I recently published an article in the scholarly journal, Emotion Review. In it, I ask why loneliness is so neglected by historians, when it is apparently so ubiquitous in the twenty-first century. It's an important question for the reasons that history is always important: if we don't understand how a situation or state has evolved, then we tend to presume it is inevitable. Or natural, in the case of many emotional states. When emotion is highly specific, by culture, generation, geography, ethnicity, class and gender.
There is nothing natural or inevitable about loneliness. Nor is loneliness straightforward. In my article, as in my forthcoming book with Oxford University Press (entitled A Biography of Loneliness), I suggest that it is important to view loneliness firstly in relation to broader social factors, and secondly as an emotion 'cluster' rather than a single state. Loneliness is a conscious, cognitive feeling of estrangement or social separation. But it is also overlaid with different, often conflicting clusters of emotions, depending on the situation and experience of the person affected: anger, shame, resentment, sorrow, guilt.
I propose the concept and term 'emotion cluster', moreover, in conceptualising other emotional states as well as loneliness. It allows us to escape the need to identify specific, individual, boundaries emotions. The language used to talk about emotion is important; it is also as historically specific as emotions themselves.
At the end of the twentieth century, theorists presumed a 'basic' six or even eight emotions on the basis of facial expression. This reductionist model has been rejected in the last decade by theorists like Jan Plamper, who acknowledge the complex power relations in which emotions develop.
Recent work within one of those disciplines, neuroscience, suggests that the very notion of boundaried emotions, like ‘anger, or sadness, or fear’ is incorrect. Emotion theorists, including historians, focus on the relationships between language and experience, and the political uses of emotions now, and in the past. A recent interview with historians of emotion Peter Stearns, Barbara Rosenwein and William Reddy is a useful starting place for anyone new to the field.
Central to emotions’ political nature are questions of language, and definition. Yet some emotion get more attention than others. While emotions like love and sadness have received considerable attention, more complex states like ‘nostalgia’ and ‘pity’- and loneliness - have been neglected.
Loneliness is as complex as individuals themselves. So we need a more nuanced language; one focused less on epidemics and plagues, and more on the mental, physical and spiritual needs of individuals who feel lonely.
It is impossible to regard loneliness as a single entity when it changes over the course of a person's life and manifests differently for one person than for another. Time changes human experience, just as it shades the seasons on the leaves. Being lonely for a day, and lonely for a decade, are incomparable states. Mental health matters; depression and anxiety produce social isolation. Psychological predisposition matters. It is harder for shy (or abused) people to reach out. Access to resources (economic, health, ability) matters.
So, too, does the transmuting power of emotions themselves. At what point does abandonment turn into loneliness? Or grief become isolation? What is the moment at which anger at a snub becomes brooding resentment, sadness or shame before it settles, perhaps, on loneliness? When (and more importantly, for whom), does does the positive experience of loneliness - an opportunity for reflection and peace, perhaps even creativity - transform into something bleak and unbearable?