How is it that loneliness has become a growing concern in this age of increasing digital connectivity? Headlines detail an epidemic of loneliness leading to people feeling more detached from one another. In the U.K., loneliness has become a topic of national interest with the prime minister appointing a Minister for Loneliness. Is it still possible to be alone without succumbing to the problems arising from loneliness?
The problem with loneliness
In a 2010 review, Julianne Holt-Lunstad PhD reported the risks associated with social isolation. She analyzed 148 studies that looked at loneliness and adverse outcomes. In her analysis, study participants with stronger social relationships had a 50% increased likelihood of survival compared with study participants with weaker social relationships. The effect of loneliness on mortality was similar to the effects of smoking and alcohol consumption and exceeded the effects of obesity (measured by body mass index) and physical activity. Clearly, the experience of loneliness can have a significant impact on long term health and wellness.
What is the difference between being alone and loneliness?
Dictionary.com defines alone as being “separate, apart, or isolated from others”. The site describes being lonely as being “affected with, characterized by, or causing a depressing feeling of being alone; lonesome”.
Being alone is a state of being, voluntary or involuntary. It does not specify an emotional experience, and in fact, the emotions associated with being alone can vary from individual to individual. Loneliness is an emotional experience resulting from the circumstance of being alone. The resulting emotions often lead to negative emotional states such as depression.
You can be at peace and alone sitting on the beach at sunrise. You can be lonely in a room full of people when no one takes notice of you or offers you a kind word.
As Dr. Holt-Lunstad’s article explains, loneliness is not only a negative emotional experience but can have serious health outcomes, especially later in life. Loneliness is a public health issue that should be addressed for emotional and physical wellness.
Being OK by yourself
There are times when being alone can be beneficial and even necessary. However, as developmental psychologist Kenneth Rubin, PhD suggested, to realize the true benefits of solitude, certain benefits should be met. Dr Rubin suggested, “Solitude can be productive only: if it is voluntary, if one can regulate one’s emotions ‘effectively,’ if one can join a social group when desired, and if one can maintain positive relationships outside of it”.
Solitude should be voluntary
When someone seeks alone time, it is often to get away from too much stimulation or intrusion from others into an individual’s internal world. When we voluntarily search for time and space to be alone, we are doing so in a response to a perceived internal need. We do so, trusting that there is benefit to be gained from time out of social groups. We are less likely to see this choice from the perspective of exclusion from a group or lack of group affiliation.
You should seek solitude only if you can regulate your emotions effectively
The purpose of time alone should be to improve your emotional, psychological and spiritual well being. Ideally, your experience in solitude should leave you feeling better than you did before you spent your time alone. If you find yourself engaging in patterns of negative thinking or emotional experiences that leave you feeling worse than before you spent the time on your own, you might reconsider how you spend alone time. In typical circumstances, spending time alone in a voluntary, purposeful way should not lead to increasing feelings of anxiety and depression. If it does, you might need to seek help dealing with negative emotions.
If one can join a social group when desired
When choosing to spend time alone, it is important to also to have a supportive social network to return to. As discussed above, social support and regular social engagement is crucial for our emotional and physical health.
If one can maintain positive relationships outside of it
Solitude should be an active choice to experience the benefit of time alone, not an involuntary consequence of absent or negative social relationships with others. If you experience difficulty maintaining positive social relationships, then it might be helpful to seek professional help in forming and maintaining health relationships.
So, what are some of the benefits of solitude?
Many people seek solitude to allow space for their creative selves to be expressed. Many musicians, writers and visual artists describe how time alone is crucial for allowing their work to evolve.
Time alone creates an opportunity for you to contemplate your own identity separate from the groups you engage with. It is important to allow yourself time to reflect on how your thoughts and feelings impact your self perception, behaviors and relationships with others
In schools, it is sometimes called a brain break. Our brains are bombarded with constant external input, sometimes from many sources at a time. Our brains need breaks to absorb, sort and arrange all of the information coming in. Quiet time gives us a chance to process what we have seen and heard and to arrive at a deeper understanding of our daily experiences.
So, take a walk, sit on the beach or find a quiet chair at home. Explore what you can gain from a few moments of getting better acquainted with you.