By Shreya Singh (23S03C) and Cece Cao Chenxi (23A01E)
Our modern world is characterised by a deep, relational hunger. We’ve found ourselves aching for connection, even though developments in technology have allowed us to keep in touch with others on the other side of the globe.
However, with loneliness increasingly seen through rose-tinted glasses after pandemic restrictions prevented face-to-face interactions, it is interesting to explore how the romanticisation of loneliness has affected our day-to-day lives.
Types of Loneliness
Loneliness must firstly not be confused with solitude: a generally enjoyable state in which one wants to spend time on their own. In fact, several introverts can attest to deriving satisfaction from reading, listening to music or even cafe hopping alone.
So if loneliness is not solitude, what is loneliness exactly? To delineate the term, we will explore 3 different definitions, namely existential, social and emotional loneliness.
While existential loneliness can affect just about anyone upon enough introspection (or overthinking), social loneliness may present itself as that fleeting feeling of FOMO you get when you stay in for the long weekend, but see everybody on Instagram living it up.
Emotional loneliness tends to be a lot more subtle. Essentially, it’s the feeling of a lack of deep and meaningful relationships with at least one person, be it a family member or friend. Hence, not everyone is lonely in the same way: each lonely individual has a different combination of these types of loneliness which has developed differently over time.
How we grew infatuated with spending time alone
Due to the social isolation we were (quite literally) forced into, there has been a spike in videos on social media relating to “spending time alone”. Increasingly, it has been touted as a panacea for all of life’s problems. No boyfriend? Take yourself out on a date! No friends? Go to a pottery class alone! Nowhere to go this weekend? Stay in and watch a movie…on your own!
Of course, the benefits of spending time alone cannot be overstated. You end up getting to know yourself and your own needs quite intimately, it becomes a lot less scary to book a table for one, and most of all, you stop settling for people that don’t have your best interests because… so what if you’re alone?
That said, the enjoyable solitude of spending time alone may eventually fade into loneliness, whether that’s in the form of existential, social or emotional loneliness. After all, we cannot expect ourselves to fulfil all of our own needs. Connecting with other people is an undeniable facet of the human condition—this is why pandemic-induced isolation was such a trying time for many of us.
But why romanticise loneliness to begin with?
The simple answer is that we romanticise loneliness because it comforts us. When the ache of loneliness begins to set in, it is natural to endeavour to ascribe some sort of value to it. We might tell ourselves that loneliness is inextricably intertwined with beauty, as perhaps any other emotion would be.
This is reflected in the media we consume. Take the likes of popular melancholic music artists of today and their discography: Phoebe Bridger’s Funeral and Lana Del Rey’s 13 Beaches are just two examples of songs that tend to romanticise loneliness, echoing the sentiments of teenage fans everywhere.
For a while, TikTok was replete with teenagers filming themselves eating or studying alone. Many of these clips were accompanied by the ‘mouse audio’ and described solitary activities as ‘mouse moments’, drawing inspiration from this viral clip of a mouse eating M&Ms alone.
In light of this, does loneliness always have to be something sad or even undesirable? It is, after all, an existential fact that our life experiences are wholly our own to hold on to. Nobody else could possibly comprehend the richness that another’s life may include, so it can be isolating to realise that nobody else “gets” it.
Romanticisation may then be a radical form of acceptance or even amplification of a feeling that has always existed. Aristotle postulated that “the chief forms of beauty are order and symmetry and definiteness,” so one might find some philosophical backing to such acceptance.
Without loneliness, we might not experience the same kind of bliss when finding genuine connection with people in our lives. As with several things in nature, perhaps loneliness is the yin to the yang of joy and hopefulness derived from relationships.
The pandemic may simply have served as an opportunity to delve deeper into our own consciousness, and realise the inherent value that lies in loneliness. Loneliness is what ultimately enables us to genuinely appreciate the moments spent together with others.
The dark side of romanticising loneliness
As with all things, however, romanticising loneliness can take on a much darker tone when it slips into the glorification of sadness. In its most extreme forms, the suffering that comes with loneliness is seen as valid, necessary or even desirable.
Often, we might be led to believe that strong emotions inherently hold more ‘value’: experiencing the pain of loneliness, for example, could make us a more ‘interesting’ or ‘complex’ person.
Such a phenomenon can clearly be observed in the concept of the ‘tortured artist’. From Michelangelo to van Gogh, we often admire the magnum opuses of artists for their ability to convey the artists’ tragic despair.
Yet, glamorising these artist’s pain by going as far as to call them “tragically beautiful” can be more detrimental than one might expect. After all, while sadness may fuel creativity, it is invalidating and dangerous to cite sadness as the sole reason for the work these artists produce.
There is a fine line between normalising and glamorising something as complex as loneliness. We can begin to broaden our view of artists by considering that perhaps, they may have produced art despite their sadness, rather than because of it.
We hope that we haven’t driven you further down a spiral of whether or not being lonely is good or bad. In fact, it’s neither (at least to us). What’s important is cultivating healthy relationships and coming to terms with the fact that loneliness, in some form and at some point in time, will be an emotion we grapple with.
While loneliness is an unavoidable part of the human experience, this doesn’t mean you have to fear it. Keep taking yourself on solo dates, or whatever you enjoy by yourself, for it is only then you truly get to know yourself inside and out. It doesn’t have to consume your life, unless of course, you truly enjoy your solitude—by all means, live life how you want to.