Are You Automatically Lonely When You Are Alone?

Close-up of pensive male thinking of personal problems

In my last blog I shared some thoughts about the power and importance of belonging. When people don’t have a network or even one or two people to whom they belong, they may often feel lonely.

It can be helpful to appreciate that being lonely is not the same thing as being alone. Being alone is often described as being isolated or in a state of seclusion. What can make it either positive or negative is whether a person has chosen to be isolated or has been shunned by others and forced into isolation.

According to the Hindustan Times, “Loneliness brings restlessness. It makes the mind sprout negativity and sadness. We feel alone, cut-off, unwanted, unnoticed and unimportant even if we are surrounded by people. Loneliness depletes our energy and even if in the midst of people we love and know, feelings of intense loneliness can trouble our hearts. Sometimes, it drives us to a point where we even reject ourselves.”

It continues, “Solitude, on the other hand, is a positive feeling, which helps us to be in a state of balance. We are happy with ourselves and enjoy our own company. Solitude allows us to get in touch with ourselves and reflect on our lives… It leads us towards greater self-awareness, infuses creativity and boosts our growth. It restores us and gives us strength to visualize everything clearly. Loneliness, on the other hand, is imposed on us. If you can’t be happy with yourself, you will never really be happy among people. In solitude — I’m by myself but together with myself, whereas in loneliness, I am actually one, deserted by others.”

How much have we all been affected in a world that in recent years involved so much isolation because of Covid? Additionally, our world is dominated by social media. Some kids can mistake the brief interactions on their screens as actual human connections, falsely making them believe they are emotionally and relationally connected. Most social media does not have that kind of depth. It can leave kids feeling terribly alone and confused because they have so many online “friends.” Kids who do not have opportunities to engage in meaningful relationships with peers, their families, and others struggle to build and maintain significant, meaningful relationships. We can feel alone even when surrounded by people. It’s not about the proximity of people but rather the relational connections we have with them.

According to an article out of Harvard reporting on loneliness in America, “In our recent national survey of American adults, 36% of respondents reported serious loneliness—feeling lonely ‘frequently’ or ‘almost all the time or all the time’ in the four weeks prior to the survey.”

Also, “43% of young adults reported increases in loneliness since the outbreak of the pandemic. About half of lonely young adults in our survey reported that no one in the past few weeks had ‘taken more than just a few minutes’ to ask how they are doing in a way that made them feel like the person ‘genuinely cared.’”

And, “Young adults suffer high rates of both loneliness and anxiety and depression. According to a recent CDC survey, 63% of this age group are suffering significant symptoms of anxiety or depression.”

Also the Harvard article cited: “We need to return to an idea that was central to our founding and is at the heart of many great religious traditions: We have commitments to ourselves, but we also have vital commitments to each other, including to those who are vulnerable.”

The Hindustan Times concludes that, “As a society, we do little to support emerging adults at precisely the time when they are dealing with the most defining, stressful decisions of their lives related to work, love, and identity. Who to love? What to be?”

These are wise words for us to consider about our own lives. We also can be observers to our children and consider the degrees to which they have healthy solitude versus feeling deep loneliness. Being able to discuss these things is one way parents and caregivers can help kids appreciate ways they can enhance their engagement with others to decrease their sense of being alone.

We can all benefit by considering the differences between loneliness and being alone. We then can consider some of the ways we can actively address the loneliness that we and others, especially young people, are experiencing and how the simple act of checking in and showing care and compassion can help that person feel less alone.

Invitation for Reflection

  1. How aware are you of the differences between loneliness and being alone? To what extent in the last few weeks have you experienced each of these?
  2. If you have young people in your life, what have you noticed about their thoughts, feelings and sensations around loneliness? If they do seem to be experiencing loneliness, what are some ways you can make sure they know you are there and care for them and want to be a part of their life?

Diane Wagenhals, Director, Lakeside Global Institute