News outlets and physicians have likewise turned the spotlight on loneliness. According to some reports, America is experiencing a “loneliness epidemic.” Researchers suggest that 20% to 35% of the population is experiencing the feeling and warn that not only is loneliness emotionally trying, but its physical costs are devastating, with the lonely dying prematurely. In 2016, the Washington Post labeled the emotion a “lethal risk.”
While much of the discussion has been dominated by sociologists who have focused on whether loneliness has increased or decreased as a result of digital technologies, posing the question that way obscures key issues. To understand contemporary concerns with loneliness, historians need to probe how the social experience of the emotion has changed over time. Nineteenth-century loneliness was not the same as twenty-first-century loneliness. Loneliness felt different—and meant different things—to earlier generations of Americans. Although no one in the nineteenth century enjoyed the feeling, there was far less cultural concern about it, and some believed the feeling was both inevitable and even virtuous, full of religious import. Americans had different, more modest, expectations about the number of social connections they should have. This presentation will explain why and how the experience of loneliness has changed since the nineteenth century. Modern technology and new psychological theories left a decisive mark on Americans’ emotional lives, reshaping loneliness from an unpleasant part of the human condition into what many regard as a dangerous social epidemic of the digital era.
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