For millennia upon millennia, we humans were a cooperative species, (literally) thin-skinned mammals that had to hunt and forage together to survive in an unforgiving world. Then came capitalism and its relentless veneration of the individual: Work hard enough and out-compete your fellow humans, and you too could die rich and entirely alone.Around 1800, with the Industrial Revolution in full steam, an interesting transition appeared in Western literature, according to historian Fay Bound Alberti of the University of York, author of A Biography of Loneliness: The History of an Emotion. People had once described solitude as a cathartic, temporary escape from your fellow humans—think of a nice hike to take in the majesty of the natural world, for instance. After industrialization, they began to describe it more as loneliness, an involuntary and crippling isolation.
“When the language of loneliness emerged around about 1800, before then people did use the word lonely, but they meant being alone,” Alberti says. “So Jesus was lonely. Trees can be lonely. And it wasn't really used to describe emotional lack.”In the two centuries since that linguistic shift appeared, loneliness has turned into a full-blown epidemic, or so we’re told. Three out of five Americans may be lonely, according to one survey by health insurer Cigna. The problem is particularly acute among the elderly, though millennials increasingly report being lonely—a YouGov survey found one in three are always or often so. The UK even appointed a loneliness minister a few years back, with the goal of starting a national conversation about the issue.
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Loneliness is a problem, to be sure, but calling it an epidemic isn’t the right approach to tackling that problem, Alberti argues. “When we use language like ‘epidemic’ or ‘plague,’ what we do is we suggest it's something that’s happening to us, that it’s coming from the outside, rather than being something that is a social problem,” she says. Specifically, that problem grew out of the shift from agriculture to industrialization that led the young to move away from the old, leaving elders to fend for themselves, and to the capitalist veneration of the individual above the group, obliterating the community in favor of profit.
But what does that mean in the age of Covid-19, when people must isolate by necessity to slow the spread of a vicious virus? Perhaps this is an opportunity, Alberti says, to talk more openly about loneliness, and for at least some of us to once again embrace that old idea of solitude as a cathartic and creative force.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
WIRED: I think first off, it’d be helpful for you to talk about how you define loneliness.Fay Bound Alberti: I think what we mean today is an emotional lack, an awareness of the discrepancy between the relationships that we want and those that we have. And it tends to be associated with a negative emotional lack today. What I argue in the book is actually there's lots of different things that make up loneliness. It has lots of different emotions attached to it, from anger to grief to sorrow to jealousy and resentment. We tend to think of lonely people just needing us to reach out, just waiting to be helped and supported and made to feel less lonely. But I think that does an injustice to the different kinds of emotions that are involved. Often people who are lonely or prickly don't necessarily want company, and certainly don't want just anyone. I think if we understand those complexities, then it becomes easier to support people who are lonely and to know when we don't need to do anything at all.