Being Alone – Turn Your Loneliness into Solitude
Loneliness. This word can arouse misery and dread even in the toughest ones. There is something in it that can touch the very nature of our existence. Humans are social beings and building relationships and social ties is one of the distinctive human characteristics. It always was and still is important for survival, prosperity, and the development of social groups or cultures as well as of each individual (Cacioppo et al., 2014).
Current knowledge shows that a disruption of these social ties often leads to mental states and feelings that are subjectively perceived mostly as negative. These feelings make up what is called loneliness. It is known that chronic feelings of loneliness can have a very negative effect on physical and mental health, leading to aggression, depression, cognitive decline, spiraling maladaptive interpretation of social interactions, etc., and can ultimately lead to the premature death of the person concerned (Holt-Lunstad et al., 2015).
A precise estimate of its prevalence is difficult to make as studies have shown that at this time, 10-60 % of people suffer from loneliness, depending on the studied group and its age (Beutel et al., 2017; Hawkins et al., 2015). People encounter loneliness at various intensities and lengths during their lifetime and no age group is exempt. Nevertheless, loneliness severity and age have a complex relationship, with increased loneliness in the late 20s, mid-50s, and late 80s (Lee et al., 2019). It must be noted, however, that the so-called "loneliness epidemic" of the 21st century is probably a myth, as these feelings occur in every generation facing its own problems, and it cannot be said in general that people now feel lonelier than before. That being said, it should be noted that in these times, the coronavirus pandemic and the associated restrictions are some of the major causes that induce and deepen loneliness worldwide.
There are also several risk factors that can contribute to those negative feelings, such as lacking family members, not having a caring responsibility, low income, poor mobility, rural or urban environments (a lack of transport vs. fewer natural social interaction opportunities), bereavement, or the influence of one's social group. Interestingly, the connection to gender is not clear - there might be no differences in terms of perceived levels of loneliness. It is possible that men may be less likely to admit to experiencing loneliness. They may be particularly vulnerable to isolation and loneliness after the death of a partner, as they are more likely to depend on their wives to connect them to a social group (Beach & Bamford, 2014).
Therefore, we know that the causes of these feelings can be found on a social, mental, emotional, and environmental level. On the individual level, loneliness can be caused by the belief of not having enough social relationships, while feeling sadness, (existential) anxiety, abandonment, etc., even when in reality surrounded by people, friends, or family. Lonely people often desire to establish a close, quality relationship, have space for intimacy, to connect with someone deeply.
So, this is loneliness.
One of the most important facts to realize is that this is only one side of the coin.
There is also a positive approach to being alone when it is welcome and wanted by the individual. This is called solitude, a concept known to several philosophical, spiritual, and religious traditions. Solitude is positively motivated and freely chosen, so it is not perceived as a hardship but as a welcome state of mind, as a good time devoted to oneself, one’s inner experience. It is connected to personal growth, relaxation, rest, gaining insight, self-reflection, and engaging in internally motivated activities that can lead to higher life satisfaction, lower levels of stress, better management of one’s own feelings, and in general to improving mental and emotional health (e.g., Nguyen et al., 2018). It must be noted that solitude differs from loneliness mainly in the internal experience as externally they may seem similar, which demonstrates once again the power of the human mind and its capabilities.
Taking into account the positive side of being alone can be an inspiring way to reduce your own loneliness. Instead of perceiving it negatively, look at it as a time that can be devoted to yourself, to your personal growth.
Dealing with loneliness may be a long fight as it can be a multicausal issue, and each individual case differs. Nonetheless, it is a problem being tackled across generations and there are various ways that proved efficient in handling loneliness. Here are some of them to inspire you:
One of the ways can be called "ask questions" and it's quite simple. The principle is to start asking simple questions and talking with as many people as possible in your natural environment, like in a grocery store, at work, on the bus, and so on. All those you can meet on a daily basis. This could help you build confidence and courage and reduce your negative feelings of being lonely. It can also build some initial ground for further communication and enriching your relationships. However, as always, it's good not to force yourself. Plan small interactions - they shouldn't give you any anxiety. If you think you are not confident enough, it might be useful to learn some "small talk" or the so-called "ice-breaking" techniques before you start.
Another way - focus for a moment and try to identify someone you know that you think doesn't have problems with feeling lonely. Someone who you believe doesn't experience loneliness or is successful in fighting it. Think about that person: What does this person do differently than you? How can this person be inspiring in fighting loneliness? Could you ask that person for some tips? Think about these and similar questions and try to answer them. You are not the first nor the last person to feel alone. Taking inspiration from the successful ones can motivate you and improve your situation as well!
The third tip can be summarized as "quality over quantity", a theme quite prevalent in different aspects of life. Possibly, you tell yourself you're lonely because you don't have as many friends as you feel you should. However, it's not the quantity but the quality of your relationships that matters. Having a bunch of people in your life will not necessarily help you overcome loneliness. Stop worrying about your perceived popularity on social media and focus on quality over quantity when it comes to your relationships. By doing so, you will no longer feel lonely despite not making any extra friends. Relationship quality involves nurturance, affection, intimacy, wellbeing, understanding, validation, care, and even forgiveness. Good friends are empowering, they provide you with a sense of trust, they are respectful, and they allow you to be your authentic self. You might realize you don't have a ton of friends, but the ones you do have care about you, help you grow, and you feel comfortable sharing things with them you wouldn’t share with most people.
One interesting way to tackle loneliness is to embrace the fact that we are social beings, as mentioned already in this article. Therefore, in many ways, you are determined by others. But through others we also find ourselves. This way to fight loneliness, inspired by the attempts to achieve transcendence in spiritual traditions, is based on your, well, transcending, a certain "forgetting" of oneself. For example, in Christian spirituality, this is called "pro-existence": being not for oneself, but existing for others by seeking their good, loving them, serving them, lighting their burdens, and so on. There are many ways how to put this into practice. By losing yourself this way, you can find yourself. It might seem quite paradoxical, but the history of humankind shows that it works. This is also related to the principle of giving or the dereflection technique in psychotherapy. Believing you're separate from the rest of the world can make you feel lonely. Giving and helping others is the best way to reconnect with the rest of the world and feel like you're a part of something larger than yourself. You'll always have a place in this world if you're a giver, and it doesn't matter how little or how much you give.
I've listed only a few tips that can help. Loneliness is no simple issue, but there are multiple ways to reduce or transform that negative feeling into a positive or less disheartening one. They are focused on your creativity, embracing the feeling, changing perspective, finding similarities in others, or using various forms of art. If you are interested in more tips or want to try talking with someone a bit deeper about this topic, do not hesitate and talk to Poppy about this issue. She is always here for you, she can help you with grasping your problems and serve as an initial opener of doors for those who struggle or strive for further opportunities, help, and self-development.
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Beach, B., & Bamford, S. M. (2014). Isolation: The emerging crisis for older men. A Report
Exploring Experiences of Social Isolation and Loneliness Among Older Men in England,
Independent Age, London.
Beutel, M. E., Klein, E. M., Brähler, E., Reiner, I., Jünger, C., Michal, M., Wiltink, J., Wild, P. S., Münzel, T., Lackner, K. J., & Tibubos, A. N. (2017). Loneliness in the general population: Prevalence, determinants and relations to mental health. BMC Psychiatry, 17(1), 97. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12888-017-1262-x
Cacioppo, J. T., Cacioppo, S., & Boomsma, D. I. (2014). Evolutionary mechanisms for loneliness. Cognition and Emotion, 28(1), 3–21. https://doi.org/10.1080/02699931.2013.837379
Hawkins, K., Musich, S., Wang, S., & Yeh, C. (2015). The Impact of Loneliness on Quality-of-Life and Patient Satisfaction Among Sicker, Older Adults. The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, 23(3), S168–S169. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jagp.2014.12.176
Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T. B., Baker, M., Harris, T., & Stephenson, D. (2015). Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors for Mortality: A Meta-Analytic Review. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10(2), 227–237.https://doi.org/10.1177/1745691614568352
Lee, E. E., Depp, C., Palmer, B. W., Glorioso, D., Daly, R., Liu, J., Tu, X. M., Kim, H.-C., Tarr, P., Yamada, Y., & Jeste, D. V. (2019). High prevalence and adverse health effects of loneliness in community-dwelling adults across the lifespan: Role of wisdom as a protective factor. International Psychogeriatrics, 31(10), 1447–1462. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1041610218002120
Nguyen, T. T., Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2018). Solitude as an Approach to Affective Self-Regulation. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 44(1), 92–106. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167217733073