How loneliness became taboo
By Susan J. Matt
Are we lonely because of Facebook? For the last few weeks, sociologists, technologists, and other pundits have debated this question. Facebook’s critics claim the technology isolates its users, while its defenders seem unwilling to concede that their social networking results in loneliness. Largely absent from the conversation has been the historical perspective, which sheds important light on the topic. When one takes the long view, it becomes clear that Facebook has not made us lonely, for Americans have been lonely for at least two centuries, and have often struggled to find ways to assuage these feelings.
Facebook is a symptom, not a cause, of this enduring American social problem, which springs, most fundamentally, from our individualistic ideology. Our status updates, our Instagram photos, our tweets, are but the latest balms for our loneliness, just as letters, postcards, and daguerreotypes sent through the mail were the remedies of choice in the nineteenth century. While the technology we use to cope with isolation has changed dramatically, the more significant transformation lies in the fact that we are much more reticent about discussing our loneliness than our forebears ever were. The vehement denials of loneliness by Facebook users underscore this point.
In the past, many Americans showed a greater willingness to admit to emotions like loneliness, homesickness, and sadness than they do now. Today, we are expected to be cheerful, self-reliant, and resourceful, but these expectations — while developing in the nineteenth century — did not take full root until the twentieth. It once was acceptable for Americans to display their melancholy publicly. Despite our national mythology about the rugged adventurousness of nineteenth-century pioneers, prospectors, soldiers, and cowboys, these men and women often expressed pain at their isolation and discomfort with individualism. In 1843, Elias Lothrop left Durham, Maine in hopes of finding prosperity in Chicago. He wrote his wife, “I have many lonesome hours but that is to be expected.” As the letter continued however, Lothrop made clear that sometimes he found his loneliness too much, and longed for home “Sometimes I think that I will give up all my ambitious ideas of trying to make money and content myself at home and enjoy what little I have among my friends.” Such public admissions of sadness and isolation were common — it was not unusual for men to cry in public when they heard mournful songs, like “Home, Sweet Home,” which focused on the pain of separation. Learning to be an individualist was no easy lesson to master.
Even the prominent were willing to admit to loneliness; there was no shame in it yet. When Clarence Darrow moved to Chicago in the late nineteenth century, he was overcome by a sense of his own isolation. He recalled:
I rented a very modest apartment and took desk room in an office…. From the very first a cloud of homesickness always hung over me. There is no place so lonely to a young man as a great city where he has not intimates or companions. When I walked along the street I scanned every face I met to see if I could not perchance discover some one from Ohio. Sometimes I would stand on the corner of Madison and State Streets — ‘Chicago’s busiest corner’ — watching the passersby for some familiar face; as well might I have hunted in the depths of the Brazilian forest.
Well into the twentieth century, migrants like Darrow who had left home and family in search of profits had similar experiences. In Los Angeles, the cultural critic Carey McWilliams, describing life in Los Angeles, sketched a portrait of a town beset by a mood of ‘aching loneliness—the really terrible loneliness –that for years has been so clearly apparent in the streets and parks, the boarding houses and hotels, the cafeterias and ‘lonely clubs’ of Los Angeles.” Much of that loneliness came from the fact that so many residents in L.A. were recent arrivals from somewhere else.
However, in our contemporary society, which prizes individualism and shows little patience for the emotionally needy in our midst, it has become taboo to be lonely. Instead, we must be cheerfully independent. As Philip E. Slater explained in The Pursuit of Loneliness, “Independence training in American society begins almost at birth—babies are held and carried less than in most societies and spend more time in complete isolation — and continues… throughout childhood and adolescence. When a child is admonished to be a ‘big boy’ or ‘big girl’ this usually means doing something alone or without help…. Signs of independence are usually rewarded.” Given such training, psychiatrists have noted how difficult it is for Americans to admit their need for emotional connections because they believe such a need is a sign of dependency and inadequacy. The psychiatrists Jacqueline Olds and Richard Schwartz described the resistance they encountered when trying to talk with their patients about loneliness. They treated a large number of people who believed they were depressed but who were in fact lonely. Yet few were willing to give their melancholy that name. The psychiatrists concluded, “Talking about loneliness in America is deeply stigmatized; we see ourselves as a self-reliant people who do not whine about neediness.”
The result of such ideology is that we often keep quiet about our loneliness, our need for connection—more so today than a century ago. It seems unlikely that anyone would today join a “lonely club.” To do so would broadcast a discomfort with solitary individualism, and make all too apparent a vulnerability that seems needy and, to some, pathetic. We have internalized the emotional style of individualism, and learned to suppress the feelings that so often dog us. That doesn’t mean they aren’t there; it just means we can’t talk about them — which may make us even lonelier.
Susan J. Matt is Presidential Distinguished Professor of History at Weber State University, in Ogden, Utah. She is the author of Homesickness: An American History. Read her previous post “Home for the holidays” on the OUPblog.