Gretta passes away, that’s normal. But if you’ve been lonely every day for the past five years, something is wrong.

Svendsen calls this kind of loneliness chronic loneliness.

Alone in a crowd

So what leads to chronic loneliness?

You might think that being alone leads to loneliness, but this is not the case, says Svendsen:

…an average person spends almost 80 per cent of their waking hours together with others. That is also true of the lonely. …[Lonely people] spend no more time alone than the group who answer that they do not feel lonely. Indeed, in a review of over four hundred essays devoted to the experience of loneliness, one researcher found no correlation at all between the degree of physical isolation and the intensity of the loneliness felt. As such, the actual number of people by whom a person is surrounded is uncorrelated to the emotion of loneliness.

Some of my loneliest years were spent living in Tokyo — a city with 10 million people. I was also pretty in lonely in high school, despite spending 8 hours a day every day with the same people.

What this suggests is that loneliness is not just about aloneness.

Good ingredients; Bad chef

From the outside, lonely people look a lot like everyone else:

Lonely people are no more or less physically attractive than the rest of the population, nor are they more or less intelligent. Their everyday activities are not different from those of the non-lonely.

What’s more, the chronically lonely people tend to stay that way, no matter how life circumstances change:

A person tested at a given time for their degree of loneliness will often score similarly on tests earlier or later in their life. Of course, changes in external circumstances influence loneliness, but for many the degree of loneliness experienced remains quite stable, despite dramatic changes in life circumstances. This suggests that loneliness for these people depends more on individual disposition than on external circumstance.

This counters the common belief that all you need to do to overcome loneliness is to find the right home city (San Francisco, no doubt), friend group, rock climbing club, or lover.

This suggests that, for the pathologically lonely, loneliness comes from within:

For many chronically lonely people … the problem seems to be this: no matter what their social surroundings might be — whether or not they are constantly surrounded by caring and thoughtful friends and family — they still feel lonely. They harbour an expectation of attachment so strong that it can never be realized. No subsequent change in their social surroundings will be able to solve their loneliness problem.

Svendsen calls this endogenous loneliness.

You can have all the ingredients for carrot cake, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be able to make one. You have to develop the skill of baking it.

Likewise, I guess you could say lonely people can have all the right “ingredients” to help overcome loneliness — close friends, loving family, tight community, etc. — but they may not have the right internal, psychological skills to bake their way out of their loneliness.

“I’m on my ninth marriage because my last eight spouses sucked.”

What does it mean to say that loneliness comes from within?

Well, part of it is expectations. Chronically lonely people are social perfectionists, says Svendsen:

“social perfectionism … is more common among lonely individuals than non-lonely. The lonely person thinks that they are unloved and that no one will befriend them, but perhaps the problem is rather that, because they place such impossible demands on friendship and love, they are not capable of loving or befriending someone.”

It’s common in self-help to define happiness with the following equation: HAPPINESS = EXPECTATIONS — REALITY. That’s way too simplistic, but there’s a granule of truth there — if your expectations are too high, nobody is good enough.

Where do these expectations come from? Svendsen seems to think they come, in part, from overly-idealistic stories of love and friendship:

“Idealized stories about the nature of love lead us astray, and make it more difficult to realize that love that is most certainly real… If you establish an ideal of love that no one will ever be able to meet, however, you thereby make it impossible to ever have your need for love satisfied.”

A lot of young people seem to have unrealistic expectations of love. It certainly doesn’t look like it does in the movies, and I’ve found that accepting you’ll have bad days helps you appreciate the good ones more.

Miss Independent = Miss Lonely

The most interesting — and perhaps most significant — thing about the the chronically lonely, though, is that they cannot trust others.

You can see this even on a national level. Countries with high levels of trust (Nordic countries) are lower in loneliness, while countries with low levels of trust (Greece, Italy, former Communist countries, etc.) are lonelier. This doesn’t guarantee a cause-and-effect relationship, but it’s interesting to think about.

What is it about a lack of trust that might lead to loneliness? Well, a major source of meaning in life comes from being needed by others. And, to be needed by others, there needs to be a mutual relationship of trust and vulnerability.

Trusting people means being willing to be hurt:

“When you demonstrate trust in someone, you become vulnerable, and when you demonstrate trust regarding something or someone important to you, you become extremely vulnerable. If you confide in them, you lose control over that information. If you attempt to form ties to them, you run the risk of rejection.”

Trust is a two-way street, and if you’re not willing to trust others and risk a bit of pain and suffering for them, they’re not going to trust or rely on you either.

What’s worse is that, when you get in the habit of not trusting others, it becomes a self-perpetuating cycle:

“Fear and mistrust also become self-perpetuating. Mistrust fosters more mistrust, because, among other reasons, it isolates individuals from situations where they could have learned to trust others. Lonely people perceive their social surroundings as threatening to a greater extent than do non-lonely people, and this fear hinders the precise thing that could cause it to decrease: human contact.”

“I only care about you because you make me feel nice.”

Now here’s my favorite part from the book.

For whatever reason, we need to care about others for them to care about us. And this is precisely what the chronically lonely cannot do:

“In conversations, lonely people tend to talk more about themselves and ask fewer questions. … They seem to be difficult to get to know. They are also more self-centered than others. And yet, self-absorbed individuals are utterly dependent on the gaze of others. It is only by occupying another person’s field of view that they find confirmation of their existence. Nonetheless, lonely people do not have a true relationship to themselves or others. They meet themselves only in the reflection they see in others’ eyes. As such, other people become nothing more than a set of mirrors. … Indeed, the individual reduces others first and foremost to the role of provider of such confirmation. Ultimately, they are not actually interested in others — and that is precisely the reason they are so lonely.

I know people like this, and what disturbs me deeply is how they think of human relationships as a transaction. Social time with others is a source of pleasure, or stimulation, or distraction but not as something valuable in itself.

I wonder what makes people this way. Is it education? Is it childhood experiences? Is it genetics? Lars doesn’t go much into this.

There’s a lot more to think about in the book, and a suggest you read it yourself, especially if you suffer from loneliness or know somebody who does.

From how I wrote this, it might sound like Svendsen is saying, “Lonely people are self-absorbed, can’t trust others, and have extreme expectations, so it’s their fault that they’re lonely.”

But that’s not what I believe, and I don’t think that’s what Svendsen is saying. A large part of how you see the world is the result of things outside of your control. Half of loneliness is genetic, and another big part of it may be because people taught you to think in the wrong way.

Once you realize and admit, though, that loneliness also comes from within, you can start to take the first steps towards changing it.

I end with this final quote from Svendsen:

“Only a person who can exhibit friendship and love can feel lonely. On the other hand, it is also reasonable to say that only a being with the capacity for loneliness can love or be someone’s friend.”

Though I don’t ever want to go back to suffering from chronic loneliness, I don’t think it’s realistic to expect a life free from loneliness either. Loneliness comes in a package with love and friendship, and it’s not going away as long as we hold those things valuable.


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Originally published at thepolymathproject.com on August 19, 2018.