Loneliness or Solitude?
“There are days when solitude is heady wine that intoxicates you, others when it is a bitter tonic, and still others when it is a poison that makes you beat your head against the wall”
I write this piece while sat, to all intents and purposes, alone.
There is no one else in the apartment, the TV is off and I haven’t spoken out aloud for several hours. There is no noise or sound other than the clattering tap of my fingers energetically hitting the keyboard in front of me.
This experience is one that I have encountered many times before, though it was only quite recently I came to consider the strange loneliness of it all.
In psychiatry we spend a great deal of time thinking about a person’s context- family, friends, colleagues, other social contacts, links with external society. All of this contributes to our understanding of an individual’s situation which is vital in order to practice holistic care. Thus, in this way thinking about social connectedness is not new. In fact, the way in which many of us interact with each other has changed so dramatically over the last few decades, with the creation of social media and other instant messaging platforms; it’s almost, nearly impossible to truly be ‘alone’.
Yet we do live in an age where approximately 1 in 20 adults report feeling lonely ‘often’ or ‘always’ and young people describe feeling lonely more often than older adults (Office for National Statistics; 2018). Figures like these are concerning, particularly given the already established mental and physical health consequences associated with loneliness (Beutel et al; 2017); highlighting a need for careful unpicking.
Related to this lies another consideration that from clinical practice really does seem relevant to the discussion. I ask this, is the person who actively seeks an empty room lonely? Well, this depends on knowing more about the situation but it does raise an important point about the way we see and subsequently understand each other.
Throughout history many artists, philosophers, spiritual leaders and scientists have contemplated what it means to be lonely, and there has been lively debate around it. What seems unanimous however is that loneliness amounts to a negative emotional state, one in which there is a sense of something missing. As I, and you, may well have noticed it is completely possible to be surrounded by a group of people and still feel lonely.
This does differ however to another state that at first glance might be perceived as loneliness; solitude. The Oxford English Dictionary defines solitude as “the state or situation of being alone/ a lonely or uninhabited place’. Now this doesn’t do very much to help distinguish solitude from loneliness, but what does seem clear from research and clinical practice is that certain self imposed states of isolation, can be beneficial to our wellbeing. In this sense, solitude is best described as a positive and constructive way of being with oneself. A little like being alone without being lonely.
Learning to be alone and feeling ok about it is an important aspect of our emotion regulation development - something I hope to write more about soon.
If you experience loneliness and you think it is affecting your mental health, please consider speaking to a healthcare professional. Check out this page from Mind for more information.
Colette. (1966). Earthly paradise: An autobiography (H. Briffault et al., Trans.). New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. (2018). Community Life Survey 2016-2017. London.
Beutel, M., Klein, E., Brähler, E., Reiner, I., Jünger, C., Michal, M., . . . Tibubos, A. (2017). Loneliness in the general population: Prevalence, determinants and relations to mental health. BMC Psychiatry, 17(1), 97