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Encountering Loneliness: Which Condition Applies to You?

Learn to address the sources of pervasive loneliness.

Key points

  • Short-term loneliness is part of the human condition; long-term loneliness is a problem to be addressed.
  • Loneliness is exacerbated in societies with individualist mythologies like the United States.
  • Privilege, subordination, marginality, and engagement are four conditions in which loneliness may occur.

Some years ago, a good friend and I had a disagreement about the value of social isolation. In his view, being alone meant, for the most part, being lonely. As he reasoned, when you’re alone, you’re deprived of social support. Typically, that support inspires and energizes. We become our best selves through the feedback provided by others.

I, on the other hand, thought of being alone as a mostly positive thing. When you’re on your own, you have the chance to commune with other elements of the world, perhaps nature or the insights of some book. You can wander about, do projects, or just think.

At one level, such quibbling is just the difference between being an extrovert and an introvert. Extroverts hunger for, and flourish in, social circles. Out of that sunlight, they languish. Introverts prefer the quiet and the remote. On-stage moments wear them out.

I accept that distinction. But I also stress that both types of people, including loners, can feel lonely. After all, loneliness is essentially a perception of some social deficit or lack. Although each of us may not desire the bustle of the crowd, nearly everyone wants periodic connection to comrades, those who understand your circumstances, share your commitments, and care about you as a person. More precisely, they want involvement with a small set of individuals they consider “their people.” Indeed, the worst kinds of loneliness can center on the absence of just one person who has been central to their lives.

If loneliness is a basic longing found in every society, that condition is exacerbated in societies with individualistic mythologies, like the United States. That claim is the thesis of Philip Slater’s The Pursuit of Loneliness, a once-famous book now more than 50 years old.

As Slater emphasizes, every society has certain cultural beliefs and support systems that encourage their members to live in prescribed ways. Just as some practices are encouraged, so others are discouraged or made problematic. In the United States, our fascination with individual accomplishment and experience means that we have neglected our fundamental needs for community, engagement, and dependence. In that light, we highlight competition at the expense of community, we prioritize strategic noninvolvement over deep engagement, and we mock dependence as the circumstance of those who cannot live on their own terms.

According to Slater, American society valorizes a private house, private means of transportation, private garden, private laundry, and self-service stores. People desire a private bedroom, television, telephone, and car. “We seek more and more privacy—and feel more and more alienated and lonely when we get it.”

In this post, I present a bit more of Slater’s argument—and extend it to our 21st-century society. In that spirit, let’s look at four quite different conditions in which loneliness may occur.

The loneliness of privilege

Privileged people are those who have an imbalance of rights over duties. For the most part, they get to control without being controlled. They “have” without “being had.”

Many of us idealize this condition. We like to go places and do things on our own terms. More than that, we like to have other people attend to our needs. In our fantasies, someone brings a drink to our beach chair; our dirty dishes—and dirty linen—are managed by someone beholden to us. Slater’s famous metaphor for such self-centered indulgence is the “toilet assumption.” Much like the users of a flush toilet, we want life’s unpleasantries to be removed from our perceptual field. We don’t care who deals with these problems—which often, and pointedly, are of our own making—or how they are dealt with. We just want them “gone.”

Be clear, though, that controlling others is not the same as “knowing” them in any deeper meaning of that term. Servants are not friends; neither are the paid service providers that are the modern equivalents of those underlings. Typically, they tell us only what they think we want to hear. When the money stops, they stop. True companionship means an equilateral exchange of needs and concerns.

The loneliness of subordination

Few of us, at least in this society, would romanticize the opposite condition, where people have an imbalance of duties over rights. Subordinate people usually must do what they’re told or risk losing the modest positions they hold. Many of our most prized entitlements—freedoms of movement, expression, assembly, religion, education, voting, and property possession—are restricted for subordinate people.

As children in families or students in school, we are familiar with “temporary” subordination. Frequently, we bristle at being ordered about; we feel disrespected and abused. At least, we feel that way if we sense the higher-ups won’t listen to us or don’t care about us. In organizations, a common refrain among lower-level workers is that the bosses are unconcerned with them and that there are few ways to express their grievances. Even as we put in our time, we do not delude ourselves into thinking our superiors are interested in what we have to say or who we are as individuals.

In the examples given above, most subordinates believe that they can eventually leave their current condition and find something better. However, many other forms of subordination are “semi-permanent” or even “permanent.” Think of a woman trapped in a loveless marriage in a traditional society or a child sold into a lifetime of slavery. Less extremely, many others—even in our modern world—decide that they must “put up” with relationships in which they are dominated and disrespected. They have no one to talk to about their confinement. Loneliness is that sense of isolation and disempowerment.

The loneliness of marginality

Typically, we associate loneliness with those who exist on the edges of a group or relationship. Pointedly, this is not the same as being a committed outsider or loner, like the solitary adventurer, hobo, or cowboy. Rather the marginal person is oriented to a group that denies them full acceptance. Within that group, at least, they have very few rights or duties.

In that light, it’s worth noting that many men in our society—15 percent in one study—report that they have no close friends. To be sure, they may have guys they do things with—at a workplace, gym, or sports field. But they do not confide seriously in those associates; they do not do favors for one another.

Slater stresses that modern technology diminishes rather than promotes deep engagement. Our machines give us security and comfort; they allow us to retreat into our homes instead of mingling in public. The revolution in electronic communication during the last half-century has not altered that pattern. To be sure, the Internet allows us to access products, ideas, and people in unprecedented ways. But those contacts are “at a distance.” They do not carry the obligations of flesh-and-blood involvements; nor do they let us express ourselves in our fullest dimensions. Would anyone argue that spending countless hours playing video games with strangers from around the world or lurking on social media sites fulfills our basic needs for human involvement?

The loneliness of engagement

Slater’s book is in part a reaction to another classic work, David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd. Riesman believed that modern Americans had become “other-directed”—that is, preoccupied with the opinions of co-workers, neighbors, and friends in an emerging white-collar, suburban world. The challenge, as he saw it, was to rediscover “autonomy.” Slater, by contrast, feels this quest for independence is self-defeating.

Be that as it may, most of us understand that this intense involvement with others—a combination of high rights and high responsibilities, to use my language—can sometimes be the condition of loneliness. It is not just that we lose our powers of self-expression under the conditions of group-think. Rather, it’s the terms or directions of our lives that are problematic. Pointedly, we never lack company, we approach each day with determination, and we feel ourselves moving along life’s track. Still, we perceive a certain emptiness, a judgment that we are not being our better selves—and perhaps never will be. Just “staying busy,” as some writers explain, is no antidote for alienation. Curiously, we feel alone in the hectic home environments where we have every right to feel at home.

Periodic bouts of loneliness are surely elements of the human condition, as they reflect people’s judgments that their relationships are not sustaining them as well as they might. The real challenge then is to respond to these bouts by questioning the character of our current involvements with others, by deepening the relationships that matter to us, and by finding new settings of social support.


Slater, P. (1970). The Pursuit of Loneliness: American Culture at the Breaking Point. Boston: Beacon Press.

Riesman, D., with N. Glazer and R. Denney. (2000). The Lonely Crowd: A Study of the Changing American Character, revised edition. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Cox, D. (2021). “American Men Suffer a Friendship Recession.” Survey Center on American Life.

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