Solitude vs. loneliness
Do you like being alone?
Do you feel lonely?
The pandemic over the last two years – dominated by social distancing, working from home, quarantine and isolation – has resulted in us suddenly being alone more often. Maybe it has also led us to deal with the issue of loneliness and solitude more than ever before. Although most of us will experience feelings of loneliness at some point in our lives, loneliness is still a taboo subject in our society and considered a matter of shame. Why is that? And what exactly is loneliness? Or, when am I lonely, and when am I just alone? We want to answer these questions here.
What is loneliness and how is it different from being alone?
Even though the meanings seem very similar at first glance, they can be unequivocally distinguished from each other. Being alone is a situation in which the given person has no others physically present with them. For example, if you go for a walk in the woods on your own, or sit on your own on your sofa in your living room, then you are alone – but not necessarily lonely. Being alone, then, is frequently a choice that has been made. This means that you mostly consciously choose such situations, because you need some time to yourself or want to withdraw a little.
By contrast, loneliness is a feeling, an emotion. If you feel lonely, you feel misunderstood and cut off from the world. Nobody seems to be interested in you. In many cases, loneliness hides an unsatisfied need for contact and belonging. However, whether you are with people or not makes no difference here. It’s entirely possible to feel lonely even when, physically speaking, you’re not alone. Another important difference from solitude is the involuntary nature of loneliness. You want to belong, to connect with other people, and yet none of your existing relationships seems to meet this need, or you have no relationship that could meet the need. Loneliness is often accompanied by a feeling of helplessness. Although it’s pretty certain that all of us will become familiar with loneliness at some point in life, hardly anyone talks about it. In our society, loneliness is an invisible emotion. Why is that? One reason is that, all too often, loneliness is incorrectly seen as a personal problem. If you feel lonely, that’s effectively a failing on your part. With these thoughts in the back of their mind, nobody’s going to admit to feeling lonely. What’s more, loneliness doesn’t usually become apparent immediately. The people affected withdraw more and more, and in a way become invisible and inaudible. Loneliness isn’t always easy to recognise from the outside.
Are you familiar with feelings of loneliness? Or maybe you have observed it in others? How many of us feel lonely? What do you think?
How lonely do we feel?
The Swiss Health Survey carried out in 2017 found that approximately 39% of people in Switzerland sometimes or frequently feel lonely. That is a huge number. And now consider that the survey took place before the Covid-19 pandemic. Loneliness is often associated with older people. Younger people are also affected, but this is the last thing that people think of. In actual fact, the numbers show that the group aged between 15 and 24 has the highest percentage – a huge 48%. As age increases, loneliness seems to drop slightly (up to 32% of people aged 65+). This could be because younger people experience a lot of upheavals in life. You leave the family home, possibly move far away and start your working life. The consequence is a lot of changes in your social network. The network later restabilises. Some people start their own families, or live with a partner. The feeling of loneliness can vary hugely depending on life situation.
Although it drops slightly as age increases, the still high percentage must not be underestimated. After all, approximately a third of Swiss people feel lonely sometimes or often!
«None of us is immune to feelings of isolation. »
− John Cacioppo –
Loneliness has many faces and affects us all!
What does loneliness do to us?
Human beings are social animals and social relationships contribute to our mental and physical health, particularly in stressful situations. As a result, loneliness frequently affects us negatively. Loneliness is stressful, and stress, in turn, increases the blood pressure, which raises the risk of a number of illnesses (e.g., cardiovascular conditions). The immune system is weakened; infections and cancer become more likely. Brain scans have shown that loneliness activates the same areas of the brain as physical pain. As well as causing or facilitating physical suffering, loneliness also affects our mental health. Loneliness is associated with depression, reduced wellbeing, anxiety and insomnia.
By contrast, being alone can be entirely positive. You can use the time / situation to analyse yourself, become aware of your own needs and create new strength. Withdrawing consciously, taking a break, can be highly beneficial.
«Solitude is a good place to visit, but a poor place to stay.»
- Henry Wheeler Shaw -
How can I counteract loneliness? – Help and advice
- As we are all affected by loneliness, it’s important to listen – for all of us. How are the people around us? How do they feel?
- Talk about your feelings. Not just about the positive feelings, but also when things aren’t so good, or when you feel lonely. Contribute to destigmatising loneliness. Talking about it doesn’t just help, it also makes connections. And don’t forget: you are not alone!
- Do things you enjoy. What sort of activities bring you joy? Is there maybe a group of people in your area who do this activity together? Take the first step, and join them.
- Get in touch with the people around you. Write someone a message, or give them a call.
- Accept support.
You can find specialist organisations and services on the following links:
- Mein Ohr für Dich – einfach mal reden!
- Nationale und regionale Anlaufstellen (Pro Senectute)
- Soli – für junge Menschen
Bundesamt für Statistik. (2019, 19 August). Einsamkeitsgefühl. Schweizerische Eidgenossenschaft. https://www.bfs.admin.ch/bfs/de/home/statistiken/bevoelkerung/migration-integration/integrationindikatoren/indikatoren/einsamkeitsgefuehl.html
Courtin, E., & Knapp, M. (2017). Social isolation, loneliness and health in old age: a scoping review. Health & social care in the community, 25(3), 799-812. https://doi.org/10.1111/hsc.12311
Cacioppo, J. T., Hawkley, L. C., Crawford, L. E., Ernst, J. M., Burleson, M. H., Kowalewski, R. B., Malarkey, B., Van Cauter, E., & Berntson, G. G. (2002). Loneliness and health: Potential mechanisms. Psychosomatic medicine, 64(3), 407-417.
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