Feb. 17, 2021

Episode 2: What is Loneliness?

Understanding loneliness was the first step in trying to figure out its solutions. So, hosts Judy D'Mello and Jeremy Warshaw pondered these questions: Is there a universally accepted definition for loneliness? Is loneliness an emotional or physical pain? Can you feel it in your mind, your body or both? What's the tipping point at which feeling a bit lonely turns into into a chronic condition? Can you measure loneliness neurologically? Can you identify where it occurs in the brain?

The duo decided they needed expert help and turned to Dr. Fay Bound Alberti, a cultural historian and the author of "The Biography of Loneliness," for her expertise and knowledge of this incredibly complex human emotion.

Dr. Alberti takes us on an enlightening journey, from the provenance of the word "loneliness," to the emergence of mind sciences, to Hollywood's version of loneliness, and to a future where we we might be able to pop a loneliness pill. She also speaks about her personal encounters with this often painful issue, and offers people who are not suffering from chronic loneliness, some practical advice. Her techniques include meditating, taking a warm bath, or doing something creative like doodling or writing -- all ways to re-engage the senses and re-gain that feeling of belonging in the world. 

Episode Transcript


Editor: Christian Sawyer

Music: Seaplane Armada

Dr. Fay Bound Alberti

Loneliness Pill

Let's Stay Connected!

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Judy D'Mello (00:05):

Welcome to, "Is Anybody Out There?" a podcast about loneliness brought to you by the Connectery. I'm Judy D'Mello.


Jeremy Warshaw (00:14):

And I'm Jeremy Warshaw.


Judy (00:24):

In today's episode, 'What is Loneliness?' we attempt to define this thing we call being lonely. I think it's fair to say that when we started the research for this podcast, we had no real idea of what loneliness actually was. We felt it was about being alone and lacking company. We thought it was something that came with living on your own or mainly affected seniors, but the more we dug into it, the more we realized that loneliness visits people in all kinds of circumstances and affected 18-year-olds, as badly as 80 year-olds.


Jeremy (01:00):

This was going to be a lot harder to unpack, but as we all know, you can't fix something unless you identify what the real problem is. And then maybe you've got a chance of coming up with a solution. So essentially we had to learn as much as we could about loneliness. I mean, what really is loneliness? Does loneliness have one universally accepted specific definition? Is loneliness an emotional or physical pain? At what point does a general feeling of loneliness develop into a chronic condition? Can you measure loneliness, neurologically? What do you think, Judy?


Judy (01:33):

I'd say it's time to bring in some experts. And ideally someone we would call doctor or professor.


Jeremy (01:41):

Somebody brainy. And today's guest certainly fits the bill. I've wanted to talk to this academic and researcher of human emotions ever since I read her book called "The Biography of Loneliness," -- Dr. Fay Alberti.


Dr Fay Alberti (01:54):

Thank you for inviting me. I'm delighted to speak to you.


Jeremy (01:57):

There are so many questions I have, but can you give me the essence of what you set out to achieve and what the central message of the book is?


Dr Fay Alberti (02:05):

I set out to write this book because I was conscious as a historian of emotion, how frequently loneliness was talked about as a universal thing, as something that seemed to happen spontaneously or was inevitable without reference really to the social context. I was also interested in the fact that it seemed a very modern definition of loneliness that was being described. So I set about to trace its language and to observe the ways in which it came into being, especially in the 19th century, as a, as a way of describing a particularly sort of existential lack, and also to think about the medicalization of loneliness and how words like epidemic can be problematic. So really it's trying to deconstruct the ways in which we think of loneliness by exploring the social, as well as the individual context and by looking at the body, as well as the mind.


Jeremy (03:06):

That's a great snapshot of all the chapters and each one is so fascinating. But maybe you could talk about you referencing loneliness as a cluster of emotions and not just I'm lonely. And it's just like, I'm sad.


Dr Fay Alberti (03:18):

Yes, Jeremy, I think this is really important because at the moment, loneliness has become a convenient way or a convenient language to talk about a whole range of different emotional responses. And it's drilling down into those nuances that I think is important. So rather than thinking about loneliness as one single state, it's really thinking about it as a cluster of different emotions. And the different kinds of emotions involved will depend on circumstance. So, if somebody has been widowed, for instance, they will feel lonely for a particular person. And that loneliness will be about grief. Whereas somebody who is jealous or resentful of not having any friends, but might actually be quite, not very easy to approach; that's going to be a very different kind of loneliness than the idea of somebody who's desperate for social intervention and understanding that cluster and how it changes over time and how it changes in the context, and the trajectory of our own lives is why I called it a biography of loneliness, because not only does learning of habits' own biography, in terms of its historical emergence as an emotion, but it also has a biography in our own lives.


Jeremy (04:26):

What I had no idea about, which your book made clear to me, was the evolution of the state of mind, which went from 'Oneliness' all the way through to the 1800s when it started becoming loneliness. Could you talk about that arc? What you think is the reason for the drift to this new word?


Dr Fay Alberti (04:44):

Roundabout 1800 when people talked about loneliness, which wasn't a word used very often, what they meant was Oneliness. And I really liked this word. Oneliness is the state, the physical state of being alone. So it is comparable to the modern state of solitude in terms of simply being on one's own, but it doesn't have the emotional residence and the negative emotional meanings that it has today. What I observed was that the rise in loneliness as a word became more prominent, accompanying a number of important social political and economic changes. So with intensified urbanization, industrialization, with increasing breakdown of traditional communities and fundamentally a decline in traditional religious belief.


Jeremy (05:31):

You know, you said religion was obviously one aspect that comforted people, there's sort of a feeling that God was watching over you. So that even if you were on your own, there was some spiritual companionship. Is that, do you think a part of the reason why maybe this most secular world of ours is not helping us when it comes to the comforting nature that one looks to in moments of strife or grief?


Dr Fay Alberti (05:56):

I find this a really interesting issue because there is evidence that having some sort of faith makes people feel protected and included, and faith groups need to be studied because there are some religious practices, some religious participation that makes some people feel included and others feel excluded. However, I don't think it's just religious belief that's important because there are other secular ways of thinking about our connectedness with others that serve a similar function and I was reminded of that really in terms of sort of environmental movements driven by a sense of our connectedness to the planet and our connectedness to other people. There is a sense of belonging to some sort of higher purpose there that is parallel or comparable to that religious belief that for many people no longer exists.


Jeremy (06:48):

You talk about the social Darwinism that comes with this neo-liberalism, that's being pushed and is at a feral state now, certainly in the States, it seems. You know, there's a survival of the fittest, even if you don't literally believe that, there's this sort of drumming sound in your mind that I've got to get on, I've got to improve it. I've gotta be productive and it's going on all the time, but it does sort of say you're on your own.


Dr Fay Alberti (07:12):

I think there are some really sort of fundamental ideological challenges involved about what an individual is, what is society, how, how do the two interrelate and I suppose fundamentally we have this problem right now with the future of the planet is that we seem incapable of having the sort of empathic engagement or sense of future generations or this sense of ourselves as belonging to something that's much bigger or a much bigger historical process. Everything is thought about very short term and for quick wins. And we need a much more complex understanding of how society fits together really to see change.




Judy (08:00):

I'm not feeling terribly hopeful about empathetic engagement in America right now. Pitting one side against each other has almost become an art form over here.


Jeremy (08:11):

It's pretty depressing when allegiance to your tribe is all that matters. Ironically, this is the one form of belonging that just happens to be toxic, but as you suggested, a lot of industries benefit hugely from fueling this fire. It's part of their business model. You know, the news media and a bunch of social media platforms are the obvious villains here. But I guess that's another podcast for another day.


Judy (08:34):

Look, I'm going to play devil's advocate for a minute. And I want to say that while it's fascinating to chart the trajectory of this emotion we've come to call loneliness through the centuries and through our evolution, if I was someone listening in right now who might be in the grips of loneliness, I think I'd want to know more it from a real human perspective, less academic or scholarly, I suppose.


Jeremy (09:00):

Yeah, I guess that's a fair point. I did ask Dr. Alberti why it is we seem to have a problem with language when it comes to the word of loneliness and given that it affects us emotionally, as well as physically, we can't really go to the doctor and just say, "Oh, doc, I feel lonely," and expect him or her to understand how to fix my specific situation. Here's Dr. Alberti's take on this.


Dr Fay Alberti (09:25):

This focus on loneliness as we do on all emotions, as belonging to the brain. But actually I think the emotional body really needs to be addressed in terms of loneliness because people often describe feeling cold, feeling a need of physical warmth when they are trying to describe a lack of social warmth in their lives. And that's consistent with a much longer tradition of viewing emotions as experiences that affect the mind and body alike. And some of the most wonderful therapies that we have seen work in loneliness are massage therapies, there are aromatherapy. They're things that tend to the body and make the body feel as though it has a place in the world.


Jeremy (10:05):

You have experienced loneliness. How did you notice that it was owning you and that you weren't in control quite so much? There's not like a bell rings when you're officially lonely.


Dr Fay Alberti (10:17):

I think we should come with alarms.


Jeremy (10:19):

We need an app. 


Dr Fay Alberti (10:20):

We'll get one.


Dr Fay Alberti (10:22):

I think I'm very happy to talk about experiences when I felt lonely, because I've had a sort of long drawn out encounters with loneliness during my life. I'm fortunate because when I feel lonely, I tend to write, or I do something that feels creative, but absolutely there have been times where I suddenly feel a tremendous sense of loss. And I think what is that? And it's a feeling like an emptiness, like something just falling away. And then I'll kind of think what is it? And I, you know, go through all the possibilities and I think, okay, and then I can quite quickly work out precisely the connection that I'm missing. But I think that's because I'm very, very attuned to languages and physicalities of emotion. I think for people who are not used to talking about it or thinking about it or feel any shame about emotions, I think it's much, much harder.


Jeremy (11:12):

You've got some techniques, I imagine. The first is, it sounds like you recognize what's happening. You either use creativity to almost step outside of the suffering Fay to the professional Fay. Are these the techniques that you use that might be applicable and helpful for other people?


Dr Fay Alberti (11:30):

Yes. I think the techniques that I find very helpful, they have some commonalities with mindfulness, which is about, you know, what is it that I feel in this moment? And I've used this on my children too, you know, what is it that you physically need right now? And generally our bodies will tell us. I think the challenge is that often our bodies want to, to drink or to take drugs, or obliterate the sense of feeling because pronounced or uncomfortable feelings can be very hard to sit with. But the challenge is that it's only through sitting through them, that you can address them. And our society doesn't tend to want us to address them. It tends to want us to medicalize them. And, and of course these are, these are broad sweeps, and it's not that I'm saying that people who take medication shouldn't. What I'm saying is that it's only really by being attuned to our physical and emotional senses and even in ways that are very difficult, that we can really address loneliness. And for many people that is either walking in the countryside or taking a hot bath or, you know, sitting down and doodling or drawing or something that reminds us that we are physical bodies, as well as intellectual one.


Jeremy (12:39):

How important is it that we recognize and acknowledge the body's role in, in feeling it and as well as leading to relief from that condition?


Dr Fay Alberti (12:48):

I think it's really important because if we feel loneliness and we feel it on a physical level and we feel it in our chest, our heart sort of seems like it's sinking. We feel cold. People tend to want to wrap blankets or their own arms around themselves. And this is attached, I think, to the sensorial aspects of loneliness. So it's things like touch that make us feel connected to others. It's smells that bring back memories, and a sense of belonging in the world. It's taste. It's food. All of the things that we do as human beings in the world are about our sensory engagement with the material world. You know, if you think about elderly people who suffer from dementia, it's often music that will kind of re-engage their senses. It's listening to something. And, and what happens is those sort of memory pathways make people think, "Oh, I recognize myself. I belonged. I had a role." And so tending to those sensorial ways of being in the world, I think are fundamental. The challenge is that for some people who've had traumatic lives, there's not very many happy sensorial experiences. And so the task then becomes creating them by creating physical safety, physical warmth, really trying to work out what it is that makes somebody feel at ease in their bodies, because of course, traumatic experiences, people want to leave their bodies by whichever means possible. But I do think that those sorts of healing modalities are really important in addressing, not just loneliness, but all forms of what we call mental health disorders could be addressed through the body.


Jeremy (14:39):

So what I did get from the book is that there are certain assumptions that we make about the way we should live in order to be fulfilled. And I just wanted to talk to these sorts of understandings or, or beliefs that we've inherited with regard to the romantic aspect of finding one's soulmate, "quote, unquote." Could you give me your 35,000 feet point of view about how we're set up to almost fail?


Dr Fay Alberti (15:05):

I think one of the challenges that we are simultaneously in society regarded as individuals, and yet we are told that there is a soulmate out there waiting for us, which is, you know, that's the sort of problem in itself, but then also it's over time, the idea of the soulmate has changed so remarkably. So it used to be that to find a person that would be your partner in life was very much about the, you know, the economic, the emotional, the practical, it was a sense of being a help mate. So somebody that would accompany you in life's journey and what's happened with the sort of Hollywood identity or version of the soulmate. It's so endemic in our culture now is about a lack of completeness without that other. So the idea is that somebody else is supposed to make us complete. And the challenge of that of course, is that the loss of that soulmate or the inability to find a perceived soulmate means that people feel that there is something wrong with them. And there is so much emphasis now through dating apps, this sort of focus on finding the person and, and hugely unrealistic expectations of what we will find in another person. And I do think that that has created huge swathes of loneliness.


Jeremy (16:20):

This is an unfair question, but if you were emperor for the week, let's say the month, right? Give yourself a month. And you had incredible powers, actually, superhuman powers, almost, but you were tasked with one job, which is aiding, fixing loneliness.


Dr Fay Alberti (16:35):

That's a tough one, isn't it?


Jeremy (16:35):

What would you do as president of the world of loneliness? Where would you start to concentrate, even if it's a long-term project, but where would you start the process?


Dr Fay Alberti (16:47):

I think the most important thing that I would want to see is a distinction made between loneliness that is circumstantial or structural loneliness, which is because people don't have access to health or medicine or social care, and that which is existential. So people might have enough money to get by and might have their health, but they still feel that sense of disconnect. And some of the structural issues around loneliness are endemic in the West and in the UK at the moment, we have massive cuts in social care. We have massive problems with homelessness, and we have things like libraries being shut down, which are spaces where people didn't have to spend money to congregate. And it doesn't take much to really curb loneliness among those people who it's simply a structural reason that they are unable to participate in society. So that's the first thing that I would do is to make sure that that was eliminated.


Dr Fay Alberti (17:41):

And the second thing towards tending towards existential loneliness, which would obviously people who are impoverished can feel existential learning that it's not as it's reserved to people who are comfortable. But I think that that is very much about emphasizing the relationship between individuals and society, in a sense of collective responsibility. I have a very strong feeling about collective responsibility. So that means that it wouldn't be okay to other people and it wouldn't be okay to pit people against one another for the purposes of winning elections or, you know, gaining popular support. I think that that cultural change is about kind of lessening fear. And it's about lessening hostility and making certain behaviors towards one another unacceptable. And that's a, that's a much longer process. Yeah. And it's also about prioritizing creativity, which can be this wonderful way of engaging with and dealing with emotions. But also it can build bridges between people who genuinely have nothing else in common.


Jeremy (18:40):

You wrote that loneliness is so all encompassing that we tend to just sort of make it our catch-all phrase for maybe some individual things that need drilling down.


Dr Fay Alberti (18:50):

Yeah. What's interesting about this language of an epidemic in particular is that loneliness, becomes so ubiquitous and all encompassing that it becomes a peg for many different hats. Sometimes people move through loneliness as a natural part of a life stage. It's quite common for instance, for teenagers to feel very lonely and, and in some ways they need to, because how on earth will they decide who they are or what they want to feel alive with without feeling first a lack and a need that has to be filled? One of the challenges though, in trying to assess levels of loneliness is that if we ask people, if they're lonely and we suggest against this backdrop of loneliness, always being bad, that it necessarily is a negative thing, then people will associate loneliness, always with negativity. And they will say yes, when what they could be feeling is anxiety or depression, or even nervousness about their place in the world. So that's one of the issues about trying to measure loneliness and seeing it as this kind of human universal, rather than something which is much more complicated and about the specifics of our everyday lives.


Jeremy (19:57):

So in a way, your book's plea is that we just need to unpack the words and comments that we make about loneliness and just examine the assumptions that are all bound up in loneliness. Be a little bit more thoughtful and incisive and real about what's going on and not just sweep everything under the loneliness carpet.


Dr Fay Alberti (20:15):

I think by tending to the language of loneliness and by thinking about when it happens and who to, and when it matters and when it doesn't, I think that really allows us to think about loneliness as a social issue rather than just a psychological one. And so that is the point at which we can begin to make some of the necessary social and political changes that I've talked about.


Jeremy (20:37):

You've talked about the theory that this loneliness pill, and I think you said that maybe at its best, it could work if it works at all as some kind of a bridge to finding real relief from it. Any thoughts from you on what that means metaphorically as well as in practical terms, popping a pill and you're not lonely anymore?


Dr Fay Alberti (20:53):

Well, no, that's right. And of course it only deals with the symptoms, the same as other forms of medication for emotional symptoms. It's about medicalization, it's about consumerism, and this idea that we can pop a pill and everything will be transformed. There is some fundamental social reasons why people are lonely and unless we tend to that, we're not going to be able to eradicate loneliness at all.




Judy (21:21):

I'm not sure I understand the concept of a loneliness pill. I mean, we've heard it said that loneliness is a pretty universal human emotion, so we can't eradicate it.


Jeremy (21:34):

We could try. Why not?


Judy (21:36):

Yeah, it's true. I suppose, like sadness, which is also felt by just about everyone, we do have pills that can make us happier at least temporarily. So I guess it's doable.


Jeremy (21:48):

Yeah. Some scientist is going to make it his life goal, but anyway, the problem is that these mood changers are helpful in the short term, but can really kind of stop you from investigating solutions that would lessen the incidents of loneliness.


Judy (22:01):

True. And the scientist would be a her.


Jeremy (22:05):

Or a them.


Judy (22:06):

Or them.



Judy (22:16): 

Join us for our next episode called 'Hashtag Lonely' when we'll investigate why it is that young adults today report feeling lonelier than ever. See you then.


Jeremy (22:29):

'Is Anybody Out There?' was created and written by Judy D'Mello and Jeremy Warshaw.


Judy (22:35):

This episode was produced and edited by Christian Sawyer. Music by Seaplane Armada.


Jeremy (22:41):

If you're enjoying this podcast and we hope you are, please rate us on Apple podcasts.


Judy (22:47):

And do subscribe wherever you download your podcasts.


Jeremy (22:50):

For more information about what you heard today, please visit the Connectory.com. Let's stay connected!

Dr. Fay Bound AlbertiProfile Photo

Dr. Fay Bound Alberti


Dr. Fay Bound Alberti is a writer and cultural historian who works on medicine, health, the body and emotions. Her books include A Biography of Loneliness: The History of an Emotion (2019), This Mortal Coil: The Human Body in History and Culture (2016) and Matters of the Heart: History, Medicine and Emotion (2010). Fay is Reader in History, co-Director for the Centre for Global Health Histories and UKRI Future Leaders Fellow at the University of York, U.K. where she is working on the history of face transplants.