Recent research studies and media reports have described what has been termed an “epidemic of loneliness” in our society. At the same time, studies have illustrated the value of spending time alone in solitude. The two are not the same.
The dictionary defines loneliness as “sadness because one has no friends or company,” and “the quality of being unfrequented and remote; isolation.” Loneliness is a lack, a feeling that something is missing, a pain, a depression, a need, an incompleteness, an absence of meaningful connection with others. In contrast, aloneness means “separate, apart, or isolated from others,” and “to the exclusion of all others or all else,” and “unique; unequaled; unexcelled.” Aloneness can be aliveness, a search for meaning, connecting with self, and an opportunity for reflection.
Emma Seppälä, and Peter Sims, in an insightful article, say “Our quest for independence may also be responsible for our current crisis of loneliness. We know from decades of research described in our book The Happiness Track that our greatest need, after food and shelter, is for social connection. From birth through old age, we need to feel that we belong. Yet we can easily become isolated from one another. Some of us get competitive when we compare ourselves with our peers; others get trapped in 12-hour work days or scatter across the country in the quest for achievement. We drown in workaholism and the busyness of life, then numb ourselves with alcohol and Netflix. Yet social connection is what we all desperately want, that sense of deep and powerful intimacy, whether it’s a romantic partner or a friend.”
Vice Admiral Vivek H. Murthy, who served as the 19th Surgeon General of the United States, from 2014 to 2017, argues loneliness is a growing health epidemic, pointing out that rates of loneliness have doubled since the 1980s. Today, Murthy says, more than 40 percent of adults in America report feeling lonely, and research suggests that the real number may well be higher. Additionally, the number of people who report having a close confidante in their lives has been declining over the past few decades. In the workplace, many employees, and half of CEOs, report feeling lonely in their roles. A 2010 AARP survey found that 35 percent of adults older than 45 were chronically lonely, as opposed to 20 percent of a similar group only a decade earlier. According to a major study by a leading scholar of the subject, roughly 20 percent of Americans—about 60 million people—are unhappy with their lives because of loneliness.
Loneliness kills. That's the conclusion of a study by Brigham Young University researchers who say they are sounding the alarm on what could be the next big public-health issue, on par with obesity and substance abuse. The subjective feeling of loneliness increases the risk of death by 26 percent, according to the study published in the journal Social isolation. Dr. Julianne Holt-Lunstad, lead researcher in the study, conducted two meta-analyses of previous studies to determine how social isolation, loneliness, and living alone plays a role in a person’s risk of dying. In an analysis of 148 studies that included more than 300,000 people total, her research team found that “a greater social connection” cuts a person’s risk of early death by 50 percent.
The General Social Survey found that the number of Americans with no close friends has tripled since 1985. “Zero” is the most common number of confidants, reported by almost a quarter of those surveyed. Likewise, the average number of people Americans feel they can talk to about ‘important matters’ has fallen from three to two. While conventional wisdom may be that the problem is more serious amongst seniors, that is not the case according to this study. Loneliness appears to be most prevalent among millennials. And loneliness is contagious. A 2009 study using data collected from roughly 5,000 people and their offspring from Framingham, Massachusetts since 1948 found that participants are 52 percent more likely to be lonely if someone they’re directly connected to (such as a friend, neighbor, coworker or family member) is lonely. People who aren’t lonely tend to then become lonelier if they’re around people who are.
The most socially isolated subjects had a 26 percent greater risk of dying, even when sex, age, and other factors linked to survival were accounted for, the researchers report online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. They then tweaked their model to determine whether the connection to death was due to the fact that isolated people are often lonely. It wasn't.
The researchers then explored the connection between loneliness itself and death. Intense loneliness also appeared to raise the risk of death by 26 percent, until the team took into account a host of other factors linked to survival, including wealth, education, and the presence of health problems. Once their impact had been accounted for, the scientists discovered that loneliness on its own didn't make people more vulnerable to death.
The researchers suspect that older people who have few social ties may not be getting the care they need. No one is urging them to eat right or take their medicine, and in a crisis, no one is there to help.
"There are plenty of people who are socially isolated but who are perfectly happy with that," Andrew Steptoe, lead researcher says. "But even then we should be trying to make sure there's enough contacts with them so that if something does go wrong…they're going to be advised and supported." Even those who are content to be alone, he says, should have some regular contact with other people who can encourage and check on them.
Other researchers praise the new work as rigorous and well-controlled. But they say it's far from clear that social isolation, not loneliness, is always the real culprit when it comes to increased mortality.
It’s common knowledge that the job of a leader, particularly CEOs, has never been more challenging, as well as under increasing scrutiny. Confidence in business and political leaders is at an all time low. What may not be as appreciated as much is how lonely the position is.
According to a poll of 83 CEOs in the U.S. conducted by management consulting firm RHR International, being the boss brought with it feelings of isolation and job requirements that varied greatly from the original expectations. According to the survey, half of the CEOs felt secluded in the position of this group; 61 percent felt that this seclusion was a hindrance to their performance. First time CEOs were more negatively affected by this loneliness, with 70 percent reporting that it hurt them in their ability to do their job.
John Cacioppo, the director of the University of Chicago’s Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience and author of Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection says that the absence of social connection triggers the same, primal alarm bells as hunger, thirst and physical pain and long-term loneliness can be dangerous. Cacioppo says loneliness puts your brain into self-preservation mode. Loneliness is not designed to be chronic; instead, it’s very much like physical pain or hunger. Certainly, chronic loneliness is linked to poorer physical and psychological health, as well as unfavourable effects on personality contends Cacioppo. The second proposed motivational force is the focus of his new study, published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. The researcher predicted that feelings of loneliness would make people more self-centered and this is exactly what they found. The findings suggest loneliness and self-centeredness are mutually reinforcing.
What are the causes of loneliness?
One reason, Vivek contends, it is partly because people are more geographically mobile and are thus more likely to be living apart from friends and family. Increasingly, people report living alone. The workplace also has an impact. New models of working — such as telecommuting and some on-demand “gig economy” contracting arrangements — have created flexibility but often reduce the opportunities for in-person interaction and relationships. And at work, despite how long people spend at work, social interaction and meaningful connections are not easy, and not encouraged by employers.
Does the Internet make people lonely, or are lonely people more attracted to the Internet?
Social media impacts loneliness. Dating sites such as Tinder, Match, and eHarmony allows us to dial up and find connections (both friendly and intimate) that didn’t exist a generation ago. In the last 15 years or so, many of face-to-face connections of the past have been replaced with social networking. Some research has found that if social networking is used as a way to promote face-to-face conversation, it lowers loneliness. But but if it’s used as a replacement for the face-to-face, it increases loneliness.
The question has intensified in the Facebook era. A recent study out of Australia found a complex relationship between loneliness and social networking. According to the study, Facebook users had slightly lower levels of “social loneliness”—the sense of not feeling bonded with friends—but “significantly higher levels of family loneliness”—the sense of not feeling bonded with family. The researchers also found that lonely people are inclined to spend more time on Facebook: “One of the most noteworthy findings,” they wrote, “was the tendency for neurotic and lonely individuals to spend greater amounts of time on Facebook per day than non-lonely individuals.
Excessive Internet use also increases feelings of loneliness because it disconnects us from the real world. Research shows that lonely people use the Internet to “feel totally absorbed online” – a state that inevitably subtracts time and energy that could otherwise be spent on social activities and building more fulfilling offline friendships.
A contributing factor is America’s obsession with individualism. In his controversial 1970 book The Pursuit of Loneliness, sociologist Phillip Slater argued that America’s individualism and, in turn, loneliness, “is rooted in the attempt to deny the reality of human interdependence.” Robert Putnam’s famous 2000 book Bowling Alone, the breakdown of community and civic society has almost certainly gotten worse. It is easy to produce examples of the very ways in which Americans attempt to minimize, circumvent, or deny the interdependence upon which all human societies are based. We seek a private house, a private means of transportation, a private garden, a private laundry, self-service stores, and do-it-yourself skills of every kind. An enormous technology seems to have set itself the task of making it unnecessary for one human being ever to ask anything of another in the course of going about his daily business. Even within the family Americans are unique in their feeling that each member should have a separate room, and even a separate telephone, television, and car, where economically possible. We seek more and more privacy, and feel more and more alienated and lonely when we get it. What accidental contacts we do have, furthermore, seem more intrusive, not only because they are unconnected with any familiar pattern of interdependence.
Loneliness is both a mental and emotional condition reflected in isolation of the individual, an emphasis in individualism, and may be exacerbated by the impersonality of the workplace, geographic isolation and magnified by the shallowness of social media connections.
Aloneness and Solitude
In contrast, aloneness implies a conscious choice by the individual for quiet solitude, and doesn’t carry with it the negative emotional conditions associated with loneliness. Aloneness has also been referred to as “doing nothing,” and a time for personal reflection.
Why Aloneness and Solitude are Important
In our society today, it can seem completely normal to fill up every single space with doing something. It is practically unheard of to not be busy. “Busy-ness” is for many synonymous with worthiness, popularity, and success. And many people believe it’s not good to be alone. There must be something wrong with you or it’s a sign that you are unhappy. Just look at how uncomfortable it is for some people to eat alone in restaurants.
Complaining about being busy and working all the time is so commonplace most of us do it without thinking. If someone is asked “How are you?” we often hear a response of “busy!” or “up to my ass in alligators.”
An analysis of holiday letters indicates that references to “crazy schedules” have dramatically increased since the 1960s. Celebrities publicly complain about “having no life” or “being in desperate need for a vacation,” as an analysis of hundreds of public statements by famous people suggests.
Busyness is celebrated and even promoted in the media. For example, advertisements used to feature wealthy people relaxing in their summer homes or boats. Today, we see advertisements featuring busy individuals who work long hours or are frantically scurrying from one activity to the other. Being busy today is worn like a badge of courage. Silvia Bellezza, a professor of marketing at Columbia Business School, along with Georgetown’s Neeru Paharia and Harvard’s Anat Keinan, published a recent paper in the Journal of Consumer Research about the prominence of an unusual status symbol: seeming busy. We can add to busyness, the expanding importance of 24/7 productivity, so that leisure or vacation time also includes getting work done while on the road.
Advice by management experts and the media to ambitious businesspeople and entrepreneurs about how to be successful rarely list doing nothing. We seem to value our lives on the run with 4 hours of sleep, constantly checking our emails and phone messages emails, even while we are driving and walking down the street more than finding a quiet place with no stimulation or distractions. Trying to process all this data and make sense of it, requires constant shifting of attention. This is not only enormously demanding on the brain in terms of energy, it can actually reduce productivity. And that brain overload we can develop a constant state of high alert, anxiety and stress.
The Benefits of Quiet Solitude and Aloneness
Amid the busyness of our lives, it’s easy to lose sight of those moments of solitude that can be so invaluable and rewarding. “Solitude is a crucial and underrated ingredient for creativity,” Susan Cain, author of the book Quiet, told Scientific American. “From Darwin to Picasso to Dr. Seuss, our greatest thinkers have often worked in solitude.”
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, almost 50% of adults today don’t live with a spouse, and 27 % live on their own. Additionally, 46 % of adults eat their meals alone. In fact, a new restaurant catering exclusively to the solo diner has opened up to success in cities such as Amsterdam. And yet, this increasing number of people of living, working, traveling and dining alone hasn’t translated into more of them experiencing the quiet space—or even the unsettling insecurity—of being truly alone. In the U.S., people are currently spending only 17 minutes a day relaxing and thinking as a leisurely activity.
In many ways, people are increasingly alone, together.
Now, more than ever, we need our solitude. Aloneness can give us the power to regulate and adjust our lives. It can refill our energy well. Psychological studies have pointed to the healing aspects of solitude yet many popular writers promote aloneness as "time out" a coping strategy. This is a very limited view. Aloneness is not intended to be an intermission until we get back to the important things in life. It has its own importance.
In the past century, our views of aloneness and solitude have changed dramatically. "Alone" did not always mean an absence of others. The word was coined in medieval times, and originally signified a completeness in one's singular being. In religious terminology, "solitude" typically meant the experience of oneness with God. Yet all current meanings of "alone" imply a lack of something. Invariably, a desire for solitude is viewed by others as a sign there is something wrong. Even worse, people associate going it alone with antisocial pursuits and unnecessary risk taking, like jumping off cliffs. And when we see photos of people sitting alone by a lake on on a mountain top, many of us might wonder if that person is lonely or even depressed.
Aloneness is a” deeper internal process,” notes Matthew Bowker, a psychoanalytic political theorist at Medaille College who has researched solitude. Productive solitude requires internal exploration, a kind of labor which can be uncomfortable, even excruciating he says: “It might take a little bit of work before it turns into a pleasant experience. But once it does it becomes maybe the most important relationship anybody ever has, the relationship you have with yourself.” Yet today, in our hyper-connected society, Bowker believes that solitude is “more devalued than it has been in a long time.”
For solitude to be beneficial, certain preconditions must be met, argues Kenneth Rubin, a developmental psychologist at the University of Maryland. He contends: solitude can be productive only: if it is voluntary; if one can regulate one’s emotions “effectively;” if one can join a social group when desired; and if one can maintain positive relationships outside of it. When such conditions aren’t met, yes, solitude can be harmful. The difference between solitude as rejuvenation and solitude as suffering or loneliness is the quality of self-reflection that one can generate while in it, and the ability to re-integrate into social groups when one wants to, Rubin argues.
Time alone allows us to order our priorities according to what we need, rather than the needs of others. “The paradigm experience of solitude is a state characterized by disengagement from the immediate demands of other people–a state of reduced social inhibition and increased freedom to select one’s mental and physical activities,” write researchers Christopher Long and James Averill.
Sherry Turkle, researcher and founder of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self and author of the book Alone Together, says in her TED Talk “Connected, But Alone?” “The moment that people are alone, even for a few seconds, they become anxious, they panic, they fidget, they reach for a device. Just think of people at a checkout line or at a red light…Being alone feels like a problem that needs to be solved. And so people try to solve it by connecting. But here, connection is more like a symptom than a cure.”
Turkle asks the question,“How do you get from connection to isolation? You end up isolated if you don’t cultivate the capacity for solitude, the ability to be separate, to gather yourself. Solitude is where you find yourself so that you can reach out to other people and form real attachments. When we don’t have the capacity for solitude, we turn to other people in order to feel less anxious or in order to feel alive. When this happens, we’re not able to appreciate who they are. It’s as though we’re using them as spare parts to support our fragile sense of self.”
Studies show that solitude is crucial for the development of the self. As highlighted in a study entitled, Solitude: An Exploration of Benefits of Being Alone, solitude is associated with freedom, creativity, intimacy, and spirituality. And I would say, this is particularly critical for leaders to embrace, and to improve their effectiveness, productivity and well being.
Manfred Ket De Vries, INSEAD Distinguished Professor of Leadership development and Organizational Change, writing in INSEAD Knowledge argues, “In today’s networked society we are at risk of becoming victims of interaction overload. Introspection and reflection have become lost arts as the temptation to ‘just finish this’ or ‘find out that’ is often too great to risk.” De Vries argues that working harder is not working smarter and in fact, setting aside regular periods of “doing nothing” may be “the best thing we can do to induce states of mind that nurture our imagination and improve our mental health.”
In the scientific journal, Nature, author Kerri Smith reviews the brain research regarding the importance of downtime and doing nothing. In a resting “do nothing” state, the brain is not doing nothing. It is completing the unconscious tasks of integrating and process conscious experiences. Neuroscientists will tell you that the brain uses a massive amount of energy while active just on one task—as much as 20% of the body’s energy intake. Resting state neural networks help us process our experiences, consolidate memories, reinforce learning, regulate our attention and emotions, and keep us productive and effective in our work and judgments.
Tony Schwartz, writing in the New York Times makes the point that time is finite, but energy is renewable, which is at odds with the prevailing work ethic in most companies where downtime is viewed as time wasted. According to one study, more than 30% of employees eat their lunch at their desks and more than 50% assume they will work on their vacations. Schwartz makes the point that human beings’ physiology is not designed to expend energy continuously. We are built to pulse between spending and recovering energy.
Writing in the journal Science, researcher Timothy Wilson of the University of Virginia reported that almost no studies had been done on “simply letting people go off and think.” Wilson conducted 11 experiments with more than 700 people. The results? The majority of participants in the experiments found it unpleasant to be alone in a room with just their thoughts for only 6-15 minutes. In one of Wilson’s experiments, the participants were left alone in a lab room in which they could push a button and shock themselves with an electric shock if they wished. The results were surprising. Even though all participants had previously stated that they would pay money to avoid being shocked with electricity, 67% of men and 25% of women chose to inflict a shock on themselves, rather than just sit there quietly and think.
Stephanie Brown, author of Speed: Facing Our Addiction To Fast and Faster—And Overcoming Our Fear of Slowing Down, argues we are addicted to busyness and accept it as a norm: “There’s this widespread belief that thinking and feeling will only slow you down and get in your way but it’s the opposite.” She argues, and most psychotherapists would contend that suppressing negative feelings only gives them more power, leading to intrusive thoughts, which can prompt people to be even busier to avoid them. According to Sara Maitland, author of the book How to Be Alone, loneliness and aloneness or solitude are entirely different. “Solitude is a description of a fact: You are on your own,” “Loneliness is a negative emotional response to it. People think they will be lonely, and that is the problem–the expectation is also now a cultural assumption.”
Some studies suggest that not giving yourself time to reflect impairs one’s ability to empathize with others. The more in touch we are with our feelings and inner experiences, the more accurate and compassionate we become about what others are experiencing.
Researchers have found that resting minds are creative minds. Numerous studies have shown that people tend to develop more novel, inventive and innovative ideas if they allow their minds to wander rather than a narrow focus on one task. Some companies such as Google recognized this fact and provide professional growth courses such as “Search Inside Yourself,” and “Neural Self-Hacking,” and also mindfulness meditation where the goal is to recognize and accept inner thoughts and feelings rather than avoiding or repressing them.
K. Anders Ericsson, a professor of psychology at Florida State University, conducted a study in Berlin and found that the amount of time successful musicians spent practicing each day was surprisingly low—a mere 90 minutes per day. In fact, the most successful musicians not only practiced less, but also took more naps throughout the day and indulged in breaks during practice when they grew tired or stressed. Other studies suggest that not giving yourself time to reflect impairs one’s ability to empathize with others.
Scott Barry Kaufman, the scientific director of the University of Pennsylvania's Imagination Institute, and Carolyn Gregoire, a senior writer at the Huffington Post, write in Harvard Business Review about how solitude helps drive creativity. "Great thinkers and leaders throughout history--from Virginia Woolf to Marcel Proust to Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak--have lauded the importance of having a metaphorical room of one's own," Kaufman and Gregoire write. "But today's culture overemphasizes the importance of constant social interaction, due in part to social media. We tend to view time spent alone as time wasted or as an indication of an antisocial or melancholy personality."
Specific Ways in Which Aloneness and Solitude Are Beneficial
The Importance of Quiet Reflection for Leaders
Martin Reeves, Rose Linde and Torres Fabien Hassan argue in an article in Harvard Business Review that leaders have under-appreciated or lost the art of reflection. They describe how many leaders today are continually busy with meetings, email and phone calls, believing that these behaviors may make them not only more productive but better leaders. “We believe that corporate leaders in today’s complex world urgently need to recultivate the art of reflection,” they argue, “In reflective thought, a person examines underlying assumptions, core beliefs, and knowledge, while drawing connections between apparently disparate pieces of information.”
They contend senior executives are victims of information overload and over-reliance on fast thinking versus slow or reflective thinking. They point to other leaders who make a point of structuring “alone” reflective time on a daily or weekly basis into their schedules. The authors also recommend executives engage a coach to engage in reflective thought and dialogue to augment the alone time.
“By reviving the art of reflection, leaders can reclaim their time, deploy their fully cognitive powers to the increasingly complex challenges they face and, by inspiring the same behavior in others, liberate employees from the corrosive effects of information overload and incessant reactivity,” the authors argue.
There is no doubt that the increasing number of people in our culture who are lonely is having a negative impact on them and our society. At the same time, due to increasing busyness, multiple stimuli and distractions, people are neither valuing nor taking opportunities to embrace the benefits of aloneness and solitude to enhance well being.
Copyright, 2017 by Ray Williams. This article may not be reproduced or published without permission from the author. If you share it, please give author credit and do not remove embedded links.