Study Hall interviewed me about this show, and while you have to subscribe to get SH's content, the very cool editors there granted The Lonely Hour permission to share the transcript.
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We hope you enjoy my conversation with Study Hall writer Allegra Hobbs below. It’s all about the loneliness of being a writer, antidotes to loneliness, the upsides of solitude, and what I’ve learned from the guests of The Lonely Hour.
Study Hall: Can you give a brief recounting of what inspired you to start The Lonely Hour podcast? Why was this particular facet of the human experience the one you felt compelled to explore?
Julia Bainbridge: When I launched The Lonely Hour, I was a freelance writer for the first time in my life; I had afforded myself the space to come up with big, perhaps unconventional ideas and turn them into something. This was two years ago, when I was 33, living in New York, and looking for partnership and not finding it. So many of my friends were dealing with the same thing. And the video game-ification of dating made modern romance seem pretty bleak. Was I going to be alone forever, I wondered? That combined with some other thoughts had been brewing for a bit: I read reports detailing our society’s increasing sense of social isolation; I observed the ways in which technology is distancing us from one another; I saw more and more people freelancing or otherwise working alone; I learned that more people are living alone (and aging alone) than ever before. I wanted to explore what all of that looked like.
The topic is gaining traction because there’s talk in the press about a loneliness “epidemic.” I don’t think that language is helpful, and it might not even be accurate: The data on loneliness is complicated because there are so many different ways of measuring it. Sociologist Eric Klinenberg wrote a smart op-ed in the New York Times, ending with the statement "I don’t believe we have a loneliness epidemic. But millions of people are suffering from social disconnection." I was grateful for his skepticism and his platform.
SH: Do you find writing to be an especially lonely profession?
JB: It certainly has been described as such, so much so that I dedicated an episode of season one to that particular topic. Ernest Hemingway, for example, said at his Nobel Banquet speech in 1954, “Writing, at its best, is a lonely life.”
It’s the same with any kind of creative endeavor: It takes an enormous amount of work done quietly and in one’s own head. In some papers that were, I believe, found after her death, the artist Louise Bourgeois wrote to a mentee: "After the tremendous effort you put in here, solitude, even prolonged solitude, can only be of very great benefit. Your work may well be more arduous than it was in the studio, but it will also be more personal." And a few months later, she reiterated: "Solitude, a rest from responsibilities, and peace of mind, will do you more good than the atmosphere of the studio and the conversations which, generally speaking, are a waste of time."
Loneliness, though, has to do with the perception, which I know we'll get into later in this discussion. There’s no doubt that writing requires significant alone time, but William Faulkner, for example, said "writing is a solitary job—that is, nobody can help you with it, but there's nothing lonely about it. I have always been too busy, too immersed in what I was doing, either mad at it or laughing at it to have time to wonder whether I was lonely or not lonely. It's simply solitary."
I do wonder if there’s something about being a writer—specifically a journalist—today, what with the level of accessibility readers have to them on Twitter. As New York Times White House correspondent Maggie Haberman put it, Twitter has become “an anger video game for many users.” Haberman wrote a piece explaining why she’s stepping away from Twitter for a while, revealing that the constant defending of her reporting against criticisms that are no longer in good faith has sent her anxiety in overdrive. It's true that Twitter is, as she wrote, "a place where people who are understandably upset about any number of things go to feed their anger," and as a prominent reporter, she's been a target. Whether or not you’re a fan of of hers, I don’t think you can deny how alone she must have felt in all of this. This idea isn’t polished yet; I’m just kind of thinking aloud, here...
SH: I'm wondering if you've found loneliness to be more a circumstance or a mental state, if that makes sense—I can't help but think of the Lonely Hour episode about the hermit, who chose to be alone for 27 years and said he never once experienced loneliness. Likewise there are people who have visibly busy social lives who would describe themselves as fundamentally lonely.
JB: Oh, thanks for listening to that episode! Christopher Knight’s story is wild, right? Michael Finkel did such a great job of communicating it.
And yes, loneliness has to do with perception. John T. Cacioppo, the director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Chicago, who unfortunately passed away last year, had been studying the effects and causes of loneliness for over two decades. According to him, “...loneliness refers to the perception that one’s social relationships are inadequate in light of one’s preferences for social involvement." Introverts in his studies, for example, show none of the health risk factors that married persons with perceived isolation showed.
SH: When you talk to people who were very lonely and have since emerged at least in part from that loneliness, what do they have in common, if anything?
JB: I don't purport to be an expert of this topic, just a shepherd of the conversation, but what I've learned based on The Lonely Hour listener feedback is that talking about loneliness, or hearing others talk about loneliness, makes people feel less lonely. Someone recently wrote to me that "it is intensely comforting to know that I’m not alone in my loneliness."
Otherwise, small and consistent acts help, right? If your friend says "I'm lonely," then make a plan with him or her. Be kind if that meeting is awkward, because she or he may feel lonely even in your company, but know that it's still helping. If it's you who is feeling lonely, force yourself to reach out to a friend and ask to meet for coffee. Or sign up for a yoga class, just to be around other people (and the endorphins won't hurt your mood). And be kind to yourself if you're a little awkward during either of those activities!
Earlier I said I was weary of the “epidemic” language, but that doesn’t mean I don’t see that a discussion about all of this is important, perhaps now more than ever. We all work longer hours than we used to, and we're never disconnected from work because of our new appendages: smartphones. So I think some changes can be made within the professional world.
I'm a big fan of Vivek Murthy. He was the U.S. surgeon from 2014 through 2017, and since then, he’s been focusing on improving the feeling of connectivity in the workplace. It's where we spend most of our time, and he believes a lot can be done to strengthen relationships there, ultimately improving productivity. It's not just about office happy hours, it's about creating opportunities for colleagues to learn about each other at a deeper personal level. At the office of the surgeon general, for example, Murthy gives one individual the floor to tell his or her own story for five minutes at every weekly staff meeting.
That’s just one example; I’d love to see what Murthy comes up with as he studies this further.
SH: Do you think there are benefits to loneliness? Maybe a better way to phrase this would be—what can loneliness teach us?
JB: Sure. Like anything dark in life, it can help you appreciate the light, right?
I asked this question of my listeners, and many felt that loneliness can teach self-confidence, resilience, and even gratitude. “The absence of loneliness isn't togetherness; it's being fully satisfied and without want,” one of them wrote. “We wouldn't appreciate or know what that feels like without loneliness. So I think we can rejoice when we feel loneliness because that means we are human, can related to others, and have the propensity to yearn.” That was very zen of her! Another listener said, "It has taught me self-motivation. Without experiencing loneliness, I wouldn't push myself to get out and explore half of what I do. As an only child growing up, and now as a single adult, I've learned to use loneliness as a gauge to identify my emotional needs. Not always, but most of the time when I feel lonely, I ask, 'What is it that I need? Exercise, socializing, rest?' From that perspective, [loneliness] can [help me] live healthier.”
Here’s another idea that might interest you: Going back to Cacioppo, he believed that loneliness, which he also calls “social pain,” is a kind of alarm signal. It’s nature’s way of telling us to rejoin the group, lest we compromise our health (which Cacioppo shows is linked to feeling part of a society). So, in a way, the stigma has value. Our discomfort with solitary life is a survival instinct.
SH: It's been said that in this particular moment in history we are lonelier than ever before—do you think this is the case? If so, why?
JB: It's hard for me to say definitely whether it's the case or not. According to some reports, the rates of loneliness have doubled since the 1980s. (There have also been reports of those reports having been based on faulty data, though.) If the reports are correct, then I could make some educated guesses about why. The biggest reason: The Internet.
Here's the formula, as I understand it: While, yes, the Internet can alleviate loneliness—social connectivity with a click!—that's only a temporary form of self-soothing. Studies show that most people feel the connections made online are less genuine than those made in person. And if we lean on virtual chats and the like too much, disconnecting from the world more and more, the Internet can stunt our "real" relationships. (Sydney Engelberg, a psychology professor in Israel, had a lot to say about this in season one of The Lonely Hour, on the episode about social media.)
Also, loneliness is contagious. So if you've got more people feeling lonely because of the shortcomings of but reliance on the Internet, you've got the people they're directly connected to, people who weren't already lonely, becoming lonelier. "There is this cascade of loneliness that causes a disintegration of the social network," said one social scientist at Harvard Medical School.
SH: How do you personally combat feelings of loneliness? And what advice would you give to others seeking to combat it?
JB: I’m all about acceptance. My show aims to demonstrate how much loneliness exists in all of us; it's part of the mixed bag of emotions involved in the human experience. So I guess you could say I don’t want to keep loneliness in the "problem" box.
Now, I don't focus much on the chronically lonely: poor or displaced people whose lives are unstable to the point that they can't get adequate social or medical support. That's a whole other thing, and should be combatted, because the effects of prolonged isolation are serious. Not only are there mental and emotional consequences (depression, anxiety), but it's also been linked to greater risk of heart disease and reduction of lifespan. And the stigma can make those experiencing debilitating loneliness reluctant to ask for help.
What I’m doing, though, is having conversations about lonely or solitary periods or moments in the lives of people. Hopefully, over time, those conversations will help neutralize the taboo around it all. And maybe that will soften the blow of the feeling, which is an inevitable one.