Solitude and loneliness

Former US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has written a book that argues that loneliness is a serious problem in the US and its negative effects are taking a physical toll on people as well, not just an emotional one. Although he wrote his book before the pandemic broke, the topic has considerable resonance now.

Murthy begins his story by detailing his travels across the U.S., where as surgeon general he encountered a disturbing theme: “There was something about our disconnection from one another that was making people’s lives worse than they had to be.” The stories weren’t always easy to unearth; many people were embarrassed by how they felt. “This shame,” he writes, “was particularly acute in professional cultures, like law and medicine, that promote independent strength as a virtue.”

The measures taken to combat the pandemic have hit hardest those who have had loved ones die, become sick, lost their income and jobs, or otherwise experienced irreversible and tangible losses. But many people are also suffering psychological losses because the physical distancing, sheltering in place, and quarantine measures to combat the pandemic have all greatly reduced the amount of direct personal contact that people have with their families, loved ones, friends, and others. Some find that phone calls, emails, and videochats are not adequate substitutes.

One in four households in the US has just a single person living in it. It also appears that 22% of Americans feel “totally and utterly alone”. But we should not assume perfect or even substantial overlap between those two groups. Living alone is different from being lonely and solitude is different from loneliness. Solitude is often a desired state while loneliness is not. There are those like me who do not find solitude oppressive and indeed enjoy it. Our need for direct physical contact with others is minimal and easily met even under these austere conditions. Being alone does not bother such people.

The situation is very different for those who thrive in and from the company of others. It is a cliché that one can be alone without being lonely and one can be lonely without being alone and this period of enforced isolation has resulted in many articles such as this one by Thuy-vy Nguyen that have studied the problems that enforced solitude can bring and also about what it can be good for and how it can be an opportunity to take stock of one’s life even for those who do not seek it.

In one series of studies, we looked at how people’s emotions changed after spending time alone. We measured positive emotions associated with high arousal, such as excitement and energisation, and positive emotions that are low in arousal, such as calmness and relaxation; we also measured high-arousal negative emotions, such as anger and anxiety, and low-arousal negative emotions, such as loneliness and sadness. By covering both poles of what psychologists call ‘affective valence’ (positive vs negative) and ‘affective arousal’ (high vs low), we demonstrated that time spent alone offers a unique opportunity for ‘arousal regulation’ – that is, both positive and negative forms of high arousal drop lower when we spend time alone. We called this the ‘deactivation effect’.

While the deactivation effect was consistent across all the solitude and alone conditions that we devised, changes in low-arousal positive and negative affects depended on how motivated a person was to spend time alone. If volunteers embraced and enjoyed solitude for its benefits, they tended to experience an increase in positive low-arousal emotions – ie, to feel more relaxed and calm afterward – but if people didn’t value spending time alone, they were more likely to experience an increase in negative low-arousal emotions – ie, to feel sad and lonely.

This means that, in order to gain more from spending time alone, it is important to be open to the benefits that solitude can bring. For many people now experiencing restrictions on their movements and their social lives, it will be a lonely time; for some of us, it might be a chance to try experiencing the benefits of unexpected solitude. While it might not improve our life as a whole, it can make momentary bouts of negative emotions more bearable.

Time alone is an opportunity for us to hit the reset button, to calm our high-arousal emotions. During the time we spend alone, we also have the option to seek complete solitude, to drop our daily activities and find a space to attend to our thoughts and emotions.

Nguyen says that the key difference is not the one we normally associate with this phenomenon, between those whom we label as introverts and extroverts.

The answer depends on the individual but, surprisingly, not so much on whether you are an introvert or an extravert. Instead, our research shows that a healthy motivation for spending time alone is linked to a personality characteristic called ‘dispositional autonomy’, which describes people’s capacity to regulate their daily experiences at will. Essentially, this means that embracing solitude is more about having the ability to self-regulate your emotions than about how introverted you happen to be.

People with an autonomous personality feel that they have chosen to do what they’re doing, instead of seeing themselves as pawns at the mercy of the external environment. Having this approach to life is also about taking interest in every bit of your experience, trying out new experiences and exploring how you feel about them.

One thing that I have learned about myself during this period is how much I enjoy having a daily routine. Since I am retired and have no external demands on my time, there is absolutely no reason for me to do anything at any particular time. And yet, I tend to follow a fairly regular daily schedule when it comes to eating meals, reading, writing, taking walks, and other aspects of my daily life. I think that not having to decide when to do anything frees up my mind to think. Decision-making is time and energy consuming. The one variable that I leave completely free is the time I wake up. I hate waking up to an alarm. I like to wake up naturally and do so only when I feel rested, which is almost invariably between 8:00 am and 9:00 am, which is not surprising since I go to sleep around midnight.


  1. says

    Social overload and anxiety from that is a problem, too. I get positively antsy when I am around other people for more than 12 hours, and my mood becomes dangerous if I am trapped with people for more than a couple of days. I have to be very careful to make sure I have big blocks of time to myself.

    I know people for whom loneliness is a problem, and I assume it’s the inverse of what I feel. But I’ve had people tell me that they miss being around other humans, and all I can manage is a sort of sympathetic blank stare. I’ve also had experience with people who I consider “emotional vampires” -- people who would literally starve for lack of drama if they were alone for a couple of days. People like that are my kryptonite, because I used to sometimes have to deal with them -- now, being mostly retired, I can ignore them and seek comforting solitude.

  2. says

    PS -- I suspect that, historically and even today, loneliness is mostly a class privilege. From Mary Beard’s descriptions of life in ancient Rome, everyone was practically piled atop one another. That’s the same for a New Yorker.

  3. says

    Nothing really changed for me with the isolation because I was already socially isolated, and I’m handling it. I don’t want to be, and I’m not trying to judge people who are happy to be alone. Social anxiety sucks, though I think there’s an element of shunning a society I see as broken too.
    Trying to transform my personality into something with more overtly critical elements is also complicating things. Too many variables.

  4. says

    I’ve always been fine being alone at night and on weekends, but it wasn’t until this lock down how much I depended on work to be around other people.

  5. says

    One in four households in the US has just a single person living in it.

    Living with another person in one household doesn’t protect you from being lonely. For example, I am forced to live with my mother because of financial reasons (I cannot afford to rent an apartment). I can coexist with my mother, but I don’t like her as a person. She is transphobic and I have to live in a closet because of her. We have hardly any shared interests. I don’t talk with her except about practical matters, for example agreeing what foods I should bring from the grocery store or arranging our daily schedules. If my mother was the only person with whom I could talk, I would be extremely lonely. Instead it is my friends with whom I have meaningful relationships.

    If I had more money, I’d definitely want to live alone. I have lived alone, and that was amazing. I loved the freedom of not being tied to another person’s needs and daily routines. For me living alone is definitely better than living together with others, even if they are people whom I really like and enjoy spending time with.

    Marcus @#2

    I suspect that, historically and even today, loneliness is mostly a class privilege. From Mary Beard’s descriptions of life in ancient Rome, everyone was practically piled atop one another.

    Nope, not necessarily. If you are forced to share living space with people whom you don’t like, then that doesn’t prevent you from becoming lonely. Personally, I feel lonely unless I can interact with people with whom I have shared interests, and such people are a minority of human population.

  6. publicola says

    Well, at least I know what to call myself now: I’m a “dispositional autonome”. Yeah, I like being be myself, although I can enjoy human contact in small doses. Unfortunately, my wife is the exact opposite, which can be seriously challenging at times. But then, I’m no bowl of cherries, either. Andreas, I feel for you, truly. That’s a tough situation to be in. My old lady was tough to live with, even though she meant well. I loved her and I hated her. She’s been dead 19 yrs. and I still haven’t shed a tear, yet sometimes I do miss her. Ultimately, you have to play the hand you’re dealt, and she had all 2’s and 3’s. I hope you’re holding a wild card.

  7. Mano Singham says

    Andreas @#6,

    I am truly sorry to hear this. That is a very, very tough situation you are in. It is true that money cannot buy you happiness but it can help you escape from some difficult situations and I sincerely hope that day comes for you soon.

  8. says

    It’s not that bad. If I were desperate or unhappy, I would have gotten a real job and moved out a long time ago.

    My mother is willfully blind. For example, she is convinced that I wear male clothes, because I like how they have large and comfy pockets. Even if I tried to explain to her that I prefer to live as male, she wouldn’t take me seriously. So hiding from her the fact that I’m not a woman requires zero effort.

    I don’t hate my mother, it’s not her fault for being who she is because of all the poor parenting and cultural norms she was subjected to; it’s just that I don’t like her either. I can get along with her. But we only talk about practical matters and don’t spend time together unless it’s necessary. I can talk with her about what to cook for breakfast, but I have zero interest in talking with her about my hobbies or interests. We just don’t have an emotional bond or a deep relationship, but we can get along for practical purposes.

    I suspect that my situation is nothing unusual. Why would people be close to each other and have shared interests just because they happen to be relatives? I suspect that many parents and children have little in common and few shared interests, yet they are forced to live together for practical reasons.

    For human connection I prefer to instead pick friends whom I actually like and want to spend time with.

    Granted, I wouldn’t want to live with a friend either. Living alone is always better. The moment I have to spend too much time with a single person for too long, I just get bored of interacting with them. Even if they were a philosophy professor, I’d eventually get bored of always being with them.

    I have been able to maintain a relationship with my current sex partner for several years only because we don’t live together and meet only once or twice per week.

  9. Mano Singham says

    Andreas @#8,

    What you are describing is, as you say, not all that uncommon, not only between parents and children but also between spouses and partners who have long since ceased getting much pleasure from being together but due to various factors (sometimes it is just inertia) stay together because separating is seen as too difficult or complicated. The status quo is always the default option, the decision that people make that does not really seem like a decision.

  10. says

    The status quo is always the default option, the decision that people make that does not really seem like a decision.

    For me staying with my mother (I am 27 now) was an intentional decision. Alternative—get a real job in order to pay rent. Overall, I am better off being a self-employed artist.

    I intentionally chose a lifestyle that allows me to comfortably live with little income. I never eat meals in restaurants, I hardly ever buy clothes that aren’t secondhand. While traveling, I look for free couches or the cheapest accommodation I can find. And I live with my mother, because here I don’t have to pay rent. Of course, living with little income requires me to skip various pleasures other people take for granted. Still, I feel better this way. Having a full time job left me feeling perpetually tired and always busy. More importantly, I had very little free time for my hobbies—reading books, drawing, taking photos, or just going for walks. My current income is below average for the city in which I live. That’s OK. I decided that free time is worth more for me than extra spending money.

  11. Mano Singham says


    It looks like you are in charge of your life and not the victim of circumstances. I am happy for you. And relieved.

  12. says

    In life you usually cannot have it all. You have to choose and make sacrifices.

    Being poor is not fun. Last year I spent some time with a friend who has more money than I do, and I watched him casually buy some stuff on eBay from his mobile phone. Me, instead I agonize about every purchase I make. Before clicking on the “add to chart” button I spend hours if not days thinking about whether I really need this stuff. I never casually make purchases, even when the stuff is cheap.

    There are a lot of things that other people take for granted that I simply do not buy at all.

    And then there are those awkward moments when my friends want to go to a café and I’m like, “I don’t think I can afford to buy a cup of tea here.” Well, technically I could afford to spend a few euro at some café, but buying a drink feels wrong for me given how at home I could make an identical drink for only a few cents (water and tea leaves are cheap). Besides, if I make some small purchases regularly, the costs will add up. And I have better uses for this money.

    There’s life going on behind walls and closed doors. Experiences, which I will never feel for myself and about which I can only find out from YouTube videos. Spas, massage parlors, restaurants, cafés, concerts, conferences, etc. don’t even let you in unless you have money. When I’m in some city looking at buildings in the wealthy neighborhoods, I often wonder what is happening behind the wall and closed doors. I have been thinking that I’d like to learn horse riding or scuba diving, that I’d like to try various ethnic dishes, but none of that is possible without having money (which I don’t).

    Sometimes, I get glimpses of all these things. For example, in some European countries there are outdoor Christmas markets in which you can buy all kinds of tasty foods like gingerbread cookies, mulled wine, etc. I have walked past such places, sniffed all the tasty scents, looked at the price tags, and moved on.

    So yeah, being poor is no fun.

    And then there’s bitterness about how, under capitalism, unless you are a consumer, you are treated as a pest who would be better off dead. Some countries even try to outlaw poverty altogether. No sleeping on park benches, no tents on public property. Nobody wants you unless you are a paying customer.

    I guess people who do have money probably don’t feel that much better about this either. That person who made your food was so friendly and kind but only because they want your money.

    Living with my mother also entails some sacrifices. For example, I never invite any friends to visit me, because I dread my mother pestering me with questions about who this person was or even worse (if the friend is male) about when we will marry and have kids.

    Relationships can be complicated. My mother loves me. The problem is that she doesn’t even know me as a person, instead of me she loves an imaginary construct—the normal daughter she wanted to have, which I cannot be. While I do not like my mother as a person, I do not hate her and I cannot blame her for being a victim of the homophobic and transphobic culture that raised her. And I do not want her to feel sad. I live in a closet from her, because I imagine that she would kick me out if she found out certain facts about me (and I do like having a free place to live). But I also do not want to make her sad. She will be happier imagining that I am her normal daughter. She expects me to marry a man and have kids. I am even hiding from her the fact that I got myself sterilized.

    It’s my life and I will live it the way I want. But I do not want to crush my mother’s dreams either. Hence all this deception. She is already old, she will probably die thinking that she has a normal daughter and that someday she will have the grandchildren she wants. (By the way, my mother doesn’t know English, so I’m safe talking about this online.)

    The lifestyle I have chosen certainly has plenty of drawbacks. Still, having a full time job would feel even worse for me. Free time is the one thing I really don’t want to sacrifice.

    Returning to the original topic—in USSR communal apartments were the norm. Living either alone or only with your family was the privilege of the wealthy. When people who had to live together could get along, it wasn’t so bad. When they couldn’t stand each other, then it did suck. I don’t think it is bad for people to have roommates or to share an apartment/home with people with whom they don’t have deep and meaningful relationships and whose company they do not enjoy. As long as people can get along and do not hate each other, peaceful cohabitation is perfectly possible. And it is not necessarily bad—living with other people saves space, natural resources, and money. It’s just that sharing living space with other people does not guarantee that a person cannot start to feel lonely in the middle of a virus pandemic.

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