Anyone who meets me immediately assumes I’m an extrovert. I love chatting with people, smiling at strangers, and making conversation on public transportation. When I was four, I would randomly walk over to strangers and start telling them my whole life story.
To be clear, I’m not a typical New Englander. In fact, I’m considered kind of a weirdo in the Northeast in general.
But the thing is, I’m actually an introvert that acts like an extrovert. And when it comes to solitude versus loneliness, I really struggle sometimes.
While I do love chatting up random strangers, I don’t feel like I get to actually recharge until I spend some time alone. Often in the dark, eating popcorn, and binging a cult documentary.
While I’m not alone, our society is built around those who love social interactions and human contact. Even the word loner has negative connotations. Both our society and our genetic make-up reward those of us who enjoy spending time with others.
Yet you can still be lonely without being alone, and those who are alone a lot aren’t always lonely.
What Is Loneliness?
According to a 2013 study published by the Indian Journal of Psychiatry, loneliness is both an emotion and a damaging state of mind.
Loneliness isn’t just being alone, either — it’s about feeling sad that you’re alone. The really tricky thang about this condition is that we don’t always realize that feelings of isolation are making us sad.
Like with depression, lonely people often don’t realize they’re lonely (and subsequently don’t reach out for help) until they’ve been feeling that way for a significant amount of time.
The three types of loneliness are:
Situation loneliness strikes when we feel our needs aren’t being met or social contracts are upheld. This type of loneliness can also strike during conflicts or during disasters (hey, COVID!).
Developmental loneliness can happen when our needs for intimacy or solitude aren’t being met. Meaning, we aren’t getting enough quality alone time or sharing intimate relationships with others.
Internal loneliness is when we’re surrounded by people but still feel lonely. If you’ve ever lived in a big, bustling city (like New York City) or if you grew up in a large family, you’ve probably experienced internal loneliness.
Social isolation significantly increased a person’s risk of premature death from all causes, a risk that may rival those of smoking, obesity, and physical inactivity.
– Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Long-Term Effects of Loneliness
Loneliness doesn’t just make us ‘feel sad’. It can also lead to some pretty grisly health issues. The most common health issues associated with the loneliness epidemic include:
- Cardiovascular disease
- Heart disease
- Lung disease
- Mental health issues
- Certain cancers
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):
“Social isolation significantly increased a person’s risk of premature death from all causes, a risk that may rival those of smoking, obesity, and physical inactivity.”
What Is Solitude?
Solitude is the state of being alone.
“Solitude, isolation, and seclusion mean the state of one who is alone. Solitude may imply a condition of being apart from all human beings or of being cut off by wish or circumstances from one’s usual associates.” – Merriam Webster
But the word solitude is backed with a little nuance. Generally, people in solitude are alone of their own volition and are doing so to have an intimate relationship with themselves or the divine.
Essentially, solitude is quality and productive alone time. It’s the time you take to recharge your batteries before heading back out into the world. And it looks different for everyone.
For me, solitude is sitting on my couch watching documentaries about Brittney Spears, Demi Lovato, and the Oprah interview with Meghan Markle and Prince Harry. It may also involve some time of bubbly beverage and a bowl of popcorn (the crunching helps drown out the world even further!).
Benefits of Solitude
The benefits of solitude may include improved:
Solitude can also decrease stress and anxiety as well as help you fill your energetic cup.
Yet, not all alone-time is quality solitude. There’s a way to do solitude and a way not to do it (but more on that later).
For as many as 15-to-30% of the general population, however, loneliness is a chronic state. Left untended, loneliness has serious consequences for cognition, emotion, behavior, and health.
Solitude Vs Loneliness: What’s the Difference?
According to former surgeon general Vivek Murthy (who literally wrote the book on loneliness), the forms of connection we all need are:
- Intimate relationships
So when it comes to solitude versus loneliness, solitude is actually an active form of connection — not loneliness at all.
Loneliness Vs Chronic Loneliness
Loneliness happens to the best of us. But this negative mental state can get really dicey when it goes on for too long.
When you’re lonely for too long, it can turn into a chronic condition (and this is when all the negative health effects become serious risks). According to a 2010 study:
“For as many as 15-to-30% of the general population, however, loneliness is a chronic state. Left untended, loneliness has serious consequences for cognition, emotion, behavior, and health.”
When we suffer from loneliness for too long of a time period, it’s much harder to get help, and it’s more likely to lead to life-threatening conditions.
There’s also a stigma associated with loneliness, which can lead to feelings of shame, and intense feelings of shame can lead to more loneliness and isolation. When we address the root cause of our shame, we deal with our own sh*t.
While dealing with our own sh*t is harder than staying blanketed in a shroud of shame and isolation, the breakthroughs that we get at the other end of dealing with our issues are often the antidote to these Negative Feelings.
Not all solitude is ‘quality’ alone time.
Loneliness Can Happen Even When You’re Not Alone
If you’ve ever felt like the odd gal out, you know what I’m talking about here.
I suffered through a 20-year awkward phase that lasted between the ages of 11 and 31 (and sometimes rears its pimpled and socially-anxiety-ridden head still to this day).
You don’t need to be alone to feel lonely. In fact, loneliness doesn’t have anything to do with the close proximity of the nearest people. It has to do with the quality of your relationships (especially with the quality of the relationship you have with yourself).
Yes, I’m talking about quality, not quantity here, people.
The antidote to loneliness is quality connection with yourself and in your intimate relationships and within your community.
This is why people that are religious generally only access the best benefits of religion (live longer, healthier, happier, etc.) when they attend religious services or get-togethers once a week and have at least one close friend within their congregation.
Can Solitude Be Harmful?
According to University of Maryland developmental psychologist Kenneth Rubin, solitude is only productive if it’s:
- Not exclusionary
Essentially, you won’t get the most out of your alone time if you’re forced into it (shout out to time-outs!), you’re not allowed to rejoin group activities (aka prison), and you don’t have social connections to return to after you’re satisfied with your solitude.
Rubin states that solitude can even be harmful if these three conditions aren’t met.
How to Embrace Solitude: Tips for Extroverts
The COVID-19 pandemic has made physical and social distancing even more of a struggle — especially for extroverts (who get their energy from being around others).
While distancing restrictions are loosening, it’s never too late to learn how to enjoy time to yourself when it comes to solitude versus loneliness.
If you’re finding it hard to embrace solitude (or just being alone in general), there are few ways you can frame solo-time to make it a positive habit. And even if you already enjoy your alone-time, there are some ways to transcend from simply flying solo to enjoying high-quality solitude.
1. Make a List of Your Favorite Solo Activities
If you want to spend quality time with someone, it always helps to find out what activities they enjoy first. Before spending quality solo time with yourself, make a list of things you love to do alone.
Back before I was a ‘pro’ at solitude, the one activity I knew I loved doing alone was going to the movies. It’s dark, so no one will make awkward eye contact with you, and I hate when people talk through a movie in the theater (mostly because you can’t rewind).
I recommend starting your solo journeys with an activity that you already feel comfortable doing alone (and possibly with activities that are around other people, just not with other people). Other ideas might include going to the library to read a book, wandering a farmers market by yourself, or going to the beach to bask in the sun, listen to music, or read a magazine.
2. Get to Know Yourself
One of the best reasons to embrace solitude is to get to know yourself. If you’re constantly spending your time with others, you may not have enough time for introspection. Ways to get to know yourself might include:
- Taking a meditation class
- Reading a self-help book
- Taking a Natural Strengths test
- Having a conversation with yourself
I for one talk to myself all the dang time. Sometimes I forget to stop when I’m in public, but now that we’re all wearing face masks all the time, I find myself chatting away more and more these days.
If you’re self-conscious about having a conversation with yourself, you may want to try some writing prompts. I highly recommend my one-year gratitude journal as it’s full of prompts that inspire gratitude — but also help you understand why you love what you love.
I also recommend Alex Leviton’s Explore Every Day: 365 Daily Prompts to Refresh Your Life. It’s full of both prompts and ideas to get to know yourself.
3. Commit to Unplugging
During solitude, it’s often best to unplug from social media, news, and other distractions so you can simply pay attention to your own thoughts.
One of the biggest reasons to unplug is that our smartphones are actually one of the causes of feelings of loneliness! According to Dr. Murthy, one of the most effective ways to curb loneliness is to simply put down your dang phone.
The loneliness epidemic surged in conjunction with the invention and rise in popularity of the smartphone.
When we’re on social media, we can’t help but compare our lives to others’. It’s called comparison bias. We think we want what others have when in reality, our brains are actually really bad predictors of what will make us happy.
In her book Untamed, Glennon Doyle tells a story about how a friend of hers really wanted to splurge on a family beach vacation — but didn’t have the money to do so. When Doyle asked her friend why she wanted the trip so much, her friend responded that she keeps seeing her friends on these amazing vacations, connecting with their kids and with no phones in sight.
What she really wanted was to have phone-free quality time with her family. She felt bad about her own life from looking at social media, but luckily she had an introspective friend who could help her realize she didn’t want some expensive family vacation — she just wanted her family to put down their phones for an hour each day so they could connect.
4. Take a Big Solo Risk
If you’re finding it challenging to book some quality alone time with yourself, why not jump into the deep end by taking a big solo risk?
I learned more about myself by taking solo trips than I ever did on vacations I took with others.
Let me be clear: not all these solo trips were Eat-Pray-Love feel-good experiences. In fact, I had a particularly awful time in South American at the beginning of 2020 (I may have been the only person grateful that my trip was cut short due to the pandemic).
But I did have some quality solo time and I did learn a lot about myself and got to know myself really really well.
And after all, that’s what solitude is all about, isn’t it?
Was I lonely at times during my trips? Absolutely. But traveling solo actually forced this introvert to realize that I need community wherever I go — even if I want to spend a large amount of time alone on a trip.
How do you define solitude versus loneliness? Do you enjoy alone time or do you constantly feel lonely when you’re alone? Let me know in the comments!
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Also, you should know that I’m not a doctor. More importantly, I’ve never played one on TV. Always consult your doctor before taking any advice from me (or anyone else on the internets for that matter).