The human condition of loneliness has been of interest to theologians, philosophers and social commentators since the beginning of time. The bible is full of references to the experience of being and feeling alone. No sooner did God create Adam before he was cited as saying: ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him’. Though he created Eve to help Adam deal with his loneliness, God knew that this condition was an integral dimension of human existence and the problem would not go away.
Theologians and philosophers devoted considerable energy and time attempting to understand loneliness. Throughout history loneliness was a subject of contemplation and philosophical reflection. That is why all the great thinkers of the Western Canon would be shocked and surprised to discover that in the 21st century loneliness is increasingly regarded and treated as a medical problem!
During the past two years there have been a whole spate of surveys and studies that claim that not only is loneliness a rapidly growing problem but that it is also a threat to human health. The language with which the supposed expansion of loneliness is framed is self consciously medical. It also uses a rhetoric of fear and alarm to the point, that the medical term, epidemic is frequently deployed to underline the gravity of this threat to human life.
The rhetoric of anxiety and fear underpins a report published in the beginning of May, which contends that loneliness is at an epidemic level in the United States. It claims that nearly half of Americans report that they feel ‘sometimes or always’ lonely and 20 per cent of those surveyed indicated that they never feel close to people and do not have anyone to talk to[i]. The former American Surgeon General, Dr Vivek H. Murthy asserted that loneliness is best thought of as an epidemic ‘ because it affects a great number of people in our country’ and also because ‘one’s person’s loneliness can have an impact on another person’.
Murthy’s claim that loneliness is akin to a contagious epidemic that can spread from one person to another represents a radical version of the growing trend to medicalise, what has always been an integral feature of the human condition
Murthy’s claim that loneliness is akin to a contagious epidemic that can spread from one person to another represents a radical version of the growing trend to medicalise, what has always been an integral feature of the human condition. However, the tendency to portray loneliness as a health problem is not confined to the United States.
In the United Kingdom, the Royal College of General Practitioners have recently asserted that doctors should be able to prescribe exercise classes, cooking groups and quiz teams to the growing number of ‘lonely and miserable patients’. They argue that family doctors spend too much time with what they call ‘heart-sink patients’, that is people who suffer from loneliness rather than a conventional medical condition. The Royal College estimated that a fifth of doctors’ appointments deal with social problems and that doctors have become the ‘new clergy’ dealing with people’s emotional problems[ii].
Even politicians have joined in on the new crusade against abolishing loneliness. Earlier this year the UK Government appointed Tracey Crouch into the newly established post of ‘Minister for Loneliness’. The appointment comes in the aftermath of a series of alarming reports about the prevalence of loneliness among the elderly.
What’s fascinating about the current anti-loneliness crusade is that it no confines its focus on the elderly. Until recent times loneliness was associated with old age. In recent years experts have discovered the condition of ‘loneliness at work’ and now the problem has expanded to include the young. The UK’s Office for National Statistics reported that ‘young adults are more likely to feel lonely than older age groups’[iii]. Last month, a study proclaimed that ‘lonely millennials’ faced a variety of health and social problems[iv]. This claim is echoed in America, where reports claim that loneliness has a disproportionately greater impact on the young than on older generations.
As a sociologist, I am sceptical about reports that purport to quantify an existential condition like happiness, fear or loneliness. Humans have struggle to explain and understand what it means to be alone. This is a feeling that has profound and complex, and very personal meanings, which cannot be reduced to quantifiable numbers. So when researchers conclude that loneliness is a ‘comparable risk factor for early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and is worse for us than well-known risk factors such as obesity and physical inactivity’, they speak the language an Orwellian propaganda rather than of science[v].
It becomes evident that people’s inner life has become the object of medicalization
When being lonely is regarded as a risk factor akin to smoking or being obese it becomes evident that people’s inner life has become the object of medicalization. The current trend for transforming the intangible dimensions of our inner life into calculable quantities is a central feature of the project of medicalising human experience.
Since the 1970s there has been a steady expansion of medical boundaries as more and more individual and social experiences are framed in medical terms as an illness or disorder. The promotion and celebration of health as the paramount value of Western society has encouraged people to interpret a growing range of human activities through the vocabulary of medicine. Illness categories are used to make sense of routine problems of existence. Shyness , apprehension of failure, the inability to focus on a problem, or being too active are just some of the forms of behaviour that are now diagnosed with a medical label.
Of course it is not pleasant to feel alone. Loneliness can be a source of desolation and anguish. But far from being a health problem, loneliness provides people with an opportunity to reflect on and try to understand their place in the world. The theologian Paul Tillich took a distinctly non-medical view of loneliness. He stated that it is a condition that we need to embrace because it forces us to engage with life’s two most fundamental questions: what is the meaning of life and how should we use our free will and subjectivity to understand ourselves.
Tillich drew attention to the two sides of loneliness. He wrote:
“Our language has wisely sensed these two sides of man’s being alone. It has created the word “loneliness” to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word “solitude” to express the glory of being alone.”
The philosopher Hannah Arendt elaborated the two sides of loneliness. She described loneliness as ‘that nightmare which, we all know, can very well overcome us in the midst of a crowd’ when we feel ‘deserted by oneself’. Yet, she argued that this nightmare is a symptom of the difficulty we have to engage with ourselves. She believed that the anguish of loneliness could be managed through the habit of conversing with oneself. She called this ‘silent dialogue of myself with myself’, solitude. For Arendt solitude had a positive connotation. She wrote that ‘though alone, I am together with somebody (myself) that is’. What Arendt, Tillich and other philosophers understood was that there is real value in gaining meaning about life through our solitude.
Paradoxically solitude is essential for the development of human subjectivity and of freedom
Paradoxically solitude is essential for the development of human subjectivity and of freedom. Our solitude provides a space where we can be free from any external pressure and control. It is a precious space that we open up to the gaze of doctors and health experts at the risk of undermining our sense of moral independence. Nietzsche’s little essay, Schopenhauer As Educator(1874) offers an eloquent warning on this point:
‘Wherever there have been powerful societies, governments, religions, or public opinions — in short, wherever there was any kind of tyranny, it has hated the lonely philosopher; for philosophy opens up a refuge for man where no tyranny can reach: the cave of inwardness, the labyrinth of the breast; and that annoys all tyrants.’
In the 21st century, it is not simply lonely philosophers who confront busy-body experts committed to relieving them of the burden of feeling alone. All of us our subject to the tyranny of medicalization
Unlike old-school tyrants who openly wished to impose their will on society, today’s crusaders against loneliness are well meaning people who are simply trying to make people feel good. What they do not understand is that not only there is no cure for loneliness but that if doctors ever came up with an anti-loneliness pill, it would actually be a curse!
Photo by Cristian Newman
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