The Motivating Power of Loneliness

Loneliness is painful but…

Loneliness feels bad. The word itself evokes images of a man sitting alone in a park, a woman watching a movie in an empty apartment, a person walking through city streets surrounded by strangers. It connotes sadness. But is this description of loneliness superficial?

For most of my life, I hadn’t experienced true loneliness. I had tasted it during the typical periods: moving towns with my family when I was younger, attending a different high school than my friends, having to make new friends in college. These were brief periods of solitude, but they were not devoid of connection. There were familial and friendship lifelines along the way. I wasn’t submerged in loneliness until I moved away from my hometown, from all my family and friends, to a new city full of strangers. That loneliness was real. And that loneliness ran deep.

What does it feel like to be lonely? It feels like being hungry: like being hungry when everyone around you is readying for a feast.

Olivia Laing, The Lonely City

No one has ever described the experience of being lonely as happy. It is the absence of human connection. However, lack of happiness does not mean lack of value.

What accompanies loneliness, after the initial pain has subsided, is a motivating factor: it almost drives you to make a choice. Stagnate, or grow. It is through the journey of powering through that difficulty where some of the some of the most impactful artistic work has been achieved.

Creation requires loneliness

Many artists have talked about the motivating power of loneliness. You can stay in the state of paralysis caused by isolation, or you can push through it. One method of pushing through the loneliness is via creation. Some artists have taken this idea so seriously to say that creation itself requires isolation. In his book Deep Work, Cal Newport talks about multiple artists who have created spaces of isolation to allow for creative work. Carl Jung, the renown protégé of Freud, built a small castle where he would retreat to work. It is in this “Bollingen Tower” that he wrote his theory of collective unconscious. Abraham Lincoln had a similar space to think and work. During the summers, he would retreat to a cottage with his family, free from the noise of the outside world. It is here where he drafted the Emancipation Proclamation. These isolated spaces allow for entering a deep state of concentration that allows for creativity. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the Hungarian psychologist known for pioneering the work, called this state “Flow”:

[Flow] provided a sense of discovery, a creative feeling of transporting the person into a new reality. It pushed the person to higher levels of performance, and led to previously undreamed-of states of consciousness. In short, it transformed the self by making it more complex. In this growth of the self lies the key to flow activities.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow

It is in this state of Flow that creation is possible. But entering Flow requires intense concentration free of distraction, something that is more easily achieved with isolation.

Too much loneliness is a bad thing

The difference between being alone and being lonely is intention. It is the desire to experience human connection and the inability to do so that causes the pain known as loneliness. For all of my childhood, to myself or anyone else, I was a class A introvert. Completely content to spend hours alone in my room with my books or my games, I was overjoyed whenever the opportunity to skip socializing arose. I never considered that being alone would be enjoyable. What I didn’t realize is that school and music practice had already built in a sufficient amount of socializing into my life such that my social needs were met. Surrounded by people who had known me my entire life and shared my interests and points of view on life, I was rich in deep connection.

Loneliness lives in the absence of connection. The first time I had known true loneliness was after I graduated from my midwest college and moved away from my hometown to Boston. The initial thrill of a new place and a new city was intoxicating, but, soon, the excitement began to fade and expose what was missing. I had no one who could relate to my experience. My friends were back home, my family was back home, my life was back home. I had no one to share this experience with.

Ultimately, as much as some of us would like to not admit it, humans are social creatures. We all need some level of socializing. Chris McCandless, a 24 year old hiker who isolated himself from society in the Alaskan wilderness to find his own version of happiness. Even his profound search for fulfillment in solitude, he recognized that it was not possible without others.

Happiness is only real when shared

Chris McCandless, one of his last journal entries

Human connection is a requirement for happiness. Too little connection can bring even the most self-sufficient person to anguish. But this is to a reason to completely avoid loneliness.

Loneliness allows for growth

How one copes with solitude makes all the difference. If being alone is seen as a chance to accomplish goals that cannot be reached in the company of others, then instead of feeling lonely, a person will enjoy solitude and might be able to learn new skills in the process.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow

The ensuing loneliness caused by my move to a new city free of all connection brought me to one of the lowest periods of my mental health. But it also was the catalyst for the most growth that I’ve had in years. I learned how to be more vulnerable with strangers, take new risks, and truly appreciate the relationships that I already had. Without the pain brought about by loneliness, I wouldn’t have made some of the closest friends I have today. I can definitively say that my life is richer and honestly happier because of my experience of suffering and growing in loneliness.

So maybe loneliness is not something to be feared, but rather something to be embraced. Maybe it’s something that we can learn from.

Last modified on 2021-12-28