Philosophical Approach to Loneliness Provides New Insight into Treatments

A recent article published in Philosophy, Psychiatry and Psychology examines various ways of understanding loneliness as part of the human experience.

Valeria Motta, PhD candidate at the University of Birmingham, offers an approach that considers the lived experience of time, embodiment and attention as fundamental dimensions of loneliness. She approaches the question through the prism of phenomenological philosophy, or the study of lived experience in depth.

“There are good reasons to clarify the concept of loneliness. Loneliness has negative effects on physical and mental health. It is a risk factor for morbidity and mortality in humans. Loneliness can be transient – a consequence of changing to external circumstances – such as the loneliness that results from bereavement, a change of city or social circles, or estrangement from friends, family or partners. Motta writes.
“Loneliness can also be chronic distress without reducing features. These observations have raised the question of whether loneliness should be characterized as a condition in its own right and whether reducing loneliness should be a priority for clinicians.

In recent times, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a wave of concern around the issue of loneliness. During the pandemic, young people were particularly vulnerable to loneliness. Some research suggests that loneliness can be deadlier than the COVID-19 virus.

Of course, even before COVID-19, loneliness was studied and linked to a range of negative effects on physical and mental health, including many “mental disorders”. This has led some researchers to label loneliness a “threat to public health” linked to the ideology of neoliberal capitalism.

This article reviews existing understandings of loneliness in different fields, such as psychology, sociology, and philosophy. Motta then offers another understanding of loneliness from a philosophical perspective, examining the phenomenon in some of its phenomenological (experience-based) and social dimensions.

Motta describes five different definitions of loneliness before presenting his own point of view.

The first definition focuses on “social needs,” based on psychoanalytic and attachment theory, suggesting that people have an innate need for secure, nurturing and reassuring relationships. If these bonds do not form early in life or break down later, loneliness can result.

The second definition is based on “cognitive mismatch”. This approach focuses more on cognitive processes than on social realities. Here it is said that people see themselves to be alone. They may or may not have real quality social relationships, but there is an attitude or perception of loneliness. This can sometimes be the result of the perception of a gap between the “desired” quantity / quality of a person’s social relationships and what they experience.

An interesting finding from this research is that chronically lonely people have “very high expectations” when it comes to interpersonal relationships.

A third definition is called an “interactionist approach”. This definition combines “character traits” such as shyness with situational factors such as hospitalization, income changes, relocation, and cultural factors and expectations.

Fourth, there is a perspective where loneliness is “indicative of deficits in social relations”. This perspective views loneliness as a set of attitudes, cognitions, and behaviors. This includes the social realities around the lack of real relationships, as well as the perception of loneliness.

Finally, there is an existential perspective of loneliness that links it to a fundamental aspect of the human condition. In this understanding, loneliness relates to the “ultimate experiences” of life, such as “birth, death, change, tragedy”. There can be a positive outlook here, where loneliness is connected with creativity and facing yourself and your life honestly.

Motta’s contribution to existing definitions focuses more on the phenomenological, or experience-based, dimensions of loneliness.

First of all, she emphasizes what she calls chronicity. Previous definitions of loneliness have made distinctions between, for example, (emotional) State and (character) traitloneliness, as well as transient and chronic solitude.

Motta maintains, however, that there is still a long way to go in this area. She suggests a few directions that an understanding of loneliness based on “lived experience” might follow, for example: if loneliness “seems longer” than when people feel socially connected, how states of loneliness affect our memories of life. past, as well as how lonely feeling affects our view of the future. All of these facets, and more, could provide researchers with a better understanding of loneliness and how to deal with it.

Motta’s second dimension is related to attention, or what she calls “attentional space”. This concerns three types of loneliness: intimate, relational and collective. Intimate loneliness is about a person’s inner circle of relationships, usually no more than about five people. This can include a spouse / significant other / life partner. People who have a significant other are less likely to experience intimate loneliness.

The second type of loneliness is relational (or social) loneliness. It is a larger circle of social support which can include family, friends, co-workers and more as part of a “sympathy group”. The number of people here is often around 15 to 50 people. In middle-aged and older adults, “frequent contact with family and friends is the best (negative) predictor of relationship loneliness.”

The third type of loneliness for Motta is collective loneliness. It is a social system on a larger and more abstract level, such as a political party, nation, or some other type of group (such as fans of sports teams). The number here is typically 150+ people. Dr Motta describes this group as not offering “strong links” but as offering “information” and “low cost support”. Middle-aged and older adults who belong to more volunteer groups are less likely to experience loneliness, for example.

Ultimately, Motta argues that further research into the lived experience of loneliness can clarify these dimensions and their limitations, giving us a better idea of ​​how to approach dealing with loneliness. Of course, she notes that people can experience an “absence” or loneliness even in the presence of friends, family, etc., which calls into question the use of this framework as a perfectly precise understanding of loneliness. .

The last dimension discussed is the body, in particular the lived body, which is different from the physiological body according to phenomenological philosophy. The lived body is the basis of our perspective on the world. It is the foundation of the experience rather than a “thing” to which we pay attention as an external object.

Motta argues that loneliness must also be understood in terms of the lived body and its environmental possibilities. For example:

“One way to illustrate this is to think that a person in solitary confinement has very different possibilities of interacting with the environment than a person who is in nature or in a big city and that this modifies His experience. Incarceration is a particularly good example which illustrates not only the effects of stillness, but also the extent to which the regulation of time and the phenomenology of waiting can become different kinds of psychic torture.

Motta concludes:

“Potential areas of research that have already been identified are the temporality of loneliness and the role of attention and perception in the experience of loneliness. I have argued that we need definitions of loneliness that deal with disturbances (eg, absences) or experiential anomalies (eg, embodied experiences) in a subjective structure. Exploring the questions raised here would have implications for our terminology and future research on types of loneliness. These in turn would allow the design of new treatments and interventions. “


Motta, V. (2021). Key concept: loneliness. Philosophy, Psychiatry and Psychology, 28(1), 71-81. (Connect)

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