Could You Be Lonesome Tonight?

DR. YOSEF BRODY holds a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from Long Island University-Brooklyn. A native New Yorker, he is now based in Paris where he teaches and works in private practice. He also curates a blog in which he posts underreported news & analysis related to socioeconomic injustice, human rights, and more. To check it out, click: here.




Rhyme & Reason, his monthly column for Seymour Magazine is an exploration of the creative process from a clinical psychologist’s point of view.

© Bas Jan Ader

© Bas Jan Ader

Writing at its best is a lonely life. – Ernest Hemingway


Real loneliness is a feat. Behind which a constant fear is lurking. 

– From Brink of Life (1958), written by Ulla Isaksson and directed by Ingmar Bergman


So we must keep apart,

You there, I here,

With the door ajar

– Emily Dickinson



What is loneliness?

Loneliness is a subjective emotional experience, a subtype of sadness often imbued with anxiety. In contrast to solitude, which describes an objective experience, loneliness can be felt no matter whether other people are physically nearby or not, and in varying degrees. Loneliness is the feeling of being isolated from people and social situations that are believed in the gut or the heart to be important, the sense of being detached from meaningful connection and devoid of needed emotional bond.

Neo-Freudian clinicians in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s developed important theories describing the human need to connect deeply with others. While Freud had zeroed in on sexual and aggressive urges, these theorists emphasized instead the human need to seek out and establish relationships. They saw that people are motivated by important attachments that correspond to various wishes, fears, ideas, expectations, and affects — internalized interpersonal dramas that form the core of individual identity.

When we feel alone, these psychic dramas tend to take over mental life, driving us inward. And that, as Hemingway noted on accepting the Nobel Prize — in large part for his vivid and moving portrayal of the lonely fisherman Santiago in The Old Man and the Sea — can be very good for creativity.

Modern technology is changing how we experience loneliness. The type of loneliness people once knew is quickly becoming a psychological relic. (If Santiago had an iPhone available, that little book about him just wouldn’t be the same.) The opportunity for constant “connection” allows us to elude any fleeting feeling of loneliness with a check of the inbox, a quick text, a few minutes online to “interact” with “friends.” But how many people really believe that these fragmented new media connections are a viable replacement for a lonesome heart? The telephone was often experienced as an emotional lifeline when it dominated interpersonal communication in the 20th century.  Does the new mode of online and mobile connection offer a similar sense of intimacy? Do scrolling, clicking, scanning, pinning, and sending provide satisfying emotional results when we miss others? Or are they easy and temporary escapes from emotional discomfort?

If the experience of loneliness has a positive impact on creativity, it’s worth reflecting on just what we might be losing in our knee-jerk attempts to soothe even the most passing of lonely moments by compulsively checking and tapping and swiping our little screens.

Could it be that loneliness needs a brand makeover? Should we work to accept and respect and maybe even nurture our lonesome feelings rather than run from them? Not out of some masochistic desire or neo-Luddite impulse, but because loneliness helps us to express ourselves in authentic and creative ways?

When was the last time you deliberately turned off your smartphone to spend some quality time alone?

Try this thought experiment: Imagine if you never again had to feel lonely. Imagine if the Facebooks and Twitters were taken to their psychological extremes, a digital social world where you could remain interpsychically connected every single minute of the day. Would your personal life be improved? What would art and culture look like? Would a lack of loneliness be a net plus for humanity?

I tend to think that if and when we are technically able and willing to live like that our individual creativity would suffer substantially and we could even lose an important part of what it means to be human. Some might call it natural evolution, but I wonder whether, without intending to, this sort of media environment would eradicate a nice-sized chunk of our emotional experience, depth, and complexity. (Such hypersocial, anti-loneliness technologies may not be far off: A big step in this brave new direction, Internet eyewear, will be available in 2014.)

Instead of automatically trying to eradicate loneliness, digitally or otherwise, try letting it be there with you for a few moments. How long does it typically stay? Is there a part of your body in which it manifests? What if you deliberately nurture those feelings for several minutes, hours, or a full day? How might you describe the experience? Verbally? Nonverbally?

Emily Dickinson, who expressed a frightening and unbounded sense of loneliness, preferred to stay by herself in her room or gardening, corresponding with her friends from afar rather than seeing them in person; would a different approach have resulted in a career of almost 1,800 influential poems? More recently, Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, a forlorn and struggling musician, retreated to an isolated cabin in the Wisconsin woods and, by the time he emerged, he had recorded a hit album.

The point is not that we must feel lonely to have a full creative life, only that we should keep in mind how useful loneliness can be, even when it passes through as rapidly as a gust of cold, sharp wind. The more we become mindful of lonely and difficult moments, the more we are able to access our creative depths. In this way, that sad, solitary experience — even if we somehow manage to convince ourselves that we must be the loneliest person in the world — might totally be worth it.


YB 2013


Published: March 5th, 2013

Previous in this series:

A case for believing in yourself

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