We have entered what is hopefully a short-term period of social distancing. Why hopefully only brief? Because we need each other. We are social animals that, as social psychologists Roy Baumeister and Mark Leary document, need to belong to social groups to survive and thrive. The global recommendations of social distancing seem necessary; yet we must understand the social implications.
The Unprecedented Challenge of Loneliness
Loneliness has become the suffering of our generation. According to a Cigna study released earlier this year, over three of every five Americans are lonely (as measured by the UCLA Loneliness Scale)—the highest level in recorded history. Our average number of close friends with whom we can talk about important issues has shrunk from three to two, with over 25 percent of respondents reporting they have no close friends whatsoever with whom to discuss what matters to them.
Imagine how these people—a quarter of the U.S. population—are now feeling, even more isolated than before, with in-person social opportunities now stripped away from them, for many along with their jobs. The social costs, then, of further isolating already isolated people, which has already begun to affect many of us, must be understood so we can compensate for them with social benefits.
Loneliness versus Solitude
To discover these benefits, it’s important to note that loneliness and solitude are not the same. As the Belgian-American poet and novelist May Sarton sagely discerned, “Loneliness is the poverty of self; solitude is the richness of self.” Another way to think about it is that social isolation is objective: If you are physically alone, you are isolated. Loneliness and solitude, however, are subjective. They are emotional states that emerge from how you perceive your social isolation.
Just as one person’s trash is another’s treasure, two people can each be physically alone and one can experience devastating feelings of rejection and abandonment while the other can feel an ineffable wholeness and oneness with the world independent of—or interdependent with—the other people in their life.
In fact, believe it or not, the same person can feel both in the same day; such is the ephemeral nature of emotions. The existential philosopher and theologian Paul Tillich put it this way: “Language ... has created the word ‘loneliness’ to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word ‘solitude’ to express the glory of being alone.”
This distinction between loneliness and solitude is a perennial issue human beings have been managing for centuries. Yet thanks to our phones and other devices—and now social distancing—we seem to be edging toward a collective loneliness unlike any we have ever experienced.
Revitalize Your Relationships, Beginning with Your Relationship with Yourself
So what can we do about it? Here are a few strategies to shift from loneliness to solitude and social engagement during these tough times. (For more, see my new book, Screened In: The Art of Living Free in the Digital Age.)
- Take an inner detour. Like grief, remorse, anxiety, and all other negative emotions, with loneliness there is no way out, only a way through. Take some time each day to meditate or go for a walk and reflect on your life and what gives it value. If you cannot leave your home, cut a path through your house, apartment, backyard, or balcony; let the quarantine become the genesis of innovation in your life.
- Invite your loneliness over for dinner. Have a conversation with your loneliness. Literally say to it, “So, I see that you’re here. What can I do for you? I’d like to learn from you.” Ask it why it has shown up in your life. As Spinoza once wrote, “Emotion, which is suffering, ceases to be suffering as soon as we form a clear and precise picture of it.” If you can better understand why you feel lonely, you are less likely to suffer from it. Then you will be ready to …
- Value your social gold. Returning a text takes a few seconds and is a meager reciprocal social act; returning a call is a more significant investment in a relationship. Over time, the people who return and initiate calls, and (in normal times) collaborate to parlay those calls into in-person meetings, become the friends we need in the digital age. These people become our most coveted social resource, our social gold. The people who enable us to revitalize our social life. The people standing between us and the formidable, ever-encircling tentacles of loneliness. Once you begin to value the people in your life who reciprocate and desire a relationship with you …
- Just connect. Begin to use your phone as … imagine it … a phone. Reach out to someone you love and care about but haven’t spoken with in a while. And why haven’t you spoken? Because you both have fallen prey to perhaps the greatest social illusion of our time: that you are so important because there is a constant queue of people trying to reach you via a sentence or two of electronic text.
Most importantly, develop your own strategies in these socially-distanced times to regain your sense of self and what you value. Then leverage this newfound energy to transform your relationships into what you will need once we’re all interacting in person again to live the life you have imagined.