Loneliness needs to be celebrated. We are all familiar with the pang of loneliness, but few of us are aware of its perks. Despite the stigma associated with loneliness, it may be one of the greatest contributors to creativity, productivity, spirituality, empathy, and, paradoxically, to relationship building.
Some of history’s most admired figures— Leonardo di Vinci, Shakespeare, Jesus—would be seen as lonely in today’s terms. “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,” according to Theologian Paul Tillich, who sees the duality of being alone.
Our Growing Sense of Loneliness
As a nation, we appear to be getting lonelier. Ironically, as we have become more and more connected through social media, the lonelier we have become. The latest Census figures show that 31 million Americans are living alone, which accounts for nearly 10 percent of the US population and one quarter of all US households.
And recent studies reveal that chronic loneliness has increased dramatically over the last decades. In the 1970s and 1980s, the percentage of Americans who regularly felt lonely was between 11- 20 percent. By 2010, it had increased to 40 – 45 percent, according to a nationally representative study by the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP).
A 2016 Harris Poll found that 72 percent of Americans admit to feeling lonely at least once a week.
Whether it is chronic or occasional, most people feel the pang of loneliness. Social scientists believe that part of people’s painful reactions to loneliness is due to the social stigma that modern psychology has attached to it. Those who suffer from loneliness often see themselves as social defectives.
Solitude is loneliness’ happier cousin
Although both describe a state of being alone, the difference between loneliness and solitude is choice. When people make the conscious choice to be alone, they experience solitude. When being alone is not a choice, people experience loneliness. Loneliness implies an undesirable state whereas solitude suggests a desirable one.
As you know from my previous blogs, I see relationships with others as being one of the most crucial facets of life. As human beings, we are built for relationships. They have the power to make us more emotionally mature, revealing to us our blind spots and the areas in our life where we have problems giving or receiving love.
Yet, psychologists are also realizing the need for time alone to nourish a balanced life. Twitter, Facebook, and SnapChat are wonderful for social snacking, but we need the nourishment of solitude in order to sustain a healthy lifestyle, which includes the demands of work, family, and friendships.
The Benefits of Solitude
- Solitude can infuse relationships with freshness. Time alone from loved ones spent reading, playing music, completing projects, or exploring new ideas can breathe fresh life into a tired relationship.
- Solitude allows us to recharge our batteries. This is truer for introverts than extroverts, but everyone needs time alone with their thoughts and feelings.
- Solitude provides us with the focus to problem solve. The corporate model of teaming can increase productivity, but it comes at a cost for those who may feel marginalized. This outside or minority voice is often silenced when it would appear to go against the prevailing grain of group thinking.
- Solitude fosters productivity. There are vocations that require time alone. Artists, writers, musicians, and others require solitude in order to create.
- Solitude is especially important for teens. They need time alone from self-consciousness and peer pressure to develop their own sense of personal identity.
- Solitude deepens our desire for connectedness with others. Although this seems paradoxical, we need time alone in order to greater cherish the time we have with loved ones.
- Solitude gives us the inner space to improve our conscious contact with God. Prayer and meditation require freedom from distractions.
If we can recognize that being alone is a part of a balanced life, maybe we could shift our perspective on loneliness. When we become aware that being alone is not always the personal crisis that we were taught to believe, then we can embrace our loneliness, dispel some of the negative emotions associated with it, and see it for the benefits it can bring to us. In fact, if we apply its benefits, loneliness may even become a friend. Then loneliness becomes solitude.