Are Intelligent People More Lonely?
It sounds like a very mean and undemocratic thought, trading off the peculiar glamour that isolation has in a Romantic culture – in order to gain an oblique sense of superiority and perhaps pass off an absence of social skills as a virtue.
It is important, therefore, to be clear what is meant here by intelligence. It has nothing to do with degrees or any of the criteria by which we ordinarily measure cleverness. What is meant is emotional intelligence, which exists (or not) in every strata and nook of society.
Emotional intelligence means a capacity for self-honesty and self-observation; it means, a knack for opening oneself up to the stranger, more exciting, less easily admissible aspects of oneself and at the same time for noticing the many beautiful, peculiar and profound experiences and sensations passing through consciousness.
We’re not used to doing this. We cleave tightly to reassuring notions of what normal people are like, which means we exclude a lot – often the richest bit – of what we truly feel, want and think. We edit out our more generous, wilder, more impatient, more terrifying sides; leaving only the socially admissible husk that we artfully pretend is who we are. And simultaneously, we ensure that we are never far from something that can take us powerfully away from ourselves, and so miss out on the troubling wonders that streak across the mental horizon at every instant. Most of what is in our minds remains unfelt and unseen, troubling us only in the small hours. Insomnia is the revenge for all that we tried so hard not to notice in the daylight.
In this context, emotional intelligence emerges as a species of courage, directed at vanquishing not an external enemy but a fear of being weird or of going mad. A certain sort of intelligent person is, above all else, a superior and more committed reporter of their inner states. Or, as Emerson once put it, ‘In the minds of geniuses, we find – once more – our own neglected thoughts.’
It is almost certain that people who have devoted themselves to self-honesty and self-observation have an above average chance of meeting with incomprehension, irritation, censorship or boredom when they attempt to share the data from their own minds frankly in company. Their thoughts (it might be on politics or architecture, family life or sexuality) will sound more threatening, intense, oblique or tender than is allowed.
That feels lonely, if one is in the mood to frame things like this. There are simply fewer people at large committed to self-honesty and self-observation – and therefore up for exchanging notes on what it’s truly like to be alive.
Yet there is one resource that is exceptionally well suited to address the feelings of disconnection liable to be felt by the emotionally intelligent: art. Works of art are humanity’s secret diary: records of all that could not be said in regular social contexts, but which have found a home in the more intimate, honest communication that can take place between an art-work and its audience. The libraries, cinemas and galleries of the world are repositories for all the sensations that didn’t easily make it into standard interactions and that contain what we need to state, and crave to hear as audiences, in our lonely states.
Therefore, while emotionally intelligent people may have an uncommonly hard time not being lonely with a person, they have an unusually easy time finding company with people who are not in the room, the fancy term for which we call art.
We have perhaps over-privileged certain standard notions of friendship. We may just have to accept that our best friends could have died 250 years ago – and be chatting to us via dabs of paint or within rhyming pentameters.
That said, the goal shouldn’t be a society where art is ever more prevalent and more available when loneliness strikes. It is perhaps a society where art is ever less necessary – because we have grown better at knowing how to share more of who we are in the ordinary moments of our lives; where we have found a more direct and reliable path out from our loneliness.