Although one of the loneliest moments of my life happened more than 15 years ago, I still remember its uniquely painful sting. I had just arrived back home from a study abroad semester in Italy. During my stay in Florence, my Italian had advanced to the point where I was dreaming in the language. I had also developed intellectual interests in Italian futurism, Dada, and Russian absurdism – interests not entirely deriving from a crush on the professor who taught a course on those topics – as well as the love sonnets of Dante and Petrarch (conceivably also related to that crush). I left my semester abroad feeling as many students likely do: transformed not only intellectually but emotionally. My picture of the world was complicated, my very experience of that world richer, more nuanced.
After that semester, I returned home to a small working-class town in New Jersey. Home proper was my boyfriend’s parents’ home, which was in the process of foreclosure but not yet taken by the bank. Both parents had left to live elsewhere, and they graciously allowed me to stay there with my boyfriend, his sister and her boyfriend during college breaks. While on break from school, I spent most of my time with these de facto roommates and a handful of my dearest childhood friends.
When I returned from Italy, there was so much I wanted to share with them. I wanted to talk to my boyfriend about how aesthetically interesting but intellectually dull I found Italian futurism; I wanted to communicate to my closest friends how deeply those Italian love sonnets moved me, how Bob Dylan so wonderfully captured their power. (‘And every one of them words rang true/and glowed like burning coal/Pouring off of every page/like it was written in my soul …’) In addition to a strongly felt need to share specific parts of my intellectual and emotional lives that had become so central to my self-understanding, I also experienced a dramatically increased need to engage intellectually, as well as an acute need for my emotional life in all its depth and richness – for my whole being, this new being – to be appreciated. When I returned home, I felt not only unable to engage with others in ways that met my newly developed needs, but also unrecognised for who I had become since I left. And I felt deeply, painfully lonely.
This experience is not uncommon for study-abroad students. Even when one has a caring and supportive network of relationships, one will often experience ‘reverse culture shock’ – what the psychologist Kevin Gaw describes as a ‘process of readjusting, reacculturating, and reassimilating into one’s own home culture after living in a different culture for a significant period of time’ – and feelings of loneliness are characteristic for individuals in the throes of this process.
But there are many other familiar life experiences that provoke feelings of loneliness, even if the individuals undergoing those experiences have loving friends and family: the student who comes home to his family and friends after a transformative first year at college; the adolescent who returns home to her loving but repressed parents after a sexual awakening at summer camp; the first-generation woman of colour in graduate school who feels cared for but also perpetually ‘in-between’ worlds, misunderstood and not fully seen either by her department members or her family and friends back home; the travel nurse who returns home to her partner and friends after an especially meaningful (or perhaps especially psychologically taxing) work assignment; the man who goes through a difficult breakup with a long-term, live-in partner; the woman who is the first in her group of friends to become a parent; the list goes on.
Nor does it take a transformative life event to provoke feelings of loneliness. As time passes, it often happens that friends and family who used to understand us quite well eventually fail to understand us as they once did, failing to really see us as they used to before. This, too, will tend to lead to feelings of loneliness – though the loneliness may creep in more gradually, more surreptitiously. Loneliness, it seems, is an existential hazard, something to which human beings are always vulnerable – and not just when they are alone.
In his recent book Life Is Hard (2022), the philosopher Kieran Setiya characterises loneliness as the ‘pain of social disconnection’. There, he argues for the importance of attending to the nature of loneliness – both why it hurts and what ‘that pain tell[s] us about how to live’ – especially given the contemporary prevalence of loneliness. He rightly notes that loneliness is not just a matter of being isolated from others entirely, since one can be lonely even in a room full of people. Additionally, he notes that, since the negative psychological and physiological effects of loneliness ‘seem to depend on the subjective experience of being lonely’, effectively combatting loneliness requires us to identify the origin of this subjective experience.
Setiya’s proposal is that we are ‘social animals with social needs’ that crucially include needs to be loved and to have our basic worth recognised. When we fail to have these basic needs met, as we do when we are apart from our friends, we suffer loneliness. Without the presence of friends to assure us that we matter, we experience the painful ‘sensation of hollowness, of a hole in oneself that used to be filled and now is not’. This is loneliness in its most elemental form. (Setiya uses the term ‘friends’ broadly, to include close family and romantic partners, and I follow his usage here.)
Imagine a woman who lands a job requiring a long-distance move to an area where she knows no one. Even if there are plenty of new neighbours and colleagues to greet her upon her arrival, Setiya’s claim is that she will tend to experience feelings of loneliness, since she does not yet have close, loving relationships with these people. In other words, she will tend to experience feelings of loneliness because she does not yet have friends whose love of her reflects back to her the basic value as a person that she has, friends who let her see that she matters. Only when she makes genuine friendships will she feel her unconditional value is acknowledged; only then will her basic social needs to be loved and recognised be met. Once she feels she truly matters to someone, in Setiya’s view, her loneliness will abate.
Setiya is not alone in connecting feelings of loneliness to a lack of basic recognition. In The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), for example, Hannah Arendt also defines loneliness as a feeling that results when one’s human dignity or unconditional worth as a person fails to be recognised and affirmed, a feeling that results when this, one of the ‘basic requirements of the human condition’, fails to be met.
These accounts get a good deal about loneliness right. But they miss something as well. On these views, loving friendships allow us to avoid loneliness because the loving friend provides a form of recognition we require as social beings. Without loving friendships, or when we are apart from our friends, we are unable to secure this recognition. So we become lonely. But notice that the feature affirmed by the friend here – my unconditional value – is radically depersonalised. The property the friend recognises and affirms in me is the same property she recognises and affirms in her other friendships. Otherwise put, the recognition that allegedly mitigates loneliness in Setiya’s view is the friend’s recognition of an impersonal, abstract feature of oneself, a quality one shares with every other human being: her unconditional worth as a human being. (The recognition given by the loving friend is that I ‘[matter] … just like everyone else.’)
Just as one can feel lonely in a room full of strangers, one can feel lonely in a room full of friends
Since my dignity or worth is disconnected from any particular feature of myself as an individual, however, my friend can recognise and affirm that worth without acknowledging or engaging my particular needs, specific values and so on. If Setiya is calling it right, then that friend can assuage my loneliness without engaging my individuality.
Or can they? Accounts that tie loneliness to a failure of basic recognition (and the alleviation of loneliness to love and acknowledgement of one’s dignity) may be right about the origin of certain forms of loneliness. But it seems to me that this is far from the whole picture, and that accounts like these fail to explain a wide variety of familiar circumstances in which loneliness arises.
When I came home from my study-abroad semester, I returned to a network of robust, loving friendships. I was surrounded daily by a steadfast group of people who persistently acknowledged and affirmed my unconditional value as a person, putting up with my obnoxious pretension (so it must have seemed) and accepting me even though I was alien in crucial ways to the friend they knew before. Yet I still suffered loneliness. In fact, while I had more close friendships than ever before – and was as close with friends and family members as I had ever been – I was lonelier than ever. And this is also true of the familiar scenarios from above: the first-year college student, the new parent, the travel nurse, and so on. All these scenarios are ripe for painful feelings of loneliness even though the individuals undergoing such experiences have a loving network of friends, family and colleagues who support them and recognise their unconditional value.
So, there must be more to loneliness than Setiya’s account (and others like it) let on. Of course, if an individual’s worth goes unrecognised, she will feel awfully lonely. But just as one can feel lonely in a room full of strangers, one can feel lonely in a room full of friends. What plagues accounts that tie loneliness to an absence of basic recognition is that they fail to do justice to loneliness as a feeling that pops up not only when one lacks sufficiently loving, affirmative relationships, but also when one perceives that the relationships she has (including and perhaps especially loving relationships) lack sufficient quality (for example, lacking depth or a desired feeling of connection). And an individual will perceive such relationships as lacking sufficient quality when her friends and family are not meeting the specific needs she has, or recognising and affirming her as the particular individual that she is.
We see this especially in the midst or aftermath of transitional and transformational life events, when greater-than-usual shifts occur. As the result of going through such experiences, we often develop new values, core needs and centrally motivating desires, losing other values, needs and desires in the process. In other words, after undergoing a particularly transformative experience, we become different people in key respects than we were before. If after such a personal transformation, our friends are unable to meet our newly developed core needs or recognise and affirm our new values and central desires – perhaps in large part because they cannot, because they do not (yet) recognise or understand who we have become – we will suffer loneliness.
This is what happened to me after Italy. By the time I got back, I had developed new core needs – as one example, the need for a certain level and kind of intellectual engagement – which were unmet when I returned home. What’s more, I did not think it particularly fair to expect my friends to meet these needs. After all, they did not possess the conceptual frameworks for discussing Russian absurdism or 13th-century Italian love sonnets; these just weren’t things they had spent time thinking about. And I didn’t blame them; expecting them to develop or care about developing such a conceptual framework seemed to me ridiculous. Even so, without a shared framework, I felt unable to meet my need for intellectual engagement and communicate to my friends the fullness of my inner life, which was overtaken by quite specific aesthetic values, values that shaped how I saw the world. As a result, I felt lonely.
In addition to developing new needs, I understood myself as having changed in other fundamental respects. While I knew my friends loved me and affirmed my unconditional value, I did not feel upon my return home that they were able to see and affirm my individuality. I was radically changed; in fact, I felt in certain respects totally unrecognisable even to those who knew me best. After Italy, I inhabited a different, more nuanced perspective on the world; beauty, creativity and intellectual growth had become core values of mine; I had become a serious lover of poetry; I understood myself as a burgeoning philosopher. At the time, my closest friends were not able to see and affirm these parts of me, parts of me with which even relative strangers in my college courses were acquainted (though, of course, those acquaintances neither knew me nor were equipped to meet other of my needs which my friends had long met). When I returned home, I no longer felt truly seen by my friends.
One need not spend a semester abroad to experience this. For example, a nurse who initially chose her profession as a means to professional and financial stability might, after an especially meaningful experience with a patient, find herself newly and centrally motivated by a desire to make a difference in her patients’ lives. Along with the landscape of her desires, her core values may have changed: perhaps she develops a new core value of alleviating suffering whenever possible. And she may find certain features of her job – those that do not involve the alleviation of suffering, or involve the limited alleviation of suffering – not as fulfilling as they once were. In other words, she may have developed a new need for a certain form of meaningful difference-making – a need that, if not met, leaves her feeling flat and deeply dissatisfied.
Changes like these – changes to what truly moves you, to what makes you feel deeply fulfilled – are profound ones. To be changed in these respects is to be utterly changed. Even if you have loving friendships, if your friends are unable to recognise and affirm these new features of you, you may fail to feel seen, fail to feel valued as who you really are. At that point, loneliness will ensue. Interestingly – and especially troublesome for Setiya’s account – feelings of loneliness will tend to be especially salient and painful when the people unable to meet these needs are those who already love us and affirm our unconditional value.
Those with a strong need for their uniqueness to be recognised may be more disposed to loneliness
So, even with loving friends, if we perceive ourselves as unable to be seen and affirmed as the particular people we are, or if certain of our core needs go unmet, we will feel lonely. Setiya is surely right that loneliness will result in the absence of love and recognition. But it can also result from the inability – and sometimes, failure – of those with whom we have loving relationships to share or affirm our values, to endorse desires that we understand as central to our lives, and to satisfy our needs.
Another way to put it is that our social needs go far beyond the impersonal recognition of our unconditional worth as human beings. These needs can be as widespread as a need for reciprocal emotional attachment or as restricted as a need for a certain level of intellectual engagement or creative exchange. But even when the need in question is a restricted or uncommon one, if it is a deep need that requires another person to meet yet goes unmet, we will feel lonely. The fact that we suffer loneliness even when these quite specific needs are unmet shows that understanding and treating this feeling requires attending not just to whether my worth is affirmed, but to whether I am recognised and affirmed in my particularity and whether my particular, even idiosyncratic social needs are met by those around me.
What’s more, since different people have different needs, the conditions that produce loneliness will vary. Those with a strong need for their uniqueness to be recognised may be more disposed to loneliness. Others with weaker needs for recognition or reciprocal emotional attachment may experience a good deal of social isolation without feeling lonely at all. Some people might alleviate loneliness by cultivating a wide circle of not-especially-close friends, each of whom meets a different need or appreciates a different side of them. Yet others might persist in their loneliness without deep and intimate friendships in which they feel more fully seen and appreciated in their complexity, in the fullness of their being.
Yet, as ever-changing beings with friends and loved ones who are also ever-changing, we are always susceptible to loneliness and the pain of situations in which our needs are unmet. Most of us can recall a friend who once met certain of our core social needs, but who eventually – gradually, perhaps even imperceptibly – ultimately failed to do so. If such needs are not met by others in one’s life, this situation will lead one to feel profoundly, heartbreakingly lonely.
In cases like these, new relationships can offer true succour and light. For example, a lonely new parent might have childless friends who are clueless to the needs and values she develops through the hugely complicated transition to parenthood; as a result, she might cultivate relationships with other new parents or caretakers, people who share her newly developed values and better understand the joys, pains and ambivalences of having a child. To the extent that these new relationships enable her needs to be met and allow her to feel genuinely seen, they will help to alleviate her loneliness. Through seeking relationships with others who might share one’s interests or be better situated to meet one’s specific needs, then, one can attempt to face one’s loneliness head on.
But you don’t need to shed old relationships to cultivate the new. When old friends to whom we remain committed fail to meet our new needs, it’s helpful to ask how to salvage the situation, saving the relationship. In some instances, we might choose to adopt a passive strategy, acknowledging the ebb and flow of relationships and the natural lag time between the development of needs and others’ abilities to meet them. You could ‘wait it out’. But given that it is much more difficult to have your needs met if you don’t articulate them, an active strategy seems more promising. To position your friend to better meet your needs, you might attempt to communicate those needs and articulate ways in which you don’t feel seen.
Of course, such a strategy will be successful only if the unmet needs provoking one’s loneliness are needs one can identify and articulate. But we will so often – perhaps always – have needs, desires and values of which we are unaware or that we cannot articulate, even to ourselves. We are, to some extent, always opaque to ourselves. Given this opacity, some degree of loneliness may be an inevitable part of the human condition. What’s more, if we can’t even grasp or articulate the needs provoking our loneliness, then adopting a more passive strategy may be the only option one has. In cases like this, the only way to recognise your unmet needs or desires is to notice that your loneliness has started to lift once those needs and desires begin to be met by another.