How to Be Lonely

Olivia Laing, ‘How to Be Lonely – It’s not just a negative state to be vanquished. There’s magic in it too.’,, The New York Times Company (March 19, 2020)

We’re all lonely now. We’re all cut off from each other, trapped inside the walls of our own domestic space, the 21st-century version of the medieval anchorite. The seething city is on lockdown, or soon to be. Social distancing is vital, but that doesn’t make it easy. One of the inevitable costs will be an increase in our loneliness. (…) Loneliness isn’t the same thing as solitude, nor is it solitude’s inevitable consequence. (…) You can be lonely in a crowd, lonely in a marriage — or, on the other hand, content and at ease in a mountain cabin. We all vary in our need for intimacy, closeness, connection. Loneliness only occurs when that specific, individual requirement goes unmet. (…) The feeling of loneliness — the subjective experience itself, not the bare fact of being alone — brings about hypervigilance to social threat. This state, which is entered into unknowingly, makes the lonely person far more alert to signs of rejection or exclusion than those of warmth or friendliness. It’s a vicious circle, in that each misreading of social nuance becomes evidence for further withdrawal, causing loneliness to become steadily more entrenched. (…) Because hypervigilance is entered into invisibly, it has to be consciously recognized and corrected. (…) The need for connection is so central to our being that to experience its lack plunges the body into a state of minor emergency, driving up cortisol and adrenaline and contributing to a feeling of what for most people will already be peak anxiety. There are antidotes, from simple breathing exercises to deliberately noticing small pleasures in the physical environment: a budding leaf, a cloud, the taste of toast. The natural world continues, and paying attention to it is a way of grounding terror — remembering that whatever else may happen, spring is on the way. (…) There are so many things available to sustain us now, and though it sounds counterintuitive to say it, loneliness is one of them. The weird gift of loneliness is that it grounds us in our common humanity.


Hannah Arendt