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Not All Who Are Alone Are Lonely

Particularly during the holidays, you’ll notice a lot of media regarding loneliness. They have good intentions, perhaps arousing sympathy for those who might have lost loved ones and are suddenly alone. Others will teach us ways to connect with others if we’re feeling lonely.

Granted, the pain of loneliness can have a significant impact on mental and physical health. When a loved one has left, the void that person had left can be devastating. In those cases, it makes sense for a person to grieve and find ways to cope with their loneliness.

In other cases, particularly if we live in big cities, we’re used to being around others. We crave social interaction. We love sharing our ideas and stories with others. When we find ourselves alone, we feel uncomfortable. We panic, trying to find ways to quiet the disquiet. We consume media and distract ourselves to take our loneliness away.

COVID-19 has amplified the craving to be with others, particularly when large gatherings were prohibited and we became more isolated. A recent study of single women living alone during the pandemic found that they longed for spontaneous, physical interactions with others. Another study of single, female academics found that forced solitude made them uncomfortable with the silence. They also regretted their being single and felt more lonely.

However, not all who are alone are lonely, even during a pandemic.

I seem to be one of the few people who is thriving right now. I really don’t miss contact with others. It’s not like I’m a sociopath who hates people. I also don’t suffer from agoraphobia. I just don’t like a lot of noise. Too much distraction impedes my ability to concentrate.

Studies have found that many people do prefer some time in solitude, even extroverts. What seems to be the factor of resistance is the degree of autonomy. If we choose to be alone, we seem to be more at ease with it and feel less lonely.⁠1 We choose how long we want to spend by ourselves. However, studies have found⁠2 that adolescents in individualistic cultures are less likely to choose solitude than those in collectivist cultures, even if this time alone is important for psychological development⁠3.

If we’re compelled by external factors—such as a break-up, a death, a prison sentence, or a pandemic—we are uncomfortable being alone. We lack control over the circumstances, and this bothers us. This uncertainty points to our lack of freedom or autonomy of the situation, and negative outcomes such as loneliness can result.