For the past few years, we’ve been told that loneliness is a public health crisis, as damaging as smoking 15 cigarettes each day. The messaging is that we’re people—people who need people—and spending too much time by ourselves is a major problem. Oh, but at the same time, apparently we’re all introverts now, and socializing with others is exhausting. So which is it?
Turns out, it can be both, because “loneliness” and “being alone” are two completely different concepts. Here’s what sets them apart, and why having a better understanding of what each term means can help.
Loneliness versus being alone
Given the quarantining, physical distancing, and self-isolating we’ve been doing for the past few months, the assumption has been that those who live alone must feel lonely. And while that may be the case for some people, it’s not for others, who feel as though they’re constantly surrounded by friends, family, and co-workers, even if it’s virtually. The two concepts are not mutually exclusive. Let’s take a look at what each of them means.
In an article in MindBodyGreen, Dr. Margaret Paul provides this explanation: Loneliness is the feeling you get when you want to connect with someone, such as your partner, and either there is no one to connect with, or your partner is unavailable for connection.
Writing for Psychology Today, Dr. Eglantine Julle-Daniere notes that being alone is “the physical state of not being with another individual, might it be human or animal,” while loneliness is a “psychological state characterized by a distressing experience occurring when one’s social relationships are (self-)perceived to be less in quantity and quality than desired.”
In other words, it’s when the social contact you have at a given time isn’t fulfilling for you. And if you are alone right now, Julle-Daniere suggests using this time as a chance to refocus on yourself, your needs, and on what makes you feel good. “It is a time to use to identify which people you want to connect with [and] what hobbies you want to pick up,” she writes.
The big takeaway
What we see here is that you could spend most (or all) of your time alone, but not feel lonely—or, you could be constantly surrounded by people and experience loneliness all the time. Understanding the difference between the two may help you better cope with your current situation.