The Loneliest Crowd
Observers of the state of America in 2023 tend to use the language of disconnection: We hear about alienation, polarization, declines in trust and civic participation, and, if we are inclined to dig for deeper roots, loneliness. For the past several years, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has traveled the country, warning about an "epidemic" of loneliness that functions as a cause and contributor to a number of psychosocial maladies — alcohol and drug addiction, depression, anxiety, and violence. In 2018, then-senator Ben Sasse wrote a book arguing that loneliness is at the root of our intensely polarized politics.
Loneliness is a difficult thing to measure, but every metric we have reveals it to be a widespread and corrosive aspect of American life. A 2018 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 22% of adults in the United States say they "often or always feel lonely, feel that they lack companionship, feel left out, or feel isolated from others." This is not the occasional loneliness of a solitary, rain-dimmed afternoon; it is loneliness as a state of life.
The more we learn about the effects of chronic loneliness, the more serious its public-health implications look. Chronic loneliness leads to a rise in stress hormones and reduced capacities for focused attention and self-regulation. In more severe cases, it increases inflammation, lowers the restorative efficacy of sleep, and inhibits normal, baseline maintenance and repair functions at the cellular level. It is, by some measures, worse for your health than obesity or smoking. This kind of problem merits a collective response, and increasing numbers of people are interested in helping. But the bewildering thing is that no one knows what loneliness is.
We are confronting, in loneliness, a large and growing problem that is inaccessible to our most prestigious forms of analysis. One can describe, ever more precisely, the profound physiological or psychological effects of loneliness on a body and a life, or even prescribe a pill, a weekly trip to the senior center, or daily interactions with an AI-enabled chatbot buddy to combat them. But understanding why Americans are so lonely, and what can be done about it, will require us to dig into deeper soil, beneath the reach of Big Data, and ask what it means to inhabit the world as a human being, and what role we play in the construction of each other's worlds. The feasibility of our common life may hinge on our ability to admit that algorithms can never really explain us to ourselves, and so we'd better get serious again about the deep, dark, difficult human questions.
What are we dealing with in this loneliness epidemic? Loneliness and social isolation (a simple dearth of human interaction) are often discussed in tandem, for obvious reasons, but as the sociologist Claude Fischer puts it: "People who report that they are lonely are not much likelier to be socially isolated than people who do not." In cases where isolation and loneliness overlap, loneliness actually does the lion's share of damage to an individual's well-being.
The default definition of loneliness is that of psychologists Daniel Perlman and Letitia Anne Peplau, who describe loneliness as an unpleasant affective state that results from "a discrepancy between one's desired and achieved levels of social relations." Under this schema, we don't know how or why I come to desire a particular quantity or quality of relationships, or what their presence or absence means to me. But we know that if my actual relationships fall short of this subjective threshold, I become lonely, and if I stay lonely, everything goes to hell.
This definition has been widely adopted for good reasons. It is thin and highly abstract, so it suggests a comprehension of the myriad realities of loneliness: Some people are not lonely in a solitary cabin; others are lonely in a house full of family members. But the discrepancy model is inadequate to the reality it purports to describe. Each of us can point to disparities between our ideal and actual social lives — perhaps we wish we had a friend group like we had in college, or that we lived closer to family — but we are not necessarily beset by loneliness. There is something more than disappointed desire at issue in chronic loneliness.
Loneliness is less about unmet desires than unmet needs, even if precise requirements vary between individuals and situations. Dehydration is an interesting comparison: The precise quantity of water our bodies need to function normally also varies between individuals and situations, but once the threshold of inadequacy has been reached, function is impaired, and various symptoms of dysfunction emerge. A similar dynamic is true of loneliness.
But what is the nature of this unmet need? It must involve more than practical aid or resources. A wealthy modern person can live in perfect comfort, safety, and ease, and still be miserably lonely.
We can find the beginnings of an explanation in the philosophical tradition of phenomenology, which aims to explore the fundamental nature of human experience. Edmund Husserl, the 20th-century founder of phenomenology, argued that "my perception of the world is, from the very beginning, part of an open but not explicit totality of possible perceptions [that others may also have]. The subjectivity belonging to this experience of the world is open intersubjectivity." In Husserl's view, any human experience of an object is intersubjective — it includes the knowledge that other eyes may simultaneously see different aspects than the ones currently available to me. I see the top of the table from where I sit, but my vision is always fleshed out by others' attention (real or imagined) to the legs and underside of the table.
To perceive a thing as a human being means to view it with the confidence and humility that comes from the knowledge that what I see could be visible, in different aspects, to other observers; all rich, steady cognition is formed this way. According to the contemporary phenomenologist Shaun Gallagher, intersubjectivity is necessary for "anything like a coherent and meaningful world, and specifically to experience it as real and objective." Perhaps this accounts for the finding reported by child-development scholars that our cognitive maturation relies critically, at every stage, on the experience of joint attention — we need to learn to sense and understand in human company, in a feedback loop with other minds. This is what is known as "secondary intersubjectivity," or the process by which infants solidify their picture of the world by cognizing alongside their caregivers. It is interwoven with "primary intersubjectivity," in which the infant perceives his caregivers perceiving him, and in the process begins to know his own identity as a separate, unique creature.
As Evan Thompson, another phenomenologist and philosopher of mind, puts it, "one's consciousness of oneself as an embodied individual in the world is founded on empathy — on one's empathic cognition of others, and others' empathic cognition of oneself." Empathy is, of course, not mere objective awareness of interpersonal similarity; it also includes an element of "feeling along with." Thus, we are not only working out the facts of self and world via intersubjective perception; we are also always taking in the evaluative postures of those around us.
From the earliest stages of life, infants look to caretakers to help them understand the importance, utility, and meaning of the phenomena that present themselves. These aspects are integral to the basic human experience of reality. We are not indifferent observers; we are first and foremost actors in the world, and child-rearing is meant to produce competent, intelligent agents who know what matters and how to behave toward the things that matter.
Full human cognition does not process a laundry list of indifferent objects, but rather encounters what the psychologist James Gibson called "affordances": the things that an environment "offers the animal, what it provides or furnishes, either for good or ill." Affordances are immediately recognized as good or bad. For mature humans, psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist notes that "affective judgment is not dependent on the outcome of a cognitive process....We make an intuitive assessment of the whole before any cognitive processes come into play." These complex ways of cognizing reality add up to the construction of a full human world. A well-constructed world is a coherent, comprehensive sense of reality and one's tasks within it, from top to bottom. Life in my well-constructed world is not without challenges, but on the whole, I am able to cognize my situation with relative ease. I know what things mean, how my actions fit into the world, what kind of person they make me, etc.
None of us makes our world independently; we build and maintain it in collaboration with those close to us. Worlds are not static — they change as I confront new realities, and I shape them through my actions. The building and tending of a world is, throughout our lives, a complex and multilayered process that requires feedback from other trusted minds. When I am in the presence of other minds, as most of us usually are, I am constantly attuned to their cognitions and actions. This attunement is a vital part of my own activity of world-tending. Some relatively recent findings in neuroscience can give us a picture of how this attunement takes place.
In the early 1990s, scientists in Parma, Italy, discovered what are now commonly known as "mirror neurons" in the brains of macaque monkeys. These neurons are situated in the premotor cortex, in humans as well as monkeys. My mirror neurons respond both when I engage in a goal-oriented behavior and when someone near me does. Because of these mechanisms, I don't just observe your act of bravery or candor or wisdom or cowardice; I experience it in part as if I were the one doing it. Our perceptive and agential experiences are constantly interwoven in the course of normal life.
This interweaving is like water to us, a necessary ingredient for normal functioning. To be cut off from these feedback loops is to court dysfunction. One of the clearest and most striking examples is the experience of extended solitary confinement, which reliably results in an unraveling of one's picture of the world. The baseline and all-but-universal impact of solitary confinement is close to that of loneliness: a disintegration of focus and self-regulation. In more severe cases, inmates dissociate, hallucinate, become confused and paranoid, engage in arbitrary and unintended violence against both themselves and their physical environment, and fixate obsessively on fantasies of torturing and murdering the prison guards. When asked after the fact why he injured himself, a prisoner in solitary will often report that he didn't know it was himself he was harming; he had lost the ability to tell the difference between his self and his environment.
Why should this be? Philosopher Lisa Guenther suggests that these experiences demonstrate the fundamental necessity of intersubjectivity:
It's not just that prisoners grow depressed or psychotic, although this could very well happen; it's that the intersubjective basis for their concrete personhood, and for their experience of the world as real and objective, as irreducible to their own personal impressions, is structurally undermined by the prolonged deprivation of a concrete, everyday experience of other people.
As in the case of dehydration, different individuals can bear varying levels of deprivation without seeing a marked loss of function. A 2012 task force appointed by the U.S. attorney general found that individuals with mental-health problems and juveniles — whose conceptions of the world (and indeed, physical brains) are not yet fully formed — suffer the most from extended stints in solitary confinement. This is consonant with the often-observed fact that the young consistently report higher levels of loneliness than the old despite having more active social lives. The period of early adulthood is one in which the intimate, unquestioned sharing of world between caregiver and child is being dismantled, but new ones have yet to be fully built. The world picture of a septuagenarian, by contrast, is likely to be more resistant to decay, even given a relative absence of co-cognizers.
The phenomenology of solitary confinement harmonizes in multiple ways with what we know of chronic loneliness in general. Whether experienced in a small concrete cell or a crowded home, loneliness disrupts our ability to think in a clear, focused way and to regulate our behavior. Both of these capacities are primary building blocks for human agency, and both lean directly on evaluative assumptions. Focused attention is necessarily exclusive — I cannot be equally aware of everything at once; I concentrate on things I find important, desirable, etc. Self-regulation, for its part, must be undertaken in pursuit of some important goal. If I can't hold stable in my mind a sense of what is valuable and important, maintaining constant pursuit of a goal or an ethos will be more difficult. Thus, our evaluations are the feature of world-tending most vulnerable to the world-decaying powers of loneliness.
This makes intuitive sense; evaluations are more fungible things than beliefs about, say, the hardness of concrete or jail bars. Reasonable people can and do change their minds over time about what is truly valuable and why. Indeed, the ability to evolve in this way is a signal characteristic of a healthy, strong world picture. But the flexibility required to shift from one evaluative picture to another is not the same thing as the wholesale collapse we see in cases of extreme loneliness. A strong, stable sense of what is valuable protects against loneliness, and there is a well-documented correlation between loneliness and a lack of meaning in one's life. Some studies have found that wisdom — understood as a complex of self-regulation, self-reflection, decisiveness in the face of uncertainty and disagreement, and spirituality — is also protective. Loneliness is not just about me and you; it is about the ability to remain oriented in the world.
We have here an emerging sketch of what loneliness actually is: It is a process of world decay caused by an insufficient sharing of one's outlook. But again, it is entirely possible to experience loneliness in a throng of people; vicious, indifferent, or hostile peers (e.g., a prison guard) are poor partners in world-tending. They may allow us to maintain our basic sense of reality — that this hand is mine, and not part of my prison cell — but full world-sharing requires something like true friendship, in the Aristotelian sense of "other selves" who share a conception of the good and want it for each other as much as they do for themselves.
In Aristotle's view, true friends are attracted to one another based on their shared excellences of intellect and character — the ability to understand reality well, and to act well within the reality one recognizes. It's not just company we want, on this view; it's benevolent, virtuous, committed co-attenders and co-actors — partners who inhabit the same world as us, guided by a compatible view of what is true and good, and who steer us toward these things as incorrigibly as they direct themselves. To lack friends in this rich sense is to be in danger of loneliness.
How do friends assist in the task of world-tending? Certainly explicit ethical instruction is a relatively small part of most friendships. The mutual shaping of friendship is a subtle, pervasive, many-splendored thing. Recall, for instance, our discussion of mirror neurons: By watching you behave courageously, selflessly, and generously, I am, in a neurological sense, practicing those same virtues. And in the view of Aristotle and modern neuroscience, repeated practice is precisely how we become more excellent at something. Iain McGilchrist sums up the emulation involved in friendship:
[B]y attending to someone else performing an action, and even by thinking about them doing so — even, in fact, by thinking about certain sorts of people at all — we become objectively, measurably, more like them, in how we behave, think and feel. Through the direction and nature of our attention, we prove ourselves to be partners in creation, both of the world and of ourselves.
As we become true friends, Aristotle instructs us, I come to will my friend's survival and flourishing in the same way I will my own — irrevocably, unceasingly, for its own sake. At the far end, a friend "stands in relation to a friend as [he does] to himself — for the friend is another self [heteros autos]." This is not mere poeticizing on Aristotle's part. Neuroscientists have found that in a context of co-attention and co-agency, my own cognitive energy can be conserved as I off-load some of the work onto my friends. I have more of myself available to me when I have friends around: Your mind joins with mine, and I experience myself as larger in your presence.
This largeness of self allows for the growth and change characteristic of healthy world-tending. Friends are not bound to live frozen inside some particular communally constructed picture of the world; dissent, growth, rebellion, and conversion remain live possibilities. The worlds formed by Aristotelian friends are by definition not closed and dogmatic, because they are defined by excellence in understanding and action. This means that as partial as our friendship-assembled worlds might be, they are defined by a progressively more correct understanding of reality — that impossibly large, complex, shifting thing.
Virtuous world-tending requires that we stay in close touch with that thing, that we countenance and incorporate new information and keep our worlds fresh and hospitable to newly presented realities. The process of world-tending is in this sense comparable to the so-called "hermeneutic circle" in which a reader assembles his understanding of the whole of a novel by paying careful attention to each letter and word and sentence and paragraph while comprehending each of these smaller parts only by reference to the greater whole. Hermeneutics and world-tending are both characterized by a constant reading back and forth, in which whole and part simultaneously affect our reading of the other. Our day-to-day experiences shape and reshape our larger evaluation of the world, and our assessment of the world does the same to our experiences.
One can certainly become hidebound in a world picture, choosing to ignore new information that could potentially unsettle one's world. Most of us do this; it often drives us to react with anger and fear to opposing worldviews. To resist the temptation to become hardened is to tend to one's world assisted by the virtue of courage, and to live in a state of more or less unguarded intimacy with reality on multiple levels. An absence of this kind of intimacy characterizes much of American life in 2023, and underlies the growing loneliness that so many of us see and sense — not to mention the rise of polarization and toxic tribalism.
THE DELIVERANCES OF SOLITUDE
To see this, let's start somewhat unexpectedly on the level of the individual, and consider the increasing disappearance of the experience of solitude.
Solitude is not, of course, identical to loneliness, or even isolation. Solitude is not the decay of one's world; it is a conscious stepping away from an assembled world, a pause from fortifying intersubjective feedback loops, a fresh look at reality as it presents itself in a somewhat raw form, or at least less completely interpreted than it is in our normal day-to-day lives. The German poet Rainer Maria Rilke writes of solitude as a kind of brave, patient hospitality, letting ourselves and the world be just what they are and refusing to look away. It is, in other words, an intimate confrontation with reality, and with our selves.
This intimacy is sometimes painful, Rilke says, because it contains "moments when something new has entered into us, something unknown; our feelings grow mute in shy perplexity, everything in us withdraws, a stillness comes, and the new, which no one knows, stands in the middle of it and is silent." This, I would suggest, can be understood as the irruption of some as yet uncomprehended piece of reality. Perhaps it is our own mortality when we have been imagining ourselves as invulnerable. Perhaps it is the sins of our co-belligerents in some culture war whom we'd mythologized as sinless, or some instance of genuine virtue, enacted by members of a group we had written off as monsters. In any case, our worlds as they stand are not constructed to account for these realities, and it hurts to look at them — they throw our world picture into doubt and confusion.
Rilke advises that we stand directly in the path of this doubt and confusion and allow it to hit us head on, accepting without complaint our necessary silence in the face of this world-less reality, until such time as we are ready to speak — now as inhabitants of a larger, more reality-encompassing world.
Eventually we must speak; we must return to human community. As an undergrad studying great books, I often wondered how theologians like Augustine and Aquinas could go on record saying that God so transcended our grasp of reality that no words we applied to him could refer to him in the sense that we mean them, and then proceed to preach sermons about this ineffable God. I now think that any unarticulated vision is in grave danger of becoming a phantasm, a shifting watery chimera, unsteady and unable to guide us in our lives. We must solidify our intuitions in community, or they become indistinguishable from hallucinations.
This dialectic is captured in the practice of the vision quest, ubiquitous among Native American tribes. With some minor local variations, the vision quest involved sending a boy, close to his coming of age, out of the camp alone, for days or even weeks. In preparation for his vision, he would engage in various forms of self-mortification, including sleep deprivation, dehydration and fasting, or even more extreme forms of self-torture, in order to rattle himself free from a normal, communally assembled view of the world. Eventually, he would see a vision — sometimes wild, fantastical, bewildering — and would return to camp to tell the story. The vision quest was not complete until the community had helped the young man interpret his vision in the light of broader communal imperatives. This leaving and returning was an important part of building his self — his unique place in the fabric of the tribe and, by extension, the cosmos. Upon return and reintegration, the young man had a role, a set of tasks, a full adult self.
If we need world-tending communities to crystallize the deliverances of solitude, the converse is also true. This kind of solitude, a process of intimate confrontation and patient integration, is an important part of authentic friendship. If I am playing host to scattered, unintegrated perceptions, or hiding my fragile worldview from the horrors of some dimly sensed but un-confronted part of reality, my companions and I will be hindered in our efforts to understand and act well. And if we are engaged in a common process of cowardly evasion — if we are dogmatists together, say — then our friendships are not true friendships, which are by definition oriented toward excellence in understanding and action. In other words, just as much as I need to remain in intimate confrontation with reality, I need to remain in intimate confrontation with my friends. Expressions of doubt, the sounding of half-articulate worries — these are incursions of half-comprehended reality, and therefore engines of world improvement. They suss out blind spots and gaps in our view of the world, welcoming in new realities and allowing our worlds to remain living, growing things.
As discussed above, some aspects of contemporary American life quash intimacy and thus foment world decay. This happens in many ways, but to cite just one strong mechanism at play, let's consider the fate of solitude in a time and place dominated by technologies designed to fill any gaps in activity and sociality with stimulation and distraction, with bright LED screens full of culture wars, potted sociality, and targeted inducements to material consumption. Who, faced with this ever-present banquet of bright and easy cognition, would choose to spend time in solitude, facing dark, difficult aspects of reality?
We do not need any of these tools to recoil in horror from the vagaries of undigested reality. Long before the internet, T. S. Eliot lamented that humankind cannot bear much reality, and so we retreat into our imaginations of past and future, leaving us distracted from distraction by distraction. But our own time is one of particular, expertly calibrated attention capture and simultaneously ubiquitous confrontation with competing world pictures. If these confrontations were accompanied by the Rilkean techniques of reception and integration, digital life would be a wellspring of broad, tolerant, ever-expanding world pictures. But for that we would need the stillness and patience Rilke describes. Lacking these, we can only experience differing worldviews as an attack, and most of us will seek reinforcement in identity-bolstering consumption and communities defined by ever more hardened and lifeless reassertions of whatever world picture we find most comfortable. This kind of community sells us a facsimile of friendship that makes us less at home in reality, not more. It is not the only kind of communion facilitated by digital reality, but it is currently the default.
This set of American problems is not new; it builds on others of much earlier vintage. Intimacy with friends, for instance, has often been difficult here. Americans have long had a tendency to present themselves as happy, complete, strong, and independent, in a way that makes vulnerability and the expression of negative emotion difficult. Newcomers to America often remark on our exaggerated friendliness and optimism, our tendency to smile broadly when we are clearly not especially happy. These are manifestations of fundamental American orientations — a self-selected pioneer optimism, or Weber's Protestant compulsion to show oneself blessed and elected. They are also coping mechanisms common to low-trust societies. In any case, for whatever combination of reasons, Americans are unusually bad at maintaining those open, shame-free feedback loops where doubts and gaps can be shared and dealt with in community.
The results of this absence of intimacy — the closing and ossification of our world pictures — are broad and deep. Closed communities tend toward stagnation and eventually disintegration. A few perceptive observers have been warning for years that the advance of smartphone technology has been obscuring a much larger, more momentous decline in American dynamism. Across sectors from academia to technology to government to the founding of new businesses, our ability and willingness to create new things has slowed to a trickle. I would suggest that the kinds of ossification discussed above lie near the core of this problem. Many of us feel insecure because we think our worlds are under constant threat, and so we cling to what is familiar and safe — the broad, established paths. A moment like this does not lend itself to brave, audacious risk-taking, or even careful, systematic evolution. The natural activity for a civilization in this condition is wagon-circling.
What we need at the highest level is a revival of a particular and extreme form of solitude — that of the artist, the prophet, the philosopher, the revolutionary. These are individuals who cannot abide the contradictions of their community, the glaring blind spots and stagnations of their world picture, and so, motivated by love of their community, they withdraw. They seek to encounter reality in the raw, as intimately as possible, and to see what it says for itself, and especially what it conveys that we have not heard. They then carry this message back into their community so it can be refreshed, its practices re-understood, its desires renewed.
Alongside this, we need a revival of solitude in the form of intimate, flexible world-tending in each of our lives and communities. We should, along with our leaders — of schools, governments, churches, companies, even families — follow the path of Elijah, Christ, Buddha, and Mohammed, and head off into the wilderness from time to time, striving to glimpse a bigger stretch of reality than is visible from what Eliot, with amusing prescience, called "this twittering world."