A History of Loneliness: How We Invented the Terror of Isolation

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It’s hard to say when the history of loneliness exactly begins. But one thing is clear: Loneliness is a deeply inherent human feeling. It developed as a survival instinct — like hunger — to signal us the importance of companionship.

And because our brain software hasn’t really changed for millennia, this feeling of loneliness is still the same as it was back then. But you know what’s strange? The terror of loneliness is a fairly new phenomenon. In fact, loneliness didn’t really emerge until the 18th century.

This begs a critical question: Why is loneliness such a modern problem?

One thing is clear. We must find the answers if we want to get modern loneliness under control. We must understand the history of loneliness.

The History Book of Loneliness

To make this a bit more fun, let’s imagine the history of loneliness as a 700-page book. Page one marks the beginning of the human species as we know it today (which was roughly 315,000 years ago). And page 700 marks the year 2022.

What would the pages tell us about loneliness?

Page 0–670

The first 670 pages are one-word entries. Scattered letters.

See, back in the day, you simply couldn’t afford to be alone. Social connection used to be a direct indicator of how likely you were to survive. Belonging to a close-knit tribe was the defining survival edge humans had over other species. It made sure everyone stayed warm, safe, and fed.

When you were all alone, however, you didn’t stand a chance against teeth-clenching lions, natural disasters, and your own empty belly. Thus, loneliness resulted in one of two simple consequences: death or reconnection.

That’s why, for the vast majority of human history, feeling lonely was never a prolonged issue. Quite the opposite: It was a tool. A survival mechanism.

Page 670–699

Then, all the way on page 670, there are a few vague sentences on loneliness. As humans started settling down, we can argue that loneliness became a real possibility. People who could accumulate wealth became more independent and could detach themselves from the clockwork of society — if they wanted to.

But that was the exception.

Survival was still highly dependent on participating in a densely woven community. (If anything, we should assume that aristocrats felt lonely because of all of their bragging, status games, and estrangement from another.)

This pattern continues for several more pages, and you’re already wondering if the history book of loneliness is a scam. Lonely people pop up here and there, but the topic never becomes a pressing issue.

But then finally: on page 699, we get some action.

Page 699

Suddenly, we find stories, poems, and elegies on the sorrows of loneliness. This has two main causes:

First, the industrial revolution spread over Europe. People left their homes and families to work in factories. As a result, traditional communities shrank while cities mushroomed. And so did loneliness: Factory workers often felt alienated from the world, their work, others, and themselves.

Second, Romanticism became a defining model for Western thought. People started emphasizing individualism and the emotional side of human nature.

Now, the Romantics felt twofold about loneliness.

On the one hand, they literally romanticized loneliness to commune with nature and spark insight. On the other hand, they stressed the importance of finding a soul mate. This idea slowly developed into the only kind of love worth fighting for. Until today, lacking a soul mate can mean despair, desolation, and, of course, loneliness.

By now, you think you’ve reached the end of the book of loneliness. But what’s that? There’s a solid black shape at the bottom of the page.

The bottom of page 699

At first, you think it’s just a flat rectangle. But at a closer look, you realize it’s an extremely fine-printed block of text that fills the entire footer area of the page. The words seem to spill over the edges. Letters are everywhere.

You squint your eyes and read the heading: “The Terror of Modern Loneliness.”

The Terror of Modern Loneliness

Today, loneliness has stopped acting as a survival mechanism. Instead, it has transformed into a deadly epidemic. Chronic loneliness is twice as deadly as obesity and as deadly as being an alcoholic or smoking a pack of cigarettes per day.

It’s worth pausing on that.

If you’re lonely, your mortality risk shoots up by 26%.

Of course, we don’t know if loneliness carried the same health risks in the stone age. But we do know that loneliness has soared over the past decades. These sheer numbers make it so deadly today.

How could such a drastic turn happen in the otherwise stable history of loneliness? There are two main forces.

Force #1: The end of tribes

The first strike was the destruction of tribes through civilization. Then, industrialization came along. People became fiercely independent and moved all across the globe. And eventually, atomized modern life gave already dying communities the coup de grace.

Sure, these changes brought us individualism and personal freedom. But these qualities beget loneliness. According to historian Keith Snell, the trend of living alone is the most significant cause of loneliness.

Force #2: The toxic stories of loneliness

The second incision is the way we think about loneliness today. This is, to a great extent, defined by the stories we’ve started telling ourselves. The message usually goes like this:

Loneliness is pure horror. Lonely people are creepy. Thus, we should avoid loneliness at all costs and banish it from our emotional life.

How to turn the History of Loneliness into a More Connected Future

Obviously, it’s rough to change modern civilization back into neat little tribes. If anything, one-person apartments and alienated cities are going to skyrocket in the next decades.

But the second development — the way we think about loneliness — is malleable. We came up with these stories. Which means we can retell them. See the good in them. Learn our lessons.

Psychologists call this process reframing. And we can also apply it to loneliness.

Why? Because loneliness is — like other emotions — an internal feeling, not an external circumstance. From the outside, you could have a perfectly stable social life and still feel lonely. Or, with the right mindset, you could feel connected.

So, here are two examples to reframe loneliness.

Rediscovering inner connection

Until the early 19th century, we didn’t even have a word for loneliness.

“Loneliness meant simply ‘oneliness,’” Fay Bound Alberti writes in A Biography of Loneliness, “which was less a psychological or emotional experience than a physical one.” This ‘oneliness’ simply meant being alone to commune with an ever-present God.

In this sense, we can argue that secularism was the spark that ignited the bonfire of our modern loneliness epidemic. I’m not religious myself, but I can’t deny the power religion holds to unite people. To make us belong. To provide a spiritual connection.

But to this day, we struggle to find replacements for religion. The temple of our era is the New Age section in bookstores. It’s climbing an endless career ladder in the hope of creating something that lasts. It’s the over-consumption of — well, everything to materialize our desires.

So here’s the thing:

Religion has told an excellent story about loneliness because it literally says you’re not alone. In the Middle Ages, saints couldn’t possibly feel lonely because, rest assured, God was always with them. If you felt lonely, that was great news: Have a chat with God!

In other words, loneliness used to open a door for connection, not alienation.

Now, I don’t think you need to be religious to recreate this sense of ever-present belonging (but if you want to, more power to you). You can also build a deep connection with many other things.

Here are three instances where I’ve observed such a connection despite feeling lonely:

  • Enjoying the stillness of raw nature, taking it in with all my senses, and thinking about how all this life once originated from the same small puddle.
  • Knowing that everything is part of something bigger. I might buy an apple at a local market and realize how someone planted that tree. How the apples were harvested by a community. And how it was delivered to me at this very moment, so I can buy and savor it. “Enlightenment,” Thich Nhat Hanh said, “is when the wave realizes it is the ocean.”
  • Getting to know my mind. Sometimes it seems as if there’s someone else living in my brain, and I’m simply the person observing what the hell is going on. That’s incredibly soothing and makes for great company when I’m lonely.

Find your own ways for inner connection. Be curious about loneliness. See it as a chance.

Building a meaningful social life

Here’s another fascinating observation Alberti makes in her book A Biography of Loneliness.

In Daniel Defoe’s The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1719), loneliness doesn’t exist. That’s right. A man who spends twenty-eight years alone on a remote island never feels lonely. To modern readers, this is a mystery.

By contrast, there’s the movie Castaway (2000), starring Tom Cruise as Chuck, who also strands on a desert island. One of his first actions on the island is to paint a face on a volleyball, name it Wilson, and make it his best friend. This, of course, makes sense to a modern audience because we can’t imagine how a person could possibly be alone for longer periods of time.

Castaway and Crusoe pretty much tell the same story, only 300 years apart. So why has the story around loneliness changed so drastically?

Part of the reason is our desperate need to socialize these days. And that, in turn, is because a good network is the enabler of modern success. I hate to admit it, but when people say your network is your net worth — well, they’re right. As a result, we now equate a rich social life with fame, respect, and wealth.

This is a problem.

We use the wrong metrics to measure a rich social life. Usually, we go by sheer numbers (e.g., obsessing over our follower counts on social media). But that isn’t exactly fruitful.

Why? Because some people have it way easier to make superficial connections. And this can make people who prefer fewer yet more intimate connections feel left out.

For this reason, we shouldn’t aim for a rich social life. We should aim for a meaningful social life. Here are some exemplary metrics:

  • Depth of conversations.
  • Genuine empathy when sharing news.
  • Give-give mentality instead of give-take.
  • Level of vulnerability and self-disclosure.

Conversely, these are metrics I wouldn’t consider:

  • Social status.
  • Frequency of contact.
  • Number of friends or followers.

Two close confidants can be just as powerful as two hundred loose connections. Loneliness means, to a great extent, pursuing a hollow social metric.

The Next Chapter

The book of loneliness shouldn’t end on page 700. It’s naïve to think we can completely wipe out an inborn human condition. Rather, we should fill the pages with the right stories. The two examples I mentioned are just starting points, and there are a lot more stories we should consider: soul mates, work, consumption, values, etc.

It’s up to us whether future generations flip through these sections and read about despair and suffering. Or if they discover a story about hope. A story about how humans managed to turn the terror of loneliness into a miracle of connection.