Loneliness

The Pain of Loneliness and the Pleasure of Solitude

Examining the crucial difference between loneliness and solitude.

Posted Oct 21, 2020

Since the start of the COVID-19 crisis, I have received dozens of calls from journalists seeking my opinion on the mental health impact of the pandemic. These calls typically cover various topics, but frequently focus on the crisis' impact on loneliness. This is an important topic to consider, given that the research literature indicates that loneliness can be a risk factor for adverse mental health outcomes including depression, substance misuse, and suicide.

Indeed, there are serious concerns that the pandemic may be causing an epidemic of loneliness. Lockdowns and other restrictions have sometimes caused separation from the people, places, and social activities that give our life purpose and meaning. This may be particularly painful for those accustomed to a rich and varied social life, such as gregarious extroverts and social singletons.

That said, it is important to note that there is a crucial difference between being alone and being lonely. For some, being alone entails alienation and suffering, especially when such aloneness is unwanted. This existential pain is encompassed in the word loneliness. However, for others, being alone represents a desirable time of comfort and solace. This existential pleasure is encompassed in the word solitude. This is particularly appreciated by those who are shy, introverted, and socially anxious

The important difference between loneliness and solitude is being overlooked in current debates about mental health, with much talk of the pain of loneliness, but little of the pleasure of solitude. This is a missed opportunity. Indeed, a reconceptualization of aloneness as a beneficial gift rather than a heavy burden may be helpful for individuals and society as a whole during this COVID-19 crisis.

The Benefits of Solitude

Solitude has been recognized as an important facilitator of psychological growth and spiritual renewal by writers and thinkers through the ages. Three particular elements of solitude have been identified as imparting spiritual and psychological benefits, and practicing these elements may be helpful for those struggling with aloneness.

  1. Solitude gives time and space for reflection and introspection on the course and path of life. This includes reflection on work, relationships, and wider issues of purpose and meaning. Solitude allows us to ask questions of ourselves: our decisions, our options, our future. Such reflection can be practiced formally, through activities such as meditation or prayer, or informally through other solitary activities. This can give much-needed pause for thought in a busy world, and is the impetus behind the popular concept of a retreat, practiced by religious and non-religious groups alike.
  2. Solitude can inspire rewarding creativity in both thinking and action. By definition, activities such as writing, musical composition, and other creative arts typically occur best in solitude. Indeed, dozens of people have contacted me in recent months to share stories of new or intensified creative activities that have brought them much pleasure during the pandemic. This includes practical activities such as crocheting, painting, and indoor gardening, as well as more cerebral activities including writing poetry, composing music, and scripting a play.
  3. Solitude can facilitate the appreciation of things in life that we may have taken for granted; the people, the places, and the social spaces that we habitually frequent. Somewhat paradoxically, this separation can foster stronger connections, teaching us what we miss and what we value in life. Indeed, philosopher Paul Tillich stated that "love is reborn through solitude," while theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (writing to a dear friend from prison) stated that "this gap, as long as it remains unfilled, preserves the bonds between us." Both clearly perceived the renewing and reconnecting effect of solitude.

The COVID-19 pandemic was thrust upon us with little warning, so many of us were ill-prepared for the enforced aloneness resulting from lockdowns and confinements. Indubitably, this will result in periods of loneliness, which can negatively affect mental health. That said, the aloneness can be harnessed in a positive manner through the activities outlined above, a fact long-known by introverts across the world.

As I tell the journalists who call me, solitude can be your friend. Get to know it, and you may be surprised.

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