The pain of feeling lonely and the pleasures of solitude

Let’s look at the crucial difference between feeling alone and lonely.

Since the start of the COVID-19 crisis, many people have been reflecting on the impact of the pandemic on mental health. And the questions frequently focus on the impact of the crisis on feeling lonely. This is an important topic to consider, as the research literature indicates that feeling alone can be a risk factor for mental health problems, including depression, substance abuse, and suicide.

There are serious fears that the pandemic could cause an epidemic of loneliness. Lockdowns and other restrictions have sometimes separated people, places, and social activities that give purpose and meaning to our lives. This can be especially painful for those who are used to a rich and varied social life, such as gregarious extroverts and social singles.

With that said, it’s important to note that there is a crucial difference between being alone and being lonely. For some, being alone involves alienation and suffering, especially when such loneliness is unwanted. This existential pain is encompassed in the expression “feeling alone”. However, for others, being alone represents a desirable time of comfort and reassurance. This existential pleasure is encompassed in the word solitude. This is especially appreciated by those who are shy, introverted, and socially anxious.

The important difference between feeling lonely and loneliness is overlooked in current debates about mental health, with much discussion of the pain of loneliness, but little of the pleasure of loneliness. It is a missed opportunity. A reconceptualization of loneliness as a beneficial gift rather than a heavy burden can be helpful for individuals and society during this COVID-19 crisis.

The benefits of solitude

Loneliness has been recognized as an important facilitator of psychological growth and spiritual renewal by writers and thinkers throughout the ages. Three particular elements of loneliness have been identified as providing spiritual and psychological benefits, and practicing these elements can be helpful for those struggling with loneliness.

Loneliness gives time and space for reflection and introspection on the course and path of life. This includes thinking about work, relationships, and larger questions of purpose and meaning. Loneliness allows us to question ourselves: our decisions, our options, our future. Such reflection can be practiced formally, through activities such as meditation or prayer, or informally through other solitary activities. It can provide a much-needed pause for reflection in a busy world, and it is the impetus behind the popular concept of retirement, practiced by religious and non-religious groups.

Loneliness can inspire rewarding creativity in both thought and action. By definition, activities such as writing, composing music, and other creative arts usually perform best in solitude. Dozens of people have contacted me in recent months to share stories of new or intensified creative activities that have brought them great pleasure during the pandemic. This includes hands-on activities such as crochet, painting, and indoor gardening, and more cerebral activities including writing poetry, composing music, and scripting a play.

Loneliness can make it easier to appreciate things in life that we may have taken for granted; the people, places, and social spaces we usually visit. Paradoxically, this separation can foster stronger bonds, teaching us what we miss and what we value in life. The philosopher Paul Tillich affirmed that “love is reborn through solitude”, while the theologian Dietrich Bonheoffer (writing to a dear friend in prison) affirmed that “this emptiness, as long as it remains empty, preserves the bonds between us”. Both clearly saw the effect of renewal and reconnection of loneliness.

The COVID-19 pandemic was thrown at us with little warning, so many of us were ill-prepared for the forced loneliness resulting from the lockdowns. Undoubtedly, this will lead to periods of loneliness, which can adversely affect mental health. That said, loneliness can be exploited in a positive way through the activities described above, a fact long known to introverts around the world.

Loneliness can be your friend. Get to know her and you might be surprised.

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