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.