How People Who Live Alone Conquered Loneliness

The loneliest people? Maybe we have that exactly wrong.

Posted Aug 31, 2018

Single people aren’t to blame for the loneliness epidemic.” That’s the title of an article I wrote that was recently published in the Atlantic. Single people aren’t to blame for the supposed epidemic, I argued, and neither are the subset of single people who, intuitively, might seem most at risk for loneliness: those who live alone.

I’ve been working on this for a while. Last year, a whole raft of articles all over the media included arguments such as this one, which was the lead paragraph in a story at Business Insider:

     “As more people opt to live alone, delay or forego marriage, and recede into their smartphones, rates of loneliness are skyrocketing in the United States, according to new research.”

The researcher most often cited is Julianne Holt-Lunstad. Type “loneliness, living alone, unmarried, Holt-Lunstad” into Google, as I just did, and you will get more than 210,000 results. In testimony the BYU professor gave to a Senate committee hearing on loneliness and social isolation, she pointed specifically to another big subset of single people, in addition to ones who live alone — those who have been single all their lives.

Living alone, living single, and living single longer (maybe even for life) are on the rise in many places all around the world. The trends are part of the ascendance of individualism. It is not just these individualistic practices that have been implicated in the loneliness blame game. So, too, have individualistic values, such as freedom and self-expression. The pursuit of “selfish autonomy,” claims Washington Post columnist Christine Emba, “demands no concern for the wants and needs of others, or for society as a whole.” Family bonds have been devalued, she argued: “And in the end, we’ve all been left terribly alone.”

I understand why people think that the loneliest people are probably those who are single, who have always been single, and who live alone, as well as those who value freedom and autonomy. But they are wrong. My debunking of these myths is so extensive that when I asked to write about this for the Atlantic, my pitch was nearly 2,000 words. (I know, it’s not supposed to be. I included a shorter version, too.) The editors said yes, but only to a short article. You can read just that if all you are interested in is the brief version.

Here I want to elaborate on some of the points I made and add some of the other points I could not fit into a short article. I’ll focus mostly on people who live alone. My key argument is that we’ve been misled by the spotlight that has been shined on the desperately lonely solo dwellers, distracting us from what I believe to be the larger contingent of people living alone, the contented core.

When we look more closely at how most solo dwellers really are living their lives, we find that:

  • Many are actually not physically isolated, even though they live alone.
  • Most are not socially isolated, either — in fact, in important ways they are more connected with others than those who live with other people.
  • Rather than devaluing family, people who live alone are redefining it in ways that are more expansive and more inclusive.
  • Solitude may be more important to well-being in contemporary life than we have realized. People who live alone may have an edge in maintaining meaningful relationships with others, because of the time and space they have to themselves.

Many people who live alone are not physically isolated.

When you think about people who live alone, do you imagine them as physically isolated? Stories of old people who are all alone and have not seen anyone for days encourage that kind of thinking. Some really are isolated, alone, and lonely, and their pain should be taken seriously. But, as I learned when I went in person to people’s homes to see how they were living, many people who are living alone are not at all isolated. For example, two single women at opposite ends of a duplex each have a place of their own; they are close friends, and a cup of coffee or help with a task that requires a second set of hands is just steps away.

Other people who live in places of their own are in cohousing communities or other 21st-century versions of village life; when they walk outside their door, people who want to be neighborly are all around them. Some people who want a place of their own and community, too, move to apartment buildings where they already have family or friends. Many people who live alone are in cities, where opportunities for socializing abound. Even those solo dwellers, who really are physically isolated, still have ample opportunity to stay in touch with others. Advances in communication technology have made that routine.

Typically, people who live alone are not socially isolated.

As Eric Klinenberg pointed out in Going Solo, people who live alone participate in public events, civic groups, and informal activities more often than people who live with others. They also go to restaurants more often and take more art and music classes.

Single people are, in many important ways, more socially connected than married people. I’ve discussed that here at Living Single many times, and I did get to review some of the relevant research in my shorter article. So here, I will just underscore a few things.

First, when people such as Professor Holt-Lunstad express special concern about single people who have never been married, they have it exactly wrong. Those single people are even better at creating and maintaining ties with other people than are single people who were once married.

Second, as young people are staying single longer (or for life), they are not blowing off their family members. For example, today’s young adults are closer to their parents than their Boomer parents were to their parents.

Third, far from showing “no concern for the wants and needs of others,” single people are especially likely to be there for the people who need them. They help with the smaller tasks of everyday life, as well as the more daunting challenges of caring for people who are ill or disabled.

By getting involved in their communities, and tending to friends and neighbors and relatives, single people and solo dwellers are not devaluing family, but redefining it in bigger, broader terms. They are building bulwarks against loneliness. 

People who value their freedom are not putting their well-being at risk.

If living alone or staying single can’t be blamed for loneliness in contemporary life, then what about the embrace of individualistic values? It is true, as Christine Emba suggested, that individualistic values are on the rise, and not just in Western nations. It is also true that people who are not married care about values such as freedom and creativity more than married people do. But that’s not making them miserable. In fact, a study of 31 nations showed that people who cared more about individualistic values were happier. And people who were not married got more happiness out of their individualistic values than people who were married.

Beyond social ties: Other ways that people dodge loneliness.

Because loneliness is about the gap between the interpersonal relationships we wish we had and the ones we actually do have, it makes sense that scholars have focused on the quantity and quality of our social ties. But it may also be worth considering the role of other kinds of factors that make life meaningful and engaging. For example, people who find their work absorbing may be less likely to feel lonely, even if they work from home, while they are all alone. Similarly, people who have passionate pursuits, whether athletic or creative or scientific or religious or in any other domain, may also have little room for loneliness in their lives. That may be true even if their pursuits are solitary ones, such as solo running or painting.

Maybe it is relevant that, on average, single people care more about having work that is meaningful than married people do. And in a study that compared lifelong single people to married people over a five-year period, the single people experienced more personal growth.

Solitude may be more important to us than we’ve realized.

Our preoccupation with loneliness has too often left us oblivious to an important truth: For those who love their own space, solo living can be profoundly fulfilling.

I’m a social psychologist, and the most fundamental insight from my field is the power of other humans. The mere presence of other people changes us. They get in our heads and under our skin, sometimes for better and other times for worse. They steal a sliver of our mental space. All alone in a place of our own, we get to think with our whole mind.

Solitude, scholars are learning, is good for creativity, contemplation, relaxation, rejuvenation, spirituality, and personal growth. As the demands of work jump the boundaries of 9-to-5, and bids for attention vibrate in our pockets, the lure of a space that is solely our own — even if it is not an entire home — is perhaps even more seductive than it has ever been before.

People who crave alone time have been caricatured as narrow-minded oddballs, but contemporary research shows that stereotype to be wrong. People who enjoy being alone have some positive personality characteristics. For example, they are less neurotic and more open and imaginative than those who don’t like spending time alone.

Valuing alone time is now commonplace. In a Pew study, 85 percent of Americans said it was important to have times when they were completely alone, and the same number said that it was important not to be disturbed at home. In another study, in which young adults (25 to 39 years old) described their main sources of enjoyment, having time to themselves ranked first.

Maybe we should not think of spending time alone and having satisfying relationships as two different things. Although I can’t point to any relevant research, my guess is that people who have time and space to themselves (such as those who live alone) may be better at fostering meaningful relationships with others because of it. Maybe taking the time to relax and recharge, alone, is not a threat to close relationships, but a boon to them.

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