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Life is Hard: Loneliness

By Dr Julian Kiverstein, Philosopher, University of Amsterdam

Chapter 2 takes up the question of why loneliness is painful and what the pain of loneliness can teach us about how to live well. Kieran asks why social connection is an important ingredient in human flourishing, and why the absence of social connection is bad for us as humans. Studies have shown for instance that loneliness has a comparable negative impact on physical health to the effects of high blood pressure, lack of exercise, obesity or smoking. The experience of being alone triggers a dangerous physiological stress response that negatively impacts the person’s experience of well-being. Studies on early attachment have shown the importance of physical contact and support in infancy for cognitive development, and longer term mental health. When prisoners are forced to endure solitary confinement, they will suffer mental health problems including hallucinations, depression, weight loss, blunting of affect, headaches, sleep problems and self-harming behaviours. Finally, neuroscientists have shown that the brain responds to social rejection in ways that are strikingly similar to its responses when a person experiences physical pain.

Kieran argued that the reason loneliness is so bad for us, both physically and mentally, is that humans are social animals that have always lived in social groups. Yet our mutual dependence on each other, also makes us vulnerable. The need for social connection – for friendship – runs deep, and when this need for friendship is left unfulfilled, or is frustrated, this makes us suffer. Why is friendship so valuable? Understanding why friendship is good, will help us to better understand why loneliness is bad, and what we can do to lessen its harmful impacts.

Kieran begins to answer these questions first by arguing against an account of the value of friendship he attributes to the ancient philosopher Aristotle who held that friendship is meritocratic. Aristotle held that we earn our friends through the virtuous deeds our friends admire us for. If a friend does us harm, or behaves viciously towards others, Aristotle held that the person no longer deserves friendship. Kieran argues for a more forgiving attitude. We tend not to abandon our friends when they make bad decisions. Even when our friends change beyond all recognition, we continue to care for them. Kieran ends up arguing for more or less the opposite view of friendship to the one he finds in Aristotle. We do not love our friends because of their qualities, or for their deeds, but for themselves. The value of friendship flows from the unconditional value of the people who we are friends with.

Friends matter to us in themselves. When we appreciate a friend, what we are doing is

recognising their dignity as a person. This account of the unconditional value of friendship provides Kieran with a diagnosis of the harm of loneliness. When we are lonely, our worth and value as a human being goes under-appreciated, or unrecognised. We feel like our lives are of no value because our dignity and sense of value is dependent on the recognition and respect of others. Having diagnosed why loneliness harms us as humans, Kieran closes his chapter by asking what the lonely person can do to improve their situation. He begins by observing how loneliness is self-reinforcing. The lonely person is likely to experience social anxiety that has the effect of further isolating them. They will tend to be self- critical, attributing their social failure to their own faults and not to their circumstances. Intriguingly, the way out of these traps that Kieran identifies are to be found in meeting the needs of others. Paying attention to others, affirming the value of their lives, even if only in small ways, can contribute to making the pain of loneliness less harsh, and even open up the possibility of finding the social connections Kieran has argued to be fundamental social needs.

Don't forget to pop in to our LIVE recording of Unpublished with Dr kieran Setiya and Dr Julian Kiverstein on Thursday 15th of June - RSVP >> here << in our events section.

Dr Julian Kiverstein 

Julian is Assistant Professor of Neurophilosophy at the University of Amsterdam. He is currently writing a monograph for Palgrave Macmillan entitled The Significance of Phenomenology, and editing a comprehensive handbook for Routledge Taylor Francis on the philosophy of the social mind. He is associate editor of Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences and was until recently Book Review Editor for the Journal of Consciousness Studies. 

Before his appointment at Amsterdam in 2011, Kiverstein was teaching fellow at Edinburgh University, where he played a lead role in developing and designing the Mind, Language and Embodied Cognition Masters Programme, of which he also became director. In 2006 he was one of the main architects of a successful cross disciplinary, Europe-wide project proposal on consciousness, part of the ESF Programme, Consciousness in a Natural and Cultural Context. 

He was Postdoctoral Research Fellow as part of this project, and subsequently became external partner on a cross-European follow up project on the topic of Understanding and Misunderstanding. In 2007-2009, Kiverstein was Project Leader of an interdisciplinary group investigating Subjective Time as part of the VolkswagenStiftung European Platform for Life Sciences, Mind Sciences and Humanities.

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