The Lonely Hour 101
One of my favorite emails to date:
“My name is Melanie and I’m a senior journalism student at the University of Florida. I’m a recent The Lonely Hour listener and a soon-to-be college graduate, and this podcast has became a sort of solace during the downtime I have between graduation requirements and school work. As a young woman who wasn’t blessed with the gift of gab, I have spent a lot of time being lonely and thinking about being lonely. As a journalism student, I’ve felt compelled to articulate these feelings, but to manifest a description of loneliness never seems to fully encompass the true feeling.”
Melanie was inspired by The Lonely Hour to write a short feature about loneliness in a modern age. She interviewed me for it, and I’m sharing her transcript below for those of you who might be new to the show and want to better understand The Big Idea.
And thanks, Melanie.
Melanie: In the intro you say you have a lot of feelings and that loneliness is one of them. Is that what started this podcast? A desire to share this feeling? Or was there some other moment that was really the impetus for TLH?
Me: TLH is not a show about dating in the Tinder era, but my personal struggle with finding solid partnership in this day and age is what led me to explore the topic of loneliness. I’m a single woman in her early thirties looking for partnership, which is very hard to find, and I get lonely.
Generally, though, I’m not the classic loner type. I’m very social—my career requires me to be, and I chose my career—but I also need a significant amount of alone time that borders on isolating myself to feel balanced and of sound mind. Perhaps I’m the classic ambivert.
As far as the impetus for TLH goes, I think it’s the right time to be talking about loneliness because a lot of people are saying it’s the next public health issue. (It has to do with the way we live our lives today: the rise of social media, two parents working, and all the things that have changed in the last few decades.) There are reports on the rates of depression rising, reports linking loneliness to health problems, but there’s not a great discussion aimed at understanding what the feeling is. That’s my goal with this.
Melanie: One of the things I love about TLH is that it takes a topic that feels so individual but is really something that everyone feels, and signals to the listener that he or she is not alone in their feelings. So why, then, do you think people are so hesitant to reach out to others when they're lonely?
Me: There’s shame in loneliness for a lot of people. It implies weakness, and most people don’t like to feel that—or to be around that.
Melanie: Is loneliness be a bad thing? Can good come from loneliness? Some studies indicate loneliness may have an adaptive value in that it signals to us that we need to reach out to others so we don't suffer from the psychological and physical injuries of loneliness.
Me: It’s important to distinguish between loneliness and alone-ness, here. Loneliness is an inherently sad feeling; it’s defined as “sadness because one has no friends or company.” Alone-ness is simply the state of being alone; no negative or positive associations.
As far as whether or not good can come from loneliness, I don’t know. Some people on my show have expressed that, but the confusion around the definition of loneliness leads me to think those people were actually referring to alone-ness. If good has been proven to come from loneliness, then great!
I don’t purport to be an expert on the topic, though. I’m not a psychologist, I don’t have a degree in human isolation and its effects; I’m just contributing research to the discussion by broadcasting focused conversations.
Melanie: Dovetailing off that, I wonder if you differentiate between loneliness and being alone?
Me: Absolutely (see above). And with TLH, I want to address them both. I don’t want to avoid talking about loneliness, because that’s the feeling around which there’s still a taboo that I’d like to do away with, but I also want to explore all corners of alone-ness: “me” time, solitude, and other solo-positive feelings. Enriching feelings.
Melanie: Do we romanticize the idea of loneliness? In literature and movies, I think there's this trope of a self-reliant, tragically misunderstood loner. Do we want to be lonely?
Me: Some people do, I’m sure. But I can’t speak about this phenomenon with any credibility.
Melanie: Do you think we're actually more lonely or just more self-aware/self-obsessed? Do we just need to get over ourselves?
Me: It’s a very good question, one to which I do not have the answer! It’s too soon to tell if this social media era is truly making us a more self-obsessed species yet or not. I would assume yes, based on what I see in popular culture, but I don’t have any thorough studies to back that up. And it’s a technology that’s developed within my lifetime, so I don’t think we have that comprehensive research yet. At least, that’s what I assume you’re referring to when you talk about self obsession.
As far as loneliness: I think humans have always been lonely, and that’s a constant. I’m not as interested in the sob stories of the loneliest-ever people as I am in sharing multiple stories of lonely moments from all kinds of people’s perspectives.
Melanie: You're a writer and a chef....are those lonely endeavors?
Me: Writing is a solo activity. I am not a particularly lonely person because of the fact that I am a writer, though. I am not a particularly lonely person in general. (It’s also worth pointing out that I’m not a novelist, I’m a journalist, which is inherently a more social kind of writing. Does that make sense? I do plan to work on some book projects, though, so I’ll keep you posted on how my feelings of loneliness may or may not increase!)
As far as the food side of my career, I’m a writer, but not a chef. I pursued a culinary agree so that I’d be able to understand cooking at a technical level, and so that I’d be able to edit recipes well, but I never planned to cook for a living. I love chefs, but couldn’t fathom being on my feet all day like that. God bless those who can and do!
Melanie: What do you want listeners to take away from listening to your podcast?
Me: I want them to be moved by my guests’ stories, but I also want them to be more comfortable with their own loneliness. It’s part of the human experience, and as soon as people accept that, they’ll be more capable of walking with their loneliness, so to speak. There’s such a range of people and topics involved in the show; loneliness is with everyone, and it’s in everything. Digesting that might help decrease its power over you, as an individual.
It’s also a hard feeling to articulate. My hope is that, by listening to the brave souls who have accepted my request to come on the show and have a go at discussing their own loneliness, we all become better equipped to talk about it. With better verbiage, we’ll be less shy to discuss it, and as we discuss it more, over time, it will lose its taboo status.
Melanie: I don't know the reasoning behind the structure of the podcast, but I think the headings imply you expected there to be a story there. Did you find anything you weren't expecting? Did anything surprise you or make you think about the topic of loneliness differently than you had at the beginning of the podcast?
Me: At first, I was going to do one long form interview with a guest per episode. I started interviewing people, and certain themes came up. That's when I decided to batch episodes by those themes, instead, packing two to three interviews into each. That decision was helped by understanding the way in which consumers wanted to listen to this particular show (I did some surveying), as well as by the knowledge that I am not Marc Maron, and I cannot get President Obama to come on TLH. The success of long form interview-style podcasts is often due to boldface-named guests or the personality of the host; I’m not a celebrity so I can’t get celebrity guests, and I’m not a very present host, because this show is about the voices and stories of the people on it. I want those voices to be from anyone and everyone. So this format makes the most sense for a variety of reasons.
Melanie: Is being a podcaster lonely?
Me: I don’t think so, but again, I’m not a particularly lonely person. Entrepreneurship can be lonely, and you could think of a podcast as a kind of small business. I’m a team of one, editorially speaking. In my past career as an editor, I’ve enjoyed being part of a braintrust—there’s always someone through whom to filter ideas—but this show is all me. If it doesn’t resonate with people, that’s all on me. That can be scary.
That said, I have a relatively healthy attitude towards criticism. I really care that this show resonates with people, and I don’t assume that I have all the answers for how to make it do so; feedback is welcome. I won’t take it all—there are certain foundations of the show that I strongly believe in—but I’m open to schooling.