I sat down to interview Dr. Sam Carr, where we dived deeply into his extensive career in psychology, focusing on the experiences of loneliness, grief, and other lesser known aspects of human existence. During his journey from academic writing to more public-facing outputs, Sam began to develop the ideas which led to his new book, All the Lonely People. In this debut, Sam explores loneliness through a collection of personal and observed stories.

This interview covers Sam's reflections on the process of writing and publishing the book, his motivations, and the importance of sharing personal stories to combat loneliness, offering a compelling narrative on the human condition.

Sam's journey underscores the power of writing as a tool for personal and collective healing, inviting readers to reflect on and write about their own experiences and knowledge. By sharing our stories, we offer understanding, empathy, and support to those around us.

You can find All the Lonely People from March 28, 2024 in major book stores and audiobook platforms.


Who is Sam Carr? How did your career begin and get to where it is?

I've been an academic for most of my working life, nearly 25 years. If you stay in psychology for long enough, you drift into all kinds of different places. I began in experimental psychology and drifted into what many people think of as the "darker sides" of what it means to be human: death, loneliness, and grief. But I've always been driven by a fascination of what it means to be human.

In the last 5 years or so, I began to move from being only in the academic domain into more public facing writing. Some studies I've done caught media attention a bit more. I've found it to be a much more rewarding way of writing.

Would you encourage other academics to explore more accessible forms of writing?

Often in academia, you're writing in a very particular way to a very particular audience. But when you decode a lot of the stuff we're thinking about in academia, the real joy is that everyone gets it. Everyone begins to think, "yeah, that describes me and my family... when my dog died". You can see the obvious reason for wanting for the existence of platforms that are designed to bring the sorts of things that academia holds to everybody.

Academia can also often feel like you're playing a game or a performative job. When you're writing for everyone, I've found it quite therapeutic and more connecting.

What was process like, taking this book from ideation to publication?

Excavating stories from people at the end of their lives

I've never explicitly studied loneliness until about 3 years ago. I was offered an opportunity to direct a large-scale study, looking at specifically end-of-life experiences of older people. We interviewed 100 or so elders in great depths about what loneliness really felt like for them.

In these interviews, a lot of the things I've studied all my life cropped up.

There were people who were still haunted by lonely childhoods where their parents weren't there for them; where they had no attachments and relationships; where they're still not over a heartbreak from when they were 21. So people carried life with them.

They also face new things as they age, which is a plethora of losses. You lose your body's integrity and functionality. You lose your capacity to connect with the world in ways you might have once done when you were younger because your body's just not up to that anymore. If you can't see, you can't read, for example. If you can't hear, you can't listen. If you can't walk, you can't go out and your relationships get lost.

I got this real chance to excavate and listen to how complicated it was to all of these people who were brilliant at articulating this stuff.

They'd never articulated it before, it was something they kept inside. But our study was about bringing to the surface what loneliness for older people really means. What's already in the media is too simplified, and we really wanted to dig deep.

From an academic study to a book

I didn't pitch this book. An agent found me from the articles written off the back of this study. He said "I think loneliness could make a great book" and we talked about constructing the book.

In the end, I realized this wasn't just about older people. Pretty much everything I've studied in my life has been about loneliness in some form. When I've studied people who lost their pets, or foster children who have no parents, I was really talking about loneliness.

It's not that loneliness had never been written about, it's present in 90% of fiction. But these people I've studied are not fiction. Their stories are real people's experiences. The book became a sort of a chocolate box of 20 to 25 different human stories, some of which are actually from my own life.

Each story is a representation of the ways that loneliness can visit us in our lives. It might come at the beginning, the middle, or at the end. So the book became a presentation of these stories, and a stimulation to reflect on the meaning of loneliness. What does it really mean? What do we know and don't know about it? So it became a philosophical stance on loneliness, too. I think they would call it a narrative nonfiction, because it really is about stories.

We then pitched the book to 10 publishers and, luckily, in the first hour one of them wanted it. It was Picador. They were a great publisher to work with, and the editor really helped shape the book. She helped to dilute my ingrained tendancy to write academically and shape the stories. So that's how the book came about.

Even though the book wasn't so explicitly planned, is it true to say you had thought you'd write a book someday?

It's true. But it's really quite mystical what this particular book became. I would never have sat down 10 years ago and said "I'm going to write a book on loneliness in a decade's time." I really felt like serendipity is actually an important part of the process. I felt like this book was meant to be written by me. It was like, as you know, they say everyone's got a book in them. It was a culmination of everything I'd studied and my own personal experiences. So there's also some autobiography and memoir in this book, too.

I do wonder what the differences are between planned books and books that just sort of come into being because they're supposed to be written.

Loneliness is also about vulnerability, isn't it? It wouldn't translate well without you being vulnerable yourself.

That's very true. Again, I don't think I set out wanting my own stories to be a part of it, but it became very obvious when I started writing this. Well, I've got a lot of these stories living inside of me.

Every single human has at least one story of loneliness inside them, frequently untold. A part of this book is about encouraging — and I have had people say to me, "not everyone's gonna want to share their stories the way you have" — people to see the great benefit in relation to sharing and telling their stories. It is perhaps the most powerful tool we have in supporting and combating loneliness.

The word vulnerability has enormous power, and that's the sort of thing that people seem to be most captivated by about this book. They will know really quickly that I've got those stories in me, and I know what they are.

What are some special perspectives you excavated from these interviews?

Loneliness isn't just a feeling. We've really quickly clutched at the idea that loneliness is the feeling we have when we're lonely. But what I learned from the book is that feeling is only a part of the equation. For every person who feels lonely, you really can't understand what that means without the story behind it. The feeling is a consequence of a particular story and a narrative and a biography, and that particular person's feeling of loneliness cannot really be understood if you don't understand the story of how it arose.

Everyone's loneliness is a snowflake. They're all slightly different, but some parts may overlap. A diagnosis gives you a very broad definition of how this person feels but without the story behind it you really don't know anything at all.

Loneliness is a biographical experience. It's a part of everyone's life. It's not a pathology, but an inevitability. That visitation everyone receives at some point can look radically different. It can be brutal and really painful and deeply destabilizing, or it can be a bit more like a sort of gnawing orchestra in the background, a sense that you're disconnected from the world, rather than a missile that comes into your life like grief.

The different ways these stories can look is infinite. It's a real part of the symphony of life. There are times when it gets very severe, for sure, and people are going to need help. But we will all have it. Some people argue, philosophically, it's the essence of being human. We come into life, and we are alone from the moment we are severed from our mother. And for the rest of our lives we have to mitigate that separation.

There are studies referring to a "loneliness epidemic" in the world. Do you see trends that point to this in your discoveries?

I saw some ways in which the contemporary world seems to be creating new forms of loneliness.

One of the stories in the book is about a guy who was addicted to pornography. I think it was the author David Foster Wallace who said that it's going to get easier and easier to sit in front of a screen and simulate orgasm or a sexual connection with another human being, when actually there's absolutely nothing going on, but somebody trying to take your money or your attention on the internet.

The guy, who kindly gave me his story, was really disconnected from the world because he went down this virtual tunnel and got completely lost in the world of internet pornography. His ideas of connection, relationships, and sex were completely warped, and there's a whole epidemic of that.

For example, there's burgeoning literature on pornography and addiction and what pornography does to us and how it warps and shapes us. So in some of the younger people that I interviewed I saw examples of what I might call contemporary stories of loneliness.

I remember reading what you wrote about pornography and empathy, which prompted me to invite you to become one of the first 10 academics to publish on t2. What about my email that day that drew you say, "I'm gonna give this new platform a chance"?

I think I really like that you, in this case, had seen into the real bigger picture of this article that I wrote, the message in it. All of the questions that it raises about what kind of society we're living in, and what new technologies might be doing to change our paths.

I guess somebody else seeing that and being keen to continue growing a garden of those sorts of ideas was really appealing for me. I think that's going to be a really important part of a positive drive from technology, and platforms like t2 are great for that, have great potential for that. Something in that felt like I was magnetically drawn to it. It was the fact that you'd seen my argument. It wasn't an instrumental thing. It was more. A sincere interest in the ideas as opposed to, what can often happen in academia, "we need this from you, but we don't really see the bigger picture, we have an instrumental goal".

If you were to write another book, what would you do differently?

I don't want to write another book if I'd be feeling like I'm doing it for the sake of it. Either for the publisher or just because I want to write a second book. I don't want to speak if I don't have something to say. And maybe I have to wait another decade until I have something worthwhile, that there'll be something that emerges that will be the right thing for me to write next.

I can feel where I might be headed in the sense that naturally my work at the moment is drifted towards it. Through my interviews and explorations of older people's loneliness, one of the things I'm very interested in is that there are a lot of these people who would like to stop living because it's so difficult.

Many more older people than you'd think — and I've written a little bit on this idea of what we're calling tiredness of life — in western society are becoming a part of this almost medicalised phenomenon. Old age is becoming a sort of barren landscape in which medicine preserves me in, but I actually don't have anything meaningful to exist for anymore, so I'd rather switch off if I could.

If it becomes a more common pattern, that's interesting to me. I can definitely feel my interest at the moment is pulling me in that particular tide. Whether it could be a book, I don't know. But it feels meaningful.

What is it like to record your own audiobook?

I've never recorded a whole book. The publisher said they have to decide if they like your voice first. If they don't, you can't read it yourself. But luckily they liked mine enough. I get to read my own book, and I do feel like reading what came from inside me, for me, will be quite important. I don't think an actor could necessarily know how you felt when you wrote it and the sort of meaning behind it. So I feel like reading it yourself is quite a gift. Although it's gonna take a week in a studio of recording! So I have no idea what that would be like, but I'm quite looking forward to that experience.

Are you ready for some rapid fire questions?


Go for it.


Who's your favourite writer?


Instinctively. I'm going to say David Foster Wallace.


What are you reading right now?


I'm reading The Red Book by Carl Jung. It's a hugely dense memoir about his dreams when he was going a bit crazy for about six years. He wrote down all the dreams he had. So it's a strange sort of union between psychology and bible that people love. I'm halfway through it.


Interesting pick. Good luck with that! Last question: if you had a TikTok channel, what would you do with it?


I don't have one and I'm unlikely to. But if I did it would have to be something like what I'm doing with the book. It would be a space where we share some of the less talked about aspects of being human. So they become normalized and shared, and through them some kind of connection is formed.


If you enjoyed reading about Sam's work, you can pick up a copy of All the Lonely People from March 28, 2024 in major book stores and audiobook platforms.


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