Excerpt: There is a central paradox around loneliness. While it can lead towards very undesirable places (isolation, depression, suicide), it can also make us better observers of the social world. We can become more perceptive, more in charge of our own reality, as loneliness makes life compelling. Vitally, loneliness assures us that our life is our own. Historically – and mythically – it has been the singular and narrow path towards virtue, morality and self-understanding.
Not everyone safely returns from loneliness, but those who do – those who retreat into themselves and successfully reemerge into society – return with a far greater understanding of themselves and of others. In loneliness there is thus a balance to be struck; it poses at once the highest risk and the highest reward.
Of course, experiencing loneliness does not uniformly create virtuous and moral humans, but it has a variety of other benefits: according to a study published in 2015, feeling socially isolated (or on the social perimeter, as any outsider artist or writer might attest) leads to increased attention and surveillance of the social world and a heightened ability for observation.
Using electrical neuroimaging with a small test group, Stephanie Cacioppo, assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Chicago and her husband John, also at Chicago, found that participants who described themselves as particularly lonely reacted to pictures of threatening stimuli more than twice as fast as people who described themselves as non-lonely (in the lonely: about 116 milliseconds after stimulus onset; in thenon-lonely: about 252 milliseconds after stimulus onset). As John Cacioppo writes in a similar study, this suggests that lonely people’s ‘attention is drawn more to the distress of others’.
The fact that lonely people are more attentive to other people’s distress – principally on a subconscious level, as evidenced by the speed at which the reactions took place – implies that lonely people have a greater capacity for empathy. Ironically, it might be as a result of being lonely that one can better understand others and their social world.
The best creative minds and most charismatic people also tend to be rather lonely. Sharon H Kim, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore who focuses on individual and group creativity, recently found evidence that people tend to be more creative if they have been socially rejected. What is perhaps most interesting about Kim’s findings is that no actual social rejection has to have taken place; the creative need only feel rejected in some way. Creativity, Kim claims, stems from the ability to make unique connections, to bind together disparate information. Yet it is predominately the rejected and lonely who are able to best accomplish this. ‘Creative people are better at recognising relationships, making associations and connections, and seeing things in an original way – seeing things that others cannot see,’ writes the neuroscientist Nancy C Andreasen at the University of Iowa in an article for The Atlantic. Often, she notes, the sole way to access creativity, charisma and new ways of thinking is to experience loneliness.
In evolutionary terms, experiencing loneliness is a part of being human. Lonely, but not too lonely – a Goldilocks mixture that allows us to be at once our individual selves and a functioning part of a wider social sphere – is a key part of survival, according to a recent study from Pamela Qualter, a reader in developmental psychology at the University of Central Lancashire.