What’s the difference between being on your own in a state of solitude versus, feeling isolated and lonely? The answer is a bit tricky, because if “alone time” becomes too frequent and for increasing periods of time, it can become isolation and thus, loneliness.
Confusion about being alone and being lonely stems from our being conditioned to believe that they are one-and-the-same. Sara Maitland, author of How to be Alone, explains:
“By sending children to their rooms as punishment, we teach them the idea that aloneness is a privation. It should be a reward. It should be: ‘You’ve been so good that now you can go to your room to be by yourself and do anything you like!’”
This makes perfect sense. We’re taught (or led) to believe that being alone is a punishment — sort of like being banished from family and society. Kids love to play and watch TV, so for them, being cut-off from fun, friends and family, does seem like a harsh punishment.
So how do we know the difference?
Does being alone make you feel lonely? Can one enjoy alone time, but find that if it large doses, it leads to sadness? Maitland explains in her book that “loneliness is simply being alone and not liking it.”
But, this is where it gets a bit tricky. New studies have concluded that loneliness is almost at epidemic proportions in many parts of the world. The elderly are increasingly alone and as “social” media proves to be anything but social, people are spending hours a day online, devoid of any real human interaction.
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“Being connected to others socially is widely considered a fundamental human need — crucial to both well-being and survival. Extreme examples show infants in custodial care who lack human contact fail to thrive and often die, and indeed, social isolation or solitary confinement has been used as a form of punishment,” said Julianne Holt-Lunstad, PhD, professor of psychology at Brigham Young University. “Yet an increasing portion of the U.S. population now experiences isolation regularly.”
Approximately 42.6 million adults over age 45 in the United States are estimated to be suffering from chronic loneliness, according to AARP’s Loneliness Study. In addition, the most recent U.S. census data shows more than a quarter of the population lives alone, more than half of the population is unmarried and, since the previous census, marriage rates and the number of children per household have declined. – American Psychological Association
Author Sara Maitland doesn’t believe loneliness is an epidemic however, and she explains that we are ‘under-skilled when’ it comes to being by ourselves, and that those necessary skills were never taught to us as children.
“Everybody says it is natural for the human species to be social, yet we put enormous amounts of effort into training our children to be sociable. We tell them, ‘don’t fight, say thank you, share your toys… ’, we send them to playgroup. We’re depriving them of the skills for being alone.” – Sara Maitland
Maitland also believes that “there is something weird” about cultures that encourage extroverted high self-esteem, yet discourage us from spending time with the person we ought to like best — ourselves.
This is why it’s tricky
Sara Maitland makes excellent points and her book is definitely worth the read. I wonder though, have we become so confused by the thought of being alone, that we miss the signs that tell us the difference between “alone time” and that dreaded feeling of being isolated and cut-off?
When we think about the shy person or the elderly who sit home alone most of their day, shouldn’t we ask ourselves “gee, I wonder if they’re lonely?” But, when we think about the dynamic person who works, has a family and balances an active social life, don’t we think “gee, I bet they would love to get away by themselves for a few weeks!”
Personally, I do like some alone time, but I also know that when that time becomes too long, I start to feel sad and isolated and I wonder if anyone is thinking about me, or if I’m just truly alone.
If ever we should wonder if a person is lonely, it’s really our duty to make sure they’re not. Reaching out to the long-term isolated and solitary can make all the difference in the world to them — it lets them know that someone is thinking of them and that they’re not alone in this world. And if we feel sad and lonely for too long, we owe it to ourselves to seek out professional help. Loneliness does appear to be an epidemic, but fortunately, its also one we can cure with love and friendship.
“Lonely is not being alone, it’s the feeling that no one cares.” – Unknown