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A Biography of Loneliness

The History of an Emotion

By Fay Bound Alberti
15-minute read
Audio available
A Biography of Loneliness by Fay Bound Alberti

We tend to think of loneliness, like any emotion, as something universal. But its history is surprisingly recent. In A Biography of Loneliness, cultural historian Fay Bound Alberti traces the development of the modern concept of loneliness since its origins around 1800, and addresses the question of how it has gained such prominence in contemporary society.

  • People interested in cultural history
  • Anyone interested in emotions
  • Those concerned by the prevalence of loneliness today

Dr. Fay Bound Alberti has published books on medicine, the body, gender, and emotion, and is a reader in history and UKRI Future Leaders Fellow at the University of York. She has spoken and published widely, and taught at universities around the UK.

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A Biography of Loneliness

The History of an Emotion

By Fay Bound Alberti
  • Read in 15 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 9 key ideas
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A Biography of Loneliness by Fay Bound Alberti
Synopsis

We tend to think of loneliness, like any emotion, as something universal. But its history is surprisingly recent. In A Biography of Loneliness, cultural historian Fay Bound Alberti traces the development of the modern concept of loneliness since its origins around 1800, and addresses the question of how it has gained such prominence in contemporary society.

Key idea 1 of 9

Loneliness is a surprisingly recent concept, and these days it’s often called an epidemic.

It’s tempting to think of emotions as concepts that exist outside of time: intrinsic, fixed parts of what makes us human. But in fact, it’s possible for society to change so much that different emotions develop and change. One prominent example of that, with biting relevance today, is loneliness.

Think of that famous Beatles song, “Eleanor Rigby,” depicting a village full of lonely individuals. It’s deeply rooted in the 1960s, when huge societal changes led to a shift away from the traditional “nuclear” family unit of a stable marriage with children: that was a time when loneliness, especially among the elderly, started to become more common.

Fast forward to today, and it’s common to talk of loneliness as an “epidemic.” That’s more than just a metaphor: loneliness can lead to illness and even death, and the UK’s National Health Service estimates that lonely people have a 30 percent greater chance of dying earlier. Loneliness, the NHS says, increases the risk of conditions including dementia, depression, and even strokes.

This is all the more surprising because our contemporary concept of loneliness emerged as recently as the 19th century. What’s more, despite its prominence, loneliness remains difficult to define today – linguistically, it has no opposite, and it’s not the same as simply being alone as it also involves a sense of emotional lack. It’s useful to think of loneliness as a kind of emotional blend, incorporating elements of resentment, sorrow, shame, self-pity, and others.

But however you define it, there’s no doubting the significance of loneliness in contemporary society. You could even compare it to obesity, as they have a surprising amount in common. Both are chronic conditions, related to lifestyle, and particularly prevalent in the contemporary Western world. Both place great demand on health services. And both conditions are experienced by those unable to escape their own boundaries – the body in the case of obesity, and the mind in the case of loneliness. But loneliness isn’t a purely mental state. Like all emotions, it’s experienced and affected by the body as well as the mind.

How has loneliness in its contemporary sense come into being? The next blink will explore the history of the concept, as well as its meaning for us today.

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