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.
From a spiritual perspective, we can reframe this uncertainty as part of life. The Buddhist path teaches us to accept each moment as if we’ve chosen it. The more we resist the present moment, the more we suffer. Of course, if we’ve recently lost someone, this is a reasonable cause for suffering. If a relationship has recently dissolved, it is natural for us to suffer for a time. Solitary confinement is torturous to those in prison, but Nelson Mandela managed to work through his suffering to preach reconciliation.
Because many of us are enduring restrictions from the pandemic, we are not alone in our suffering. Therefore, although we can’t control how long we’ll be restricted, we can recognize any discomfort we feel in our aloneness and work through it. We suffer twice when we resist or deny what’s going on inside.
As technology connects us more and more, it’s important for us to reconnect with ourselves. This requires us to spend some time alone with ourselves, away from distractions that pull our minds hither and thither.
Thich Nhat Hanh believes that solitude is something that’s become increasingly more important to learn. He suggests for us to practice being alone each day in order for us to nourish ourselves. When we honor time with ourselves, this makes us more available emotionally, physically, and mentally with others. He writes that in solitude, we come home to ourselves:
Our true home is what the Buddha called the island of self, the peaceful place inside of us. Oftentimes we don’t notice it’s there; we don’t even really know where we are, because our outer or inner environment is filled with noise. We need some quietness to find that island of self.4
When we choose to be alone every once in a while, we practice ways to comfort ourselves. We learn and adapt to being alone so that we don’t panic when we encounter situations where being alone isn’t our choice, such as during a worldwide pandemic.
1. Sook Ning Chua & Richard Koestner (2008) A Self-Determination Theory Perspective on the Role of Autonomy in Solitary Behavior, The Journal of Social Psychology, 148:5, 645-648, DOI: 10.3200/SOCP.148.5.645-648
2. Zyl, C.J.J.v., Dankaert, E. & Guse, T. Motivation for Solitude: A Cross-Cultural Examination of Adolescents from Collectivist and Individualist Cultures in South Africa. J Child Fam Stud 27, 697–706 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10826-017-0916-0
3. Larson, R. (1997). The Emergence of Solitude as a Constructive Domain of Experience in Early Adolescence. Child Development, 68(1), 80-93. doi:10.2307/1131927
4. Hanh, Silence, p. 147