So Lonely You Could Die

Lots to be gleaned from Judith Shulevitz’s “The Lethality of Loneliness” in The New Republic and […]

David Zahl / 5.22.13

Lots to be gleaned from Judith Shulevitz’s “The Lethality of Loneliness” in The New Republic and not just because it dovetails so neatly with Ethan’s post on the bodily aspects of anxiety last week. The article explores some recent research into loneliness and manages to ring a few alarm bells in the process. It may go without saying, but far from being just a spiritual or emotional malady, loneliness has been shown to have a clear physical component/consequence. Introversion or extroversion simply changes the way a person experiences loneliness–it does not protect them from it outright. More commentary at the bottom, ht TB ZW:

Eleanor-RigbyOver the past half-century, academic psychologists have largely abandoned psychoanalysis and made themselves over as biologists. And as they delve deeper into the workings of cells and nerves, they are confirming that loneliness is as monstrous as [pioneering psychoanalyst Frieda] Fromm-Reichmann said it was. It has now been linked with a wide array of bodily ailments as well as the old mental ones.

…long-lasting loneliness not only makes you sick; it can kill you. Emotional isolation is ranked as high a risk factor for mortality as smoking.

The psychological definition of loneliness hasn’t changed much since Fromm-Reichmann laid it out. “Real loneliness,” as she called it, is not what the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard characterized as the “shut-upness” and solitariness of the civilized. Nor is “real loneliness” the happy solitude of the productive artist or the passing irritation of being cooped up with the flu while all your friends go off on some adventure. It’s not being dissatisfied with your companion of the moment—your friend or lover or even spouse— unless you chronically find yourself in that situation, in which case you may in fact be a lonely person. Fromm-Reichmann even distinguished “real loneliness” from mourning, since the well-adjusted eventually get over that, and from depression, which may be a symptom of loneliness but is rarely the cause. Loneliness, she said—and this will surprise no one—is the want of intimacy.


Loneliness “is not synonymous with being alone, nor does being with others guarantee protection from feelings of loneliness,” writes John Cacioppo, the leading psychologist on the subject. Cacioppo privileges the emotion over the social fact because—remarkably—he’s sure that it’s the feeling that wreaks havoc on the body and brain.

In a survey published by the AARP in 2010, slightly more than one out of three adults 45 and over reported being chronically lonely (meaning they’ve been lonely for a long time). A decade earlier, only one out of five said that.

As W. H. Auden put it, “We must love one another or die.”

Women are lonelier than men (though unmarried men are lonelier than unmarried women). African Americans are lonelier than whites (though single African American women are less lonely than Hispanic and white women). The less educated are lonelier than the better educated. The unemployed and the retired are lonelier than the employed.


A key part of feeling lonely is feeling rejected, and that, it turns out, is the most damaging part.

At a deeper level, though, loneliness research forces us to acknowledge our own extraordinary malleability in the face of social forces. This susceptibility is both terrifying and exhilarating.

This all reminds me of that old youth group truism about people being “made for relationship”, that Christianity represents a rejoinder to the fiercely independent be-our-own-gods streak that informs so much human striving and individualism and often seems just as innate a drive as our longing for love (you might even call it a curse…). In other words, here we have biology inconveniently trumping ideology once again, or at least our notion of ourselves as self-sufficient creatures.

Of course, the antidote to loneliness isn’t relationship, per se, but a specific kind of relationship, i.e. one that both knows and loves. Or as a friend so eloquently explained to me once, “If I lock my dog and my wife in the trunk of my car, in an hour, only one of them will be happy to see me. The dog loves but doesn’t know. The wife knows but doesn’t love, at least in the moment.”

Whatever the case, death as the endpoint of isolation has more than a little biblical grounding, and one can’t help but wonder what other innate spiritual needs may be expressing themselves in our day to day, in spite of (and possibly in direct proportion to) our attempts to control them. On the other hand, these findings certainly put those parables about shepherds leaving ninety-nine to go after the one lost sheep into sharper and more comforting relief. One being, you know:


subscribe to the Mockingbird newsletter


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *