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On Loneliness and Solitude (pa-mar.net)
136 points by Pamar 8 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 36 comments

As this essay does, it always helps to dig deeper into what a word such as loneliness actually means.

I've written about this a bit below[1,2]. I'm interested in what the ingredients of these deep relationships are, both emotionally (eg. interests, vulnerability) and logistically (eg. time, proximity) so that we can better create and maintain them. I think that if we can influence these factors, we can have better control of our natural degree of loneliness (and to emphasize, some amount is completely natural).


I think the word “loneliness” is loaded with a ton of baggage, so maybe a better way to frame it is as “a lack of deep relationships.” I have a couple of thoughts here.

First, defined in this way, you can have one close friend and not be lonely. You can have a ton of “friends” and still be lonely. This seems much more intuitively correct.

Second, deep relationships are hard, and things which are hard are generally rare. It’s hard to get out of the house, leave what is comfortable and go meet strangers. On top of that, we’ve all had times where we meet new people, have a lot in common - and yet, nothing “deeper” materializes. And on top of that, strengthening and maintaining a relationship takes a lot of work. Without investment of time or effort, relationships atrophy. Deep relationships should necessarily be uncommon.

[1] https://alexpetralia.github.io/2018/04/02/NL-2018-04-02.html

[2] https://alexpetralia.github.io/2018/03/19/NL-2018-03-19.html

Interesting thought, which seems logical, but I'm not sure it's enough. People can still be lonely around family or close friends, so to some degree it is seems situational. How do we explain the apparently inexorable rise of loneliness across the globe? Have deep relationships become less common or more difficult to achieve in the last half century? If it were that simple wouldn't we find it easier to resolve?

> Deep relationships should necessarily be uncommon

I don't think this follows. It's not that long ago that people most often lived in a small town or village and had deeper relationships with just about everyone. Partly because life and work constrained numbers and proximity and you knew most for much of your life.

I think it needs more than a close friendship. The true solution to loneliness is a lasting and intimate relationship with a romantic partner. That is something I believe has become truly hard to find.

I don't know that picking apart a single word is a worthwhile pursuit. Clearly, the author of the book seems to think that it is.

I get the impression, from looking at what else Lars Svendsen has written about - that he chooses a word with strong cultural baggage and yet no clear definition, and spends a great deal of time, viewing the word through many different lens.

The interest and need to do this falls away, as you gain a strong enough sense of what your life is about, as you divorce yourself from cultural (including parental) expectations and start to figure out what works, and doesn't work, for you.

Once you're on the path of deciding what works for you, loneliness, boredom, fear, work, freedom etc - they're just not that interesting. You're simply living out your life. You cease being so incredibly insecure, because either you find a small group of people who share your values and that's enough, or you find that living with minimal human contact is actually quite alright :)

ps. most people fit within society's expectations and embrace them and are not bothered by them too much to begin with, and hence don't have this problem. This is for those who feel like they don't belong on some level.

Interesting read.

When I was in my twenties, loneliness, when it came, felt like the absence of another. Nobody specific, just a gap where somebody should be when you're travelling alone etc.

Now in my thirties, loneliness rarely surfaces. Company is great but there's never a need for it. I guess as you get older you become more replete and that 'gap' disappears.

It also seems that a feeling of saudade replaces loneliness as one ages - a longing for a place or a person that perhaps cannot be satiated. But unlike loneliness which you describe as "a specific type of sadness", saudade is less sad than it is bittersweet. Beautiful even.

> https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saudade

It's an unpopular notion in these times, but it might even be said that this arises from a deep-seated awareness that one is separated from one's true source or even (gasp) "God."

That's how cults get their claws into you.

Don't drive, you'll die on the road.

Oh man, there's a word for that? I think I've been overloading the word "nostalgia" by using it to mean saudade because I didn't realize there was a dedicated word for the more complicated emotional and existential side of nostalgia.

Yep, it is Portuguese (and a strong cultural ingredient in Portugal and Brazil)...

at different times we crave different things, young adults may have a lot of social pressure to be surrounded and liked (maybe a pre-sexual builtin to ensure being part of a pack) that can cause sensation of loneliness through a feeling of not being normal.

I, and a few others, felt that urge to fit in, until a point where your brain just matures and says 'fuck it, I know what I need, and "others" may not be that, or rarely so' which makes being alone a lot less of an issue.

Reminds me of the themes embodied in Makoto Shinkai's films (5cm/s in particular) -- the feeling of longing or nostalgia that will never quite be realized.

I think loneliness gets worse when we see "perfect friendships" on TV that last for years, like in Harry Potter or Scrubs. It makes us feel that we are missing something very important to human feelings - complete or near complete trust on another human being.

Movies and TV shows are naturally biased towards social relationships and friendships because it's hard to present a first person point of view. Yet I assume that's where the future of entertainment lies, in first person virtual reality. Peep Show with David Mitchell and Robert Webb is the only exception I can recall but the humour there is fairly dark and nihilistic so it's hardly an endorsement for solitude (besides, they're flatmates). A counterexample from literature I can recall is Robinson Crusoe, who is alone on the island for the first time in his life but not lonely because of a new-found relationship with God.

Reminds me how people felt in the 70s with the wave of ideal tv shows where everything was clean, neat and nice. A lot of people liked shows such as Married with children because it was a show depicting flawed characters and families.

This I agree with, but it was not in the book (I might add a bit about it in my own comments). Thanks for suggesting this: the author says that lonely people have unrealistic expectations about human relationships but he does not mention that movies, tv, novels and comics could have intensified this a lot. So we could probably blame literature/entertainment more than "Social Media"

Roughly speaking, loneliness and solitude are the negative and positive aspects of 'being alone'. So I guess 'being alone' is a much bigger topic than either loneliness or solitude or both.

Second, I'm much more interested in the topic of being alone in the internet era. And what I mean by that is that you're not being alone in the pre-technology sense, which would resemble going out into the woods and living there, or stuck on an island. Instead, you live in your home, don't have roommates, or an SO, etc. But you have access to internet!

You might think it's worse to be alone and see people on the internet hanging out and having fun. I'd say you're looking at it the wrong way. If you see people hanging out, you're in a sense hanging out with them (you're living vicariously through those people). If you watch a serious of videos of people having fun, people talking in podcasts, interviews, you had a pretty stimulating social experience. It's not physically social, but it's social nonetheless. But maybe you want interaction. Well, you can interact in online forums, chat rooms.

So, in my opinion, being (physically) alone in the internet era is a lot more self-sustaining and a doable lifestyle than being along without internet.

Author here - I had submitted this a couple months ago and HN's asked me to resubmit to see if it fared a bit better.

"Ask me anything..."

Thanks for putting together this summary of the book "A Philosophy of Loneliness" by Lard Svendsen and adding your reflections on it. Lots to think about there. I especially liked the picture of the person with the guitar by the seashore.

And the David Foster Wallace quote you requoted was insightful: "Lonely people tend, rather, to be lonely because they decline to bear the psychic costs of being around other humans. They are allergic to people. People affect them too strongly."

You write near the end of your review: "The book clarified for me an important point, though: Solitude is something that we actively seek, while Loneliness is something that we try to escape. Apart from that, they are exactly the same thing: being alone (which in turn is something that happens quite often - in fact, humans are "alone" most of the time)."

Given that, what are your thoughts then on the phrase "alone in a crowd"? For example: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-introverts-corne... "We know loneliness may or may not be related to being alone. Introverts can be perfectly happy alone, or terribly lonely in a crowd. But if introverts are at any particular risk for loneliness, it could be because we set a high bar for friendship. We desire and require deep connections and would rather be lonely alone than in a crowd. But realistically, those deep connections are not easy to find, and if we get caught short and our only choice is superficial socializing or nothing, we can get lonely."

Also, you say the book suggests: "Another of the prevalent journalism theories (internet and social media will result in an increase of individualism and loneliness) seems not to be supported by empirical studies: those who use social media report having a more active social life and more frequent personal interaction with other (outside of social media itself, of course)."

I wonder about that, given the notion of narrowly focused "supernormal stimuli" and how super-fascinating (anti-)social media can potentially displace more holistic human interactions especially over meals. But websites that arrange meetings of people with common interests can counter that trend, so obviously that's not a black and white thing. A related book on that if you are looking for something to summarize next: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Supernormal_Stimuli

"alone in a crowd": the book's author argues that actually this is the most natural human experience - we are "always alone", even with loved ones, even while having passionate sex, because our own concept of self is not shareable (barring some sci-fi trope): what I am feeling now while composing this answer is different from what the person sitting to my side (I'm on a bus) is experiencing. Same with me towards her, of course. There are maybe 50 people in this bus, and we are fifty individuals travelling alone towards a specific German town... everyone has different stories and different reasons and probably different hopes or expectations about what happens when we get there. And trying to make an info dump to another person to make him/her understand my situation so that I am not alone anymore would take hours if not days... and probably further distance each other, because the girl sitting to my side would then be unable to share how it feels to get a stranger twice her age to start describing his feelings about this trips, in English, too, which is not mine or her native tongue. ;)

Lots of crossroads on that bus.

When I was on one, in the exact same situation, it was impossibile not to think about the staggering quantity of humans in this world, each of them separated by language, culture, beliefs, needs, space. Suddenly, communication and building bridges becomes one of the really important questions.

I hadn't heard that Wallace quote before but that almost exactly nails how I feel. The emotional cost of maintaining friendships and relationships, and the pain of losing really close ones, is just too much and I've decided it's not worth it. I am honestly happier without all that.

When did this happen? Did anything specific cause it? What is your life like now?

Lots of questions, but I've never heard this development phrased in a positive way before. It's usually associated with social withdrawal and depression.

About: "more holistic human interactions especially over meals". This my own personal opinion and I am not offering any advice or passing judgement: "If you feel like checking out HN's over lunch more compelling than talking to your colleagues... it's because you find your colleagues not very interesting to interact with". Shunning social interaction in such circumstances is rude and not a desiderable trait, but the desire to do so means just that: you are not very interested in the people you go around with. Ask yourself why it is so, and try adressing that problem instead.

That's a well and truly awful generalization. It's perfectly alright to be in someone's presence without direct interaction. You can read a book or watch tv with a loved one, for instance. That doesn't in any way mean you don't find said loved one 'interesting'. There is more to 'loneliness' and its antithesis than talking to someone.

Saying not talking to a coworker over lunch is rude seems harsh and rude.

Maybe you misunderstood me or I misunderstood the OP. Or both (in my defense, I was writing on my cellphone on a bus, maybe I will be more articulate now).

What I understood from the OP was something like "people who share lunch and instead of interacting prefer to constantly check their phones for FB, news, interesting links and so on".

If this is the subject, then my take is: doing this "in presence of others is rude". It is much better to sit together with others even without speaking, or not adding much to the conversation in any case.

Sitting alone to read stuff over your smartphone while eating (also: substitute paper book if you prefer) is not the most socially inviting move but it is way better than sitting together with someone else and ignoring them.

Assuming we agree on what I wrote above, I will not go back to my original point: if when you are together with others you feel like you would prefer be alone and checking out something on Wikipedia (or try to find excuses to somehow glimpse at you FB feed) it could just be a symptom of not really being interested in Frank's son antics at the kindergarten or Jane's rant about the current POTUS or the last football's match.

If this happens also with relatives, this is perfectly normal, too: you have probably just different interests (compounded by the fact that if you have known each other for decades there is a high risk of getting mostly rehashes of stuff you know already).

What I am trying to get across is: "if you spend time with people that you consider genuinely interesting, I am pretty sure that the smartphone will stay in your pocket (unless if someone wants to check something on wikipedia or whatever)".

Note also that (to more specifically address what you wrote) it is perfectly ok to share a meal with little to no interaction (apart from "please pass the salt" or whatever). It is in fact a proof that you are perfectly comfortable as a couple or a group, but again, this is different from one or more participants focusing on their own small screens as if they were completely alone at the table.

The book, and your article, basically skip over a key fact. That is, the real definition of loneliness, in my opinion, is being accepted by your peers, and seeking self validated, and the lack of these two things on a daily or regular basis is "bad". But the next question is, what is the value of seeking validation, peer acceptance, "go along to get along", etc? If you value this a lot in life, and you are alone, you are going to be sad because there will be nobody there to fill this void aka "loneliness". How to deal with this negative trait? Just no longer value this idea, because it can't be a positive aspect until you realize it is a completely made up subjective ideology and throw it out the window. Instead, seek validation in yourself and do what you want to do in life, what you think is right, what your goals should be, how you reach them positively, and what hurdles and steps you need to get there. You'll find out you won't be lonely at all, because other people will see your virtue and self leadership and then come bother to seeking their own validation. Unfortunately you could end up in a situation where people won't leave you alone trying to figure out your "secret", which I found is kind of a paradox. I actually think this whole seeking validation from other peer groups is completely toxic and leads to a sociopathic power structure (the whole "SJW" movement is an extreme version of this), but that's a different subject.

Also it sounds like you have some negative thinking going on here, I would read Learned Optimism (the above has nothing to do this this book), Feeling Good, and other CBT books. The last part about Rituals is also alarming for another reason I won't go into this board, but basically when you are negative or toxic it creates a void where, so to speak, evil can take over. Trying to escape evil with "rituals" (whatever that is, worshiping the devil? doing degenerative things like drugs and alcohol?) is toxic behavior that's just going to make things worse.

Very interesting. Thank you! “... a forum discussion about - of all things - modern apparel industry” Would you please be so kind to share the link to this discussion?

I wanted to include it in the original piece, actually, and I have tried to retrieve it again just to answer to you, but both attempts failed :(

I am fairly sure I read it here on HN, but I tried looking for the author's surname in comments and could not find it (or some obvious misspellings).

Sorry, if I ever manage to find it again I will update my piece too.

No problem! Thank you for the attempts and the quick reply!

Coincidentally, Charles Chu just posted his own take on the same book: https://medium.com/the-polymath-project/loneliness-is-not-ab...

(The person who suggested it to him was ... me, just like I did with my I-Ching piece: https://www.pa-mar.net/Lifestyle/I-Ching.html )

" I am no more lonely than a single mullein or dandelion in a pasture, or a bean leaf, or sorrel, or a horse-fly, or a bumblebee. I am no more lonely than the Mill Brook, or a weathercock, or the north star, or the south wind, or an April shower, or a January thaw, or the first spider in a new house." (Thoreau)

O solitude, my sweetest choice. Places devoted to the night, remote from tumult and from noise, how ye my restless thoughts delight!

This wonderful song was composed by Purcell on a translation of a French poem which was popular across all Europe in the XVIIth century. If you excuse the anachronism, solitude was already romantic.


After reading these summaries of the chapters of "A Philosophy of Loneliness", I'm not at all convinced of the quality of the book. Here is a sample of critic that I hope will be judged constructive.

1. First of all, this definition of loneliness is too convoluted. Being alone is objective, while being lonely is subjective, it is a feeling. That talk of "quality" of relationships and "life meaning" may have some truth in some cases, but it is not a generic principe: for example, I remember discussing with someone who avoided deep bonds and openly thrived for quantity. Some persons will never feel lonely as long as they know they have people they can chat with. I also feel it is rather pointless to introduce categories for something that has no clear boundaries, and varies so much across societies and individuals.

The "devastating effects that Loneliness can have on health" are a tautology, since loneliness is defined as the negative feeling of solitude. Any extended negative feeling may have a bad impact on the health. But, as far as I know, there is no proven correlation between chosen solitude and health problems. Considering the intrinsic experimental difficulties (how to measure "chosen solitude"? etc) I doubt anything conclusive can emerge.

6. Maybe the rejection of living with a partner is increasing, but the numbers of single persons and solo households are very misleading. Detailed investigations rule out that chosen solitude could be the main factor in their evolution. For example, in France (INSEE 2014), 16% of the households are made of a single person. But these 16% are the sum of 9% for people aged less than 65 and 7% for those above 65. It looks like the main factor for solo households is the raise of widowhood caused by longer lives.


I was much more interested by the personal comments in the right column. Some resonated with me: I looked for total solitude during most of these summer holidays, to the point my own voice surprised me when I had to speak again. Now that I'm back to work, I'll have to endure "the psychic costs of being around other humans". These past years, I've told my friends and family that I am more and more reluctant to endure that cost. But I don't feel really concerned by the rest of the quote: "They are allergic to people. People affect them too strongly."

Like the OP, I'm interested in the artefacts that have been used to fight loneliness. Rituals are one of those, as pointed by the excellent novel "Friday, or the other island" (M. Tournier) where Robinson Crusoe uses work, rituals and religion to keep his mind occupied and avoid loneliness or questions on the meaning of life.

it burns really bad now

When I saw the title and when I saw "1 comment" below it, I had to just chime in. Now we are 2 comments.

I must admit I was counting on someone to do this, but I am happy this is actually igniting some interesting discussion, I will update my piece later and link to this thread.

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