Loneliness Is Not About “Being Alone” — And Other Musings From “A Philosophy of Loneliness”

One of you recommended that I read Lars Svendsen’s A Philosophy of Loneliness. I’m a few months late, but I’ve finally finished it. As someone who spent most of his early life is a state of perpetual loneliness, there was a lot in this book to think about and relate to.

What follows are a few musings on my favorite bits from the book.

Loneliness is my friend

The first thing to understand is that—in most cases—loneliness is good.

Humans have emotions for a reason. We experience “bad” emotions like anger, fear, or sadness because they help (or helped) us survive. Fear helps me run from angry lions. Anger helps me fight off enemies.

When I was lonely, my loneliness pushed me to make friends. It encouraged me to talk to strangers on the street. Without loneliness, I guess I would still be lonely.

Emotions are usually good, but sometimes they go out of control. Sadness can turn into crippling depression. Anger can turn into abusive rage.

A sign that loneliness has gone out of control is that you’re always lonely.

If you’re lonely for a few months after your beloved Grandmother Gretta passes away, that’s normal. But if you’ve been lonely every day for the past five years, something is wrong.

Svendsen calls this kind of loneliness chronic loneliness.

Alone in a crowd

So what leads to chronic loneliness?

You might think that being alone leads to loneliness, but this is not the case, says Svendsen:

…an average person spends almost 80 per cent of their waking hours together with others. That is also true of the lonely. …[Lonely people] spend no more time alone than the group who answer that they do not feel lonely. Indeed, in a review of over four hundred essays devoted to the experience of loneliness, one researcher found no correlation at all between the degree of physical isolation and the intensity of the loneliness felt. As such, the actual number of people by whom a person is surrounded is uncorrelated to the emotion of loneliness.

Some of my loneliest years were spent living in Tokyo—a city with 10 million people. I was also pretty in lonely in high school, despite spending 8 hours a day every day with the same people.

What this suggests is that loneliness is not just about aloneness.

Good ingredients; Bad chef

From the outside, lonely people look a lot like everyone else:

Lonely people are no more or less physically attractive than the rest of the population, nor are they more or less intelligent. Their everyday activities are not different from those of the non-lonely.

What’s more, the chronically lonely people tend to stay that way, no matter how life circumstances change:

A person tested at a given time for their degree of loneliness will often score similarly on tests earlier or later in their life. Of course, changes in external circumstances influence loneliness, but for many the degree of loneliness experienced remains quite stable, despite dramatic changes in life circumstances. This suggests that loneliness for these people depends more on individual disposition than on external circumstance.

This counters the common belief that all you need to do to overcome loneliness is to find the right home city (San Francisco, no doubt), friend group, rock climbing club, or lover.

This suggests that, for the pathologically lonely, loneliness comes from within:

For many chronically lonely people … the problem seems to be this: no matter what their social surroundings might be – whether or not they are constantly surrounded by caring and thoughtful friends and family – they still feel lonely. They harbour an expectation of attachment so strong that it can never be realized. No subsequent change in their social surroundings will be able to solve their loneliness problem.

Svendsen calls this endogenous loneliness.

You can have all the ingredients for carrot cake, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be able to make one. You have to develop the skill of baking it.

Likewise, I guess you could say lonely people can have all the right “ingredients” to help overcome loneliness—close friends, loving family, tight community, etc.—but they may not have the right internal, psychological skills to bake their way out of their loneliness.

“I’m on my ninth marriage because my last eight spouses sucked.”

What does it mean to say that loneliness comes from within?

Well, part of it is expectations. Chronically lonely people are social perfectionists, says Svendsen:

“social perfectionism … is more common among lonely individuals than non-lonely. The lonely person thinks that they are unloved and that no one will befriend them, but perhaps the problem is rather that, because they place such impossible demands on friendship and love, they are not capable of loving or befriending someone.”

It’s common in self-help to define happiness with the following equation: HAPPINESS = EXPECTATIONS – REALITY. That’s way too simplistic, but there’s a granule of truth there—if your expectations are too high, nobody is good enough.

Where do these expectations come from? Svendsen seems to think they come, in part, from overly-idealistic stories of love and friendship:

“Idealized stories about the nature of love lead us astray, and make it more difficult to realize that love that is most certainly real… If you establish an ideal of love that no one will ever be able to meet, however, you thereby make it impossible to ever have your need for love satisfied.”

A lot of young people seem to have unrealistic expectations of love. It certainly doesn’t look like it does in the movies, and I’ve found that accepting you’ll have bad days helps you appreciate the good ones more.

Miss Independent = Miss Lonely

The most interesting—and perhaps most significant—thing about the the chronically lonely, though, is that they cannot trust others.

You can see this even on a national level. Countries with high levels of trust (Nordic countries) are lower in loneliness, while countries with low levels of trust (Greece, Italy, former Communist countries, etc.) are lonelier. This doesn’t guarantee a cause-and-effect relationship, but it’s interesting to think about.

What is it about a lack of trust that might lead to loneliness? Well, a major source of meaning in life comes from being needed by others. And, to be needed by others, there needs to be a mutual relationship of trust and vulnerability.

Trusting people means being willing to be hurt:

“When you demonstrate trust in someone, you become vulnerable, and when you demonstrate trust regarding something or someone important to you, you become extremely vulnerable. If you confide in them, you lose control over that information. If you attempt to form ties to them, you run the risk of rejection.”

Trust is a two-way street, and if you’re not willing to trust others and risk a bit of pain and suffering for them, they’re not going to trust or rely on you either.

What’s worse is that, when you get in the habit of not trusting others, it becomes a self-perpetuating cycle:

“Fear and mistrust also become self-perpetuating. Mistrust fosters more mistrust, because, among other reasons, it isolates individuals from situations where they could have learned to trust others. Lonely people perceive their social surroundings as threatening to a greater extent than do non-lonely people, and this fear hinders the precise thing that could cause it to decrease: human contact.”

“I only care about you because you make me feel nice.”

Now here’s my favorite part from the book.

For whatever reason, we need to care about others for them to care about us. And this is precisely what the chronically lonely cannot do:

“In conversations, lonely people tend to talk more about themselves and ask fewer questions. … They seem to be difficult to get to know. They are also more self-centered than others. And yet, self-absorbed individuals are utterly dependent on the gaze of others. It is only by occupying another person’s field of view that they find confirmation of their existence. Nonetheless, lonely people do not have a true relationship to themselves or others. They meet themselves only in the reflection they see in others’ eyes. As such, other people become nothing more than a set of mirrors. … Indeed, the individual reduces others first and foremost to the role of provider of such confirmation. Ultimately, they are not actually interested in others – and that is precisely the reason they are so lonely.

I know people like this, and what disturbs me deeply is how they think of human relationships as a transaction. Social time with others is a source of pleasure, or stimulation, or distraction but not as something valuable in itself.

I wonder what makes people this way. Is it education? Is it childhood experiences? Is it genetics? Lars doesn’t go much into this.

Last words

There’s a lot more to think about in the book, and a suggest you read it yourself, especially if you suffer from loneliness or know somebody who does.

From how I wrote this, it might sound like Svendsen is saying, “Lonely people are self-absorbed, can’t trust others, and have extreme expectations, so it’s their fault that they’re lonely.”

But that’s not what I believe, and I don’t think that’s what Svendsen is saying. A large part of how you see the world is the result of things outside of your control. Half of loneliness is genetic, and another big part of it may be because people taught you to think in the wrong way.

Once you realize and admit, though, that loneliness also comes from within, you can start to take the first steps towards changing it.

I end with this final quote from Svendsen:

“Only a person who can exhibit friendship and love can feel lonely. On the other hand, it is also reasonable to say that only a being with the capacity for loneliness can love or be someone’s friend.”

Though I don’t ever want to go back to suffering from chronic loneliness, I don’t think it’s realistic to expect a life free from loneliness either. Loneliness comes in a package with love and friendship, and it’s not going away as long as we hold those things valuable.

David Quammen — The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life

On this episode of The Polymath Project Podcast, I speak with the author and journalist David Quammen about his latest book, The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life. The book explores how recent discoveries in genome sequencing are transforming our view of evolutionary theory and the history of life.

David is the author of over a dozen books, including Spillover, a 2014 book on the science, history, and human implications of emerging diseases. The book was short-listed for eight national and international awards and won three of them.

Some topics we cover:

  • Why “the tangled tree” is a much more suitable metaphor than the “tree of life” for talking about evolutionary history
  • Wild adventures David went on to write his past books and why this one was a little different
  • How the discovery of horizontal gene transfer is changing human identity and what this means for our future
  • David’s personal encounters with the scientists mentioned in the books
  • The “human” side of science, which is filled with jealousy, compassion, pride, desire, and excitement and all kinds of emotion you might not expect

We also cover a lot more than that, so check out the podcast and enjoy!

How to Listen

Resources & Links

Some of the scientists mentioned on the podcast:

This episode of the podcast was brought to you by audible. Visit audibletrial.com/polymath to get a free audiobook copy of David’s book (or any other book) and a free 30-day trial of audible’s services.

Inside the Mind of a Professional Artist: A Conversation with Damian Stamer [#8]

“It was the first time in school that I wanted to go home and continue working on [my art]… It was never like work to me.”

On this episode of The Polymath Project Podcast, I speak with the professional painter Damian Stamer. Damian’s work has been featured in solo exhibitions all over the world— including Berlin, New York, and his home state of North Carolina.

Damian is very different from the your stereotypical Hollywood artist. He’s both incredibly hard-working and incredibly humble.

Some topics we cover:

  • Damian’s creative process, and how it’s evolved over the years
  • Damian’s identical twin brother Dillan and how their life paths differed
  • How different cultures appreciate Damian’s art differently
  • The importance of early life experiences and parental support
  • Some surprising parallels between art and finance
  • Whether or not art is democratic

We also cover a lot more than that, so check out the podcast and enjoy!

How to Listen


Resources & Links

This episode of the podcast was brought to you by audible. Visit audibletrial.com/polymath to get a free audiobook of your choice and a free 30-day trial of audible’s services.

Books mentioned:

Other bits n’ ends:

  • Artists that Damian mentioned: Neo Rauch, Matthias Weischer, Cecily Brown, Dana Schutz, Basquiat, DeKooning, Rauschenberg, Adrian Ghenie
  • Morning Pages

I Was Wrong — The ‘Greatest in the World Fallacy’ and How I Made It

In the two years since I started writing, hundreds of thousands of people have read my essays. Along the way, I made a lot of errors. And I’m sure I’ll make many more.

There’s one particular mistake I made a lot that I feel guilty about. Recently, I’ve been calling it the “greatest in the world fallacy”.

How to Sell A Lot of Books

Here’s one version of the greatest in the world fallacy that I see everywhere:

“To be the best in the world, study the best in the world and do what they do.”

For a long time, I was convinced this was true.

To be a successful investor, I thought you could read books by Warren Buffett or George Soros and emulate them. To be an elite basketball player, I thought you could spend nights and weekends watching footage of Lebron James or Kobe Bryant and train like they train.

Or—as many self-help books claim—I thought you could be successful by imitating the routines of the best in the world:

Book sales and headlines don’t lie—people love this stuff. There’s a powerful belief that, if you study the best in the world and imitate them, you can become like them.

So far, it seems pretty convincing. So what’s wrong with it?

50 Cups of Coffee to Overnight Success: Signal or Noise?

The first problem is noise. People do many things, and it’s never easy to separate causation from mere correlation.

Balzac, the French novelist and playwright, was known for his maniacal writing habits. He drank somewhere from 30-50 cups of coffee a day, and it was not uncommon for him to write for 15+ hours in a single session.

I drink 1-2 cups of coffee a day. If I 20x my coffee consumption will I be able to write like good ‘ol Balzac? Of course not. Likewise, Warren Buffett eats McDonalds hamburgers and drinks Coca Cola. Does that mean I should eat like him to invest like him? Again, of course not.

The above two examples were silly, so it’s pretty easy to write them off. It’s not always so easy.

Things like morning meditation, whey protein shakes to boost mental clarity, self-hypnosis, shiatsu massage, and free-association journaling all sound like they could be useful.

But a lot of things like astrology and tarot card reading that we know are bunk now sounded really good in the past. Just because something sounds like it works doesn’t necessarily mean that it does work.

It’s not so easy to sift the signal from the noise.

But all Tom Brady’s friends are doing it!


“Sure,” you might say, “some of that stuff may be useless. But, if everyone successful is doing something, then you can be more confident that it works.”

But is this true? If all people who get into Harvard read the same books, does it mean reading those books will help you get into Harvard? And if all NFL athletes train in a certain way, does that mean training like them will get you into the NFL?

I don’t think so.

The argument from ‘everybody is doing it’ is something we talked about on my podcast with the strength coach and legend Mark Rippetoe. During our talk, Mark gave two counter-examples to the ‘everybody is doing it’ argument.

First, functional Training. Elite NFL teams spend millions of dollars to put their athletes through functional training, which involves fancy movements and tools that look something like this :

The full article by Mark is great, but here’s an excerpt:

The primary problem with “Functional Training” is that it attempts to improve physical characteristics which are unresponsive to submaximal stimulation, like 5-pound dumbbells and medicine ball cleans. The explosive ability of high-level athletes is a neuromuscular characteristic that is part of their genetic endowment. It’s like red hair – you either have it or you don’t, and all the dye in the world cannot change this fact, even though you may fool the people at Walmart.

“Functional Training” confuses the display of athletic ability with its development.

In other words, the problem with functional training is that it tries to train things that can’t be changed.

As Mark pointed out in the podcast, no amount of training is going to take your vertical jump from 18 inches to 36 inches. That stuff is genetic, and—unless you find a way to make up for this severe deficit in other ways—you’re not getting into the NFL.

So there are all these elite teams out there spending millions of dollars on stuff that doesn’t work. Oops.

The second example is floor pulls. Many elite Olympic weightlifters pull the bar from the floor in demonstrably inefficient ways. At weekend seminars, Mark and his team are often able to add several inches to the bar height of already elite lifters!

So, when studying  the best in the world, it’s important to ask, “Are elite lifters succeeding because of what they do or despite what they do?” It’s not always clear, and it’s not good to accept what they do as the ultimate truth.

Another question to ask is “Is this person’s success due to luck or skill?”.

Even mediocre poker players and investors can “win” because of luck. And if you’ve got good genetics—another form of luck—you can get away with a lot of stuff ordinary folks cannot.

Humans are not Model Ts

Another lesson from the above is that—big surprise!—people are different.

Humans are not blank slates. We have different personalities, different strengths and weaknesses. You can’t run the same ‘success formula’ through each of us like you can run an algorithm through a computer. Sadly, most of the world still seems to think you can.

Tom Brady’s training program isn’t going to work for me. Why? Because I’m not Tom Brady. I don’t have his reaction speed, his proprioceptive awareness, or his ability to recover from training.

Most of us are—by definition—closer to the average, and what works for the exceptional doesn’t always work for the ordinary. If everyone at your local YMCA had to train like a Navy SEAL, most of them would be in the hospital before dinnertime.

This one-size-fits-all, do-what-others-do kind of thinking is naive, but it seems to be everywhere, even in the scientific literature.

Take education, for example. In school, I was able to get A’s without studying. Yet, I looked down on other kids and blamed them for their bad grades, saying, “They get bad grades because they aren’t working hard enough.”

In retrospect, that was both dishonest and egoistical of me. I didn’t work hard at all: Most of my time in school was spent playing video games. My grades were due to talent, and I don’t deserve praise for that.

Another example is parenting advice. The Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker has been pointing out for over a decade now that much of parenting advice is BS (or at least severely misguided).

Like people selling functional training, people selling parenting advice regularly mistake luck (genetics) for skill (parenting).

Here’s Pinker in an interview for Edge:

Hundreds of studies have measured correlations between the practices of parents and the way their children turn out. For example, parents who talk a lot to their children have kids with better language skills, parents who spank have children who grow up to be violent, parents who are neither too authoritarian or too lenient have children who are well-adjusted, and so on. Most of the parenting expert industry and a lot of government policy turn these correlations into advice to parents, and blame the parents when children don’t turn out as they would have liked. [Charles: This is just like how I blamed my peers for not working hard enough!] But correlation does not imply causation.

Parents provide their children with genes as well as an environment, so the fact that talkative parents have kids with good language skills could simply mean that and that the same genes that make parents talkative make children articulate. Until those studies are replicated with adopted children, who don’t get their genes from the people who bring them up, we don’t know whether the correlations reflect the effects of parenting, the effects of shared genes, or some mixture. But in most cases even the possibility that the correlations reflect shared genes is taboo. In developmental psychology it’s considered impolite even to mention it, let alone test it.

If you want to be a better parent, it’s not enough study the parents with the ‘best’ children and copy their parenting methods. Why? Because a big part of how those kids turned out has nothing to do with parenting.

If you want to do a good job of parenting or educating or athletic training, you have to separate what actually works from what looks like it works.

Likewise, you shouldn’t look at the kids who get into Harvard or Princeton and apply their study methods. Why? For the same reasons: A big part of getting into top-tier schools is SAT scores. SAT scores are a glorified IQ test, and much of IQ is genetic.

A good education program should make everybody better, not simply help the kids who are already good at taking tests succeed.

So what’s my point?

Okay, there were enough taboo topics in this essay to offend 90% of my readership, so it’s a miracle if you’re still here reading. Thanks.

To recap, here are the problems with the “greatest in the world fallacy”:

  • It fails to separate correlation from causation. Warren Buffett (I hope) brushes his teeth each morning. That doesn’t mean tooth-brushing is going to make you into a world class investor. Zuckerberg wears the same t-shirt everyday, but would he really be a worse CEO if he didn’t?

  • What works for genetic freaks may not work for you. The best in the world aren’t the best solely because of what they do. They’re also the best because of what they are (genetics). Just because Navy SEALs can train 8 days a week and slap away shotgun blasts doesn’t mean you can too. Ask, “Are they the best because of what they do or despite what they do?”

  • Just because the best do something doesn’t mean it’s the best way of doing it. If all we did was emulate the best, we’d still be battling mammoths with sharp wooden sticks. History is young, and there’s a lot of room to think, criticize, reflect and improve.

If you think about it, “do what the best do” is another form of argument from authority. If we always took the “greatest in the world” for granted, we’d still be living in caves, gnawing on roots and tubers.

And we’d still be high-jumping like this:

I used to think you could study the best and emulate them to get their results. I am no longer so naive. We can learn from these people, but it’s an error to blindly worship what they do.

Instead of worshipping our heroes, let’s submit their ideas to the best criticism we can muster. Only then can we separate signal from noise, correlation from causation, and what works from what doesn’t.

Thank you for reading.

Barbara Oakley on Learning How to Learn, Improving Education, and Making the World’s Biggest Online Course [#7]

Barbara Oakley runs Coursera’s Learning How to Learn course, which has had over 2.3 million students. It’s the world’s largest MOOC (Massively Online Open Course), but the whole thing started in the basement of her suburban home!

Barb has traveled all over the world, served in the military, and done original research in multiple fields. She’s also the bestselling author of 8 books, and she joins me to talk about her latest book, Learning How to Learn.

Some topics we cover:

  • How Barb started the course in the basement of her home
  • Barb’s travels all over the world
  • Some common myths about learning/education
  • Why “getting focused” isn’t everything
  • What the US can learn about education from other cultures like Germany or China
  • The special qualities of “learning how to learn-ers”

We also cover a lot more than that, so check out the podcast and enjoy!

How to Listen


Resources & Links

This episode of the podcast was brought to you by audible. Visit audibletrial.com/polymath to get a free audiobook of your choice and a free 30-day trial of audible’s services.

Other books:

Other links: