What's new about loneliness?
Updated: Jan 28
Writer Fay Bound Alberti has taken a long view of loneliness and come up with some surprising findings. The rise of individualism in the 20th and 21st centuries has much to do with our contemporary attitudes towards loneliness. 'We are suspended in universes of our own making in the 21st century, in which certainty of the self and one's uniqueness matters far more than any collective sense of belonging,' she argues.
Speaking of the 'biography of loneliness' (Oxford University Press, 2019) she explains how 'it is physical as well as psychological, and its emergence can be traced back to the end of the eighteenth century, when loneliness emerged as a way of talking about negative emotional experiences of being alone. Prior to that time, "lonely" or "oneliness" described the absence of another person, without any corresponding emotional lack.'
Introducing the subject, Alberti describes viewing loneliness in the west through a wide historical lens. Modern times have seen loneliness bound up with ideas about sociability and secularism. 'It was reinforced by the emergence of an all-encompassing ideology of the individual: in the mind and physical sciences, in economic structures, in philosophy and politics.'
She has much to say about concerns for loneliness among older people being 'a manifestation of broader concerns about an ageing population in the west, and considerable anxiety over how that population will be supported in an individualistic age when families are often dispersed. Most policy interventions are focused on the aged because of the significant impact of elderly loneliness on social and medical care. Particularly vulnerable are society's "oldest old": over eighty years old and living alone.'
The highest levels of loneliness, she points out, seem to be found among the poorest groups in society, reflecting an increased breakdown in support networks in proportion to the levels of deprivation experienced.
There are chapters on Widow(er)hood and loss, on a 'Ticking Timebomb?', Rethinking Loneliness in Old Age, and one entitled 'Lonely Clouds and Empty Vessels: When Loneliness Is a Gift'.
Alberti's book is a useful contribution to current debates which explores why there seems to be a preoccupation with loneliness currently. She hopes to 'open up the topic of loneliness... as a complex and historically situated emotional state.'
How, indeed, did 'the unemotional, physical state of being alone, conceived for centuries simply as 'oneliness', become transformed into a modern, pathologised, epidemic?'
(Photo credits – Centre for Ageing Better)