Loneliness is a natural feeling that almost all of us experience from time to time. However, there are ways to overcome loneliness, enjoy solitude and be happy alone.
Loneliness: A hidden killer
Did you know that more than three in five Americans are lonely? According to a 2020 survey, over 61% of adults in the US reported feeling lonely, lacking companionship, being left out & poorly understood. What’s even more alarming is that there has been almost a 13% rise in loneliness since 2018. But why are we so lonely? We are more “connected” now more than ever, thanks to social media and instant messaging apps. We can call, text or video chat with anyone across the globe at any time we want. Then why do we feel lonely even when we are surrounded by people, whether physically or virtually? The simple answer is although technology may help us connect with others faster, it cannot help us feel “connected” to someone.
Loneliness is a normal yet complex emotion that can be unique for each of us. It is a damaging state of mind that makes us feel disconnected, alone, unwanted and empty. It makes us desperate for human contact but keeps us from reaching out to others by making us socially isolated. But it should be noted that this state of mind or emotion is necessarily not about being alone, but about having the perception that you are isolated and lonely. It is a subjective, unpleasant and negative emotion caused by disconnectedness and a lack of social connections. A 2013 study states that it is a hidden killer, especially for the elderly.
Further studies show that being lonely and isolated can indirectly lead to poor health and well-being by affecting our health-related behaviors. In fact, it is associated with the onset of mental health issues and psychiatric disorders, such as stress, anxiety, depression, substance use and suicidal ideation. Research further reveals that this state of mind is also linked to several other cognitive, behavioral & physiological consequences, such as –
- Increased morbidity & mortality
- Accelerated physiological aging
- Impaired emotional and cognitive functioning & outcomes
- Impaired capacity to self-regulate
- Sleep deprivation
- Cardiovascular disease & stroke
- Increased blood pressure
- Elevated cortisol levels
- Impaired cellular immunity
- Increased risk for Alzheimer’s disease
- Antisocial behavior
- Poor decision-making
- Reduced memory & learning
According to another 2014 study, it can also cause personality disorders, child abuse, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, coronary heart disease, cancer, obesity, hypertension, poor hearing etc. “Loneliness poses a significant health problem for a sizeable part of the population,” explains a 2017 study.
Solitude: The savior
While loneliness can be a damaging emotion, the antidote to its consequences lies in our ability to enjoy solitude. Contrary to popular belief, loneliness is not about being alone, but about having a sense of isolation. Solitude, however, refers to a state of being alone, isolated and secluded without feeling lonely, leading to higher levels of self-awareness. It is a psychological phenomenon characterized by a lack of contact with others and is associated with various benefits. Not only can it enable us to enjoy some alone time, it can also help us improve our performance, be more productive, help us reflect, boost our concentration and promote self-development. According to a 2020 study, “solitude is a developmental milestone” that helps us manage our growth across different life stages. It is a positive emotion which we need to learn to manage. Our capacity to cope with this emotion can enable us to overcome anxiety & depression and acquire helpful personality traits. It is also associated with lower negative affect or emotions.
In fact, evidence shows that spending time alone in nature can lead to personal growth, boost sense of self-worth, self-confidence and self-reflection. It also helps us to find the meaning of life, discover new ways of knowing ourselves and others and improve our sense of purpose & personal belonging. While loneliness is burdened by negative emotions and feels like a punishment characterized by deficiency and isolation, solitude is a blessing marked by positive moods, self-awareness and a renewed sense of self. Loneliness may be forced on us, but solitude is what we choose to overcome it. All we need to do is shift our mindset from feeling trapped in isolation to seeing it as an opportunity to explore ourselves. Recent research shows that reframing and reappraising time spent alone as solitude can help to boost resilience, positive mood & overall well-being and reduce negative emotions associated with loneliness.
How to overcome loneliness & enjoy solitude
Solitude empowers our mind, body and soul while loneliness drains them. Solitude represents the joy of being alone, while loneliness refers to the pain of being left alone. Having the ability to enjoy being alone leads to inner peace and richness. This is why it is crucial that we learn to enhance our solitude capacity and defeat feeling lonely to enjoy our own company.
Here are a few ways to start enjoying your alone time while crushing the negative effects of loneliness –
1. Acknowledge that you’re lonely
Accept the fact that loneliness is a normal emotion which all of us experience at some point in our lives. Regardless of how connected you are online or how many people may surround you, you will feel lonely sometimes. But you’re not alone in this. Millions of people worldwide cope with this emotion and its negative effects regularly. They key is to identify when you have this state of mind, accept it as a natural human emotion and intentionally change your attitude and perspective towards being alone.
Instead of engaging in unhealthy coping mechanisms, like drinking or taking drugs, use this time as an opportunity for personal growth. The more you are aware of your feelings of isolation, the better you will be able to deal with its consequences. Be patient and take steps to relieve and replace negative emotions with positive ones.