Loneliness or solitude? The case for being alone

Being alone can sometimes feel pleasurable. A good book, some quiet time to ourselves, just us and our thoughts, away from the hustle and bustle of daily work and social obligations. But, other times, it can feel isolating. We are not simply alone, we are lonely. Why is it that being alone can lead to such dramatically different experiences?

The difference between loneliness and solitude

While loneliness and solitude share their basis into the same fundamental experience, the way we interact with this experience gives rise to two different mental states.

Loneliness is a common but uncomfortable human emotion. Loneliness is the subjective experience in which a person is alone and which produces a feeling of desolation. When fleeting, it’s perfectly fine to feel lonely. It can be a way to process some feelings, which can be difficult but necessary.

However, when loneliness becomes a constant feeling, it can actually be harmful to your health. A review of the research literature suggest that loneliness increases mortality risk by 26%.

And the experience really hurts. We are social animals and we need to feel that we belong. Researchers have found that pain from loneliness and social rejection activate the same parts of the brain as physical pain.

“Why do people have to be this lonely? What’s the point of it all? Millions of people in this world, all of them yearning, looking to others to satisfy them, yet isolating themselves,” wondered Haruki Murakami in one of this novels. Isolation is the key word here: loneliness is a sense of isolation that can persist even when other people are present.

That’s why knowing more people will not alleviate feelings of loneliness. It has become a common trope — but a true one — to say that we’re more connected but also more lonely than ever. The rates of loneliness have doubled in the United States in the last fifty years only. Scientists speak of a loneliness epidemic.

In contrast, solitude is just the state of being alone. The concept of solitude doesn’t have any negative feelings attached to it. Which is why it can actually be enjoyable, or just neutral.

There is a wonderful poem by Robert Duncan called “Childhood’s Retreat” which perfectly captures the beauty of solitude:

It’s in the perilous boughs of the tree
out of blue sky the wind
sings loudest surrounding me.
And solitude, a wild solitude is revealed,
fearfully, high I’d climb
into the shaking uncertainties,
part out of longing, part daring myself,
part to see that
widening of the world,
part to find my own, my secret
hiding sense and place, where from afar   
all voices and scenes come back
—the barking of a dog, autumnal burnings,
far calls, close calls—the boy I was
calls out to me
here the man where I am “Look!
I’ve been where you
most fear to be.”

How we perceive being alone makes all the difference in whether we will experience it as loneliness or solitude. When we focus on the feeling of isolation from others and world, being alone can produce a spiral of negative thoughts. When appreciated as a generative moment of self-discovery and reconnection with oneself, being alone can yield powerful insights and support your mental health.

The science-based benefits of solitude

It’s hard to consider inserting a little solitude in our busy schedule, but spending time alone is far from being a waste of time. In fact, the busier you are, the more likely you are to benefit from some quiet time. And research shows that solitude has lots of benefits, which include:

  • More meaningful relationships. It may sound paradoxical, but research suggests that being able to feel comfortable on our own helps us become more comfortable when around others.
  • Better resilience. Studies show that your ability to tolerate alone time is linked to increased happiness, better stress management, and improved life satisfaction. Basically, spending time alone makes you happier and less anxious.
  • Increased creativity. Being in a private, secluded space, allows you to be more creative. That’s why artists, authors, and musicians seek solitude when they want to generate ideas and focus on their creative work.
  • Self-discovery. By spending time alone and taking a moment for self-reflection—to think about our goals, our concerns, and our self—we are able to define and confirm our identities with less influence from other people, researchers found.
  • Increased productivity. This may be the most counter-intuitive benefit of them all, but spending time alone makes you more productive. Many people work better when on their own compared to when working in a busy and noisy office.

In the end, it all boils down to being intentional in the way we approach solitude. Loneliness is time alone that we didn’t choose, and therefore don’t appreciate. Solitude can be a mindful activity, if you decide to dedicate time to it and approach it as a constructive experience.

On seeking solitude

The good news is that you don’t need to set aside huge chunks of time to be by yourself in order to benefit from solitude. Just ten to twenty minutes of alone time a day could be enough to help you recharge. And if you think you don’t have time to dedicate to intentional solitude, you probably need that alone space more than ever.

To go from simply being alone to creating space for mindful solitude, make sure to put your phone and laptop away. You won’t get any of the benefits of solitude if you spend your time scrolling on a screen.

Here are a few suggestions of things you could do in your alone time. However you decide to spend your alone time, the goal is to be fully immersed in the moment, whether you actively think about interesting questions or let your mind wander.

  1. Go for a walk. Walking alone can be a simple way to clear your mind and take time to reflect on your thoughts, while getting some exercise. Bonus points if you can do it in nature.
  2. Meditate. Meditation allows you to focus on your inner self so you can find a sense of calm and clarity. It can help reduce anxiety and improve focus.
  3. Journal. Writing down your thoughts and emotions can help you process them more effectively. Journaling is also a great way to gain valuable insights into the inner workings of your mind.
  4. Listen to music. Music can be an amazing way to relax and unwind, especially if you listen to music that resonates with you and aligns with your current mental state, which can help you feel more connected to your emotions.
  5. Read a book. Besides being a lot of fun and a way to gain knowledge, reading a book alone can be an uncomplicated way to escape into another world and, if it’s fiction, get lost in a good story.

You can also try gardening, working on a DIY project, dance in front of the mirror, do yoga, or practice an instrument. Any activity that allows you to enjoy your time alone will help you appreciate those precious moments with yourself.

Or you could, you know, do nothing. Just think, or let your mind wander. If you’re not used to solitude, silence can feel uncomfortable at first. But allowing yourself to be alone with your thoughts is powerful, and can be a great addition to your mental gym. So trying setting aside a bit of alone time and making it part of your daily routine.

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