The Changing Face Of Loneliness

Fay Bound Alberti, the cultural historian courses through recent history to trace the development of the concept of loneliness in her book Biography Of Loneliness. Considering it a fairly modern concept, she delves into its origins since the 1800s, its evolution vis-a-vis society, and its increasing prominence in the lives of people today. She discusses case studies from social media, literature, and even Queen Victoria to understand the emotion of loneliness. 

The Loneliness Epidemic

We know that emotions are an intrinsic part of humans. But how do these emotions develop? Is it possible to give feelings and emotions a timeline, to think of them beyond the human psyche?

This question can be answered when we look at loneliness, an emotion that is said to be an epidemic, showing a pattern of development in human society and undergoing change since. To give an example, the 1960’s Beatles’ song ‘Eleanor Rigby’ talks about lonely people in a village. The song marks the shift in society from a traditional ‘nuclear’ family system, a time when there were increasing instances of lonely elderly.

Today, the loneliness epidemic, according to the UK National Health Service (NHS), can cause about 30% of the affected to die earlier due to increased risk of conditions such as strokes, dementia, and depression.

Loneliness in linguistic terms is difficult to define. Though it is very prominent today, linguistically, the word isn’t synonymous with being alone, has no opposite, and involves a lack of emotional sense. Therefore, it could be said that loneliness incorporates feelings such as resentment, self-pity, shame, and sorrow among other elements. In other words, loneliness is a blend of different emotions.

Loneliness can be termed as a disease today, akin to obesity. It is a lifestyle-related, chronic condition, more prevalent in the contemporary world. Like obesity, loneliness is experienced by people who are unable to come out of the own limitations (of the mind, in case of loneliness). It places huge pressure on health services. Yet, it cannot be defined as a purely mental state, as its ramifications can be seen on the body as well.

Societal Change And The Meaning Of Loneliness

The Oxford English Dictionary dates loneliness back to the 16th Century and gives two meanings – 

  • Feeling Sad – Meaning sadness occurring due to lack of company, and
  • A remote place 

However, before the 19th Century, only the second meaning came to be in use, as did the word ‘loneliness’. The use of the word gave birth to a completely new concept.

The changes that came about in society then were reflected in how the word ‘lonely’ started being used. Unlike today, where loneliness has negative connotations, before the 19th Century, and ‘oneliness’ – meaning to be on one’s own – was popularly used. This was because people then were hardly alone. When others weren’t around, people were with God. Therefore, the word, along with the word solitude had positive connotations.

The 21st Century gave more importance to sociability – as being the cornerstone of good mental health. Contrarily, loneliness, due to the shift in the way people live and think of living is a more common, negative condition. This is because of the change from people living in nuclear or large families, to giving individualism (having great societal value) more importance. This shift, at the expense of the collective, brought about the rise in secularism. In the Western world, even the positive meaning of solitude of having religious connotations, is lost.

This loss of religious value gave more importance to individuality and relationships. Thus, when relationships are lacking, people are left truly alone, without the stronghold of the belief in God. This loneliness or even being alone today is a greater problem than people perceive.

Biography Of Loneliness by Fay Bound Alberti
Biography Of Loneliness by Fay Bound Alberti

The Concept Of Soulmate Vis-à-vis Loneliness

Today, loneliness not only affects those who are physically removed from others but even those who lead active social lives. If we consider Sylvia Plath, the American writer, and poet, as an example, we can see from her journal entries that she experienced chronic loneliness despite having romantic relationships and leading a good social life.

The emphasis that is placed on finding a ‘soulmate’ today makes it easy to feel lonely even when surrounded by strong relationships. Plath’s inability to balance societal expectations and her own ambitions as a woman in a male-dominated career is proof of this fact.

Plato, in his The Symposium, described the concept of ‘soulmate’ in a story of a man and a woman being one before they were split into two. Since then, women and men have sought out their literal other halves in attempts to complete themselves.  However, the word itself was first used in 1822 by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, when the concept of romantic love was developing. This concept, still in use today, saw the emergence in the 19th Century when marriage was seen as spiritual, another way of meeting spiritual needs.

More examples of the concept of a soulmate can be seen in Emily Bronte’s literary composition, The Wuthering Heights. The dangerous and tempestuous nature of love can be seen in Heathcliff’s famous lines, “I cannot live without my life! I cannot live without my soul!”

Another reference to Heathcliff’s perception of love can be seen in Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight, when Edward the Vampire quotes Heathcliff, referencing Bella Swan as his soulmate. The novel emphasizes the importance of finding a soulmate as a way to fulfilling life.

Thus, it is in the nature of today’s society to portray one as lonely without a soulmate.

Loneliness And Losing A Loved One

The inability to find a soulmate/partner could trigger loneliness. However, losing a partner or a loved one is a sure invitation to the loneliness club. The very fact that a widow or widower has to live with material objects that are constant reminders of their deceased loved ones, can rake up feelings of pain and be a constant reminder of their loss – every day!

This traumatic experience has also changed drastically over the past few centuries with the emergence of the concept of loneliness. Two examples, a century apart, explain these changes well.

Example 1: The diary excerpts of a Thomas Turner from Sussex, England in the 18th century are detailed documentation of how the man lived his life after his wife Peggy, died in 1761. He describes himself as ‘destitute’ and mourning the loss of the ‘partner of his soul’. Yet his diary also shows that his grief was accompanied by the solace of belief in God. This was, according to the author, ‘oneliness’, the predecessor of loneliness.

Example 2: Exactly a century later, in 1861, we see Queen Victoria’s forty years of mourning for her husband Albert, documented in her diaries. The frequent use of the word ‘loneliness’ is proof of the fact that her feelings were quite different from the ‘oneliness’ that Turner felt. Her loss manifested with a profound sense of lack.

The shift in centuries and the emergence of the concept of loneliness has also rendered a new meaning to losing a partner.

How Social Media Affects Loneliness

Loneliness in its modern form manifests through the epidemic that young adults are facing due to the impact of social media. The UK’s Office for National Statistics, conducted in 2018 found that young adults are most affected by loneliness. However, as commonly believed, is social media the real cause of loneliness, or is it a mere symptom?

Effects of social media also clearly depend on the way it is used, vis-à-vis the kind of life a user is leading. While studies point fingers at social media for heightened feelings of loneliness, they also show that if the amount of online activity surpasses or replaces other offline activity, only then loneliness is inevitable.  

The term FOMO, meaning ‘the fear of missing out’ surely contributes to feelings of loneliness among the millennials. A survey conducted in 2012, reports at least three out of four millennials suffering from FOMO. These feelings generate due to the overly glamorous lives that others depict leading on social media sites. An experiment conducted by Facebook in 2014 showed the relation between emotions shown in posts and a person’s own emotions when he reads those posts. It is known to have a rippling effect spanning large groups.

Social media has also brought people together in ‘real-life’. This has not only proved to be beneficial for Millenials, but also for the older generation. Therefore, social media can have a positive or a negative effect, and how it affects a person is based on a broader context. The idea is to maintain a bridge between the ‘online life’ and the ‘real-life’.

Loneliness And The Older Generation

It is true that loneliness is a problem that mostly affects the older generation. While statistics reveal that only 5-16% of the older generation claim to be lonely, the number shoots up to 50% when those over the age of 80 are taken into consideration.

Considering the fact that loneliness isn’t restricted to emotions and that it can manifest into a multitude of lifestyle diseases, physical and mental, it is a clear indicator of developing dementia. This often stems from ‘unmet needs’, a problem that is largely faced by the aging generation in the Western world. These unmet needs are actually basic necessities of getting help for daily activities or even having someone to talk to.

The problem directly relates to the fact that considering the aging population is increasing, governments are unable to adequately provide social care in the same amount as the population increase in demographic. This, coupled with the changing perceptions that members of the society should be able to economically contribute, places the old who are unable to work at risk. The older generation gets categorized as ‘useless’, which earlier wasn’t much of a problem considering that families maintained stronger ties. 

The issue needs addressing. How can we meet the needs of the old effectively, without them blaming themselves for their old age? While proper care homes can be one way, the efficacy of these homes is doubted. Putting the old in care homes can help battle isolation, but not necessarily be the cure for loneliness. Moreover, care homes create a sense of separation and can alleviate problems.


Loneliness is a problem that has many facets. It affects people of all generations, differs from culture to culture and between genders, and has mental as well as physical manifestations. It is a clear indication of ‘lacking’ something in one’s life.

Nevertheless, loneliness isn’t always negative. For most artists, loneliness can manifest into exceptional works of art and creativity. Writers Virginia Woolf and Rainer Maria Rilke are classic examples. Therefore not everyone seeks a cure for loneliness.

The need of the hour, however, is for everyone to re-evaluate how loneliness is perceived in correspondence to how it has changed in modern times, and provide effective care for those suffering from it.