A boss once said of me in front of a group of co-workers, “Jeff will be way ahead of the rest of us when he gets old because he spends most of his time alone anyway.”
I was in my 30s and she, one of the more prescient people I’ve known in my life, meant it as a compliment.
She knew that I was, as we finally decided to call it, a “non-misanthropic loner.”
I don’t hate people. I simply enjoy being by myself and don’t experience solitude as an oppressive thing.
A New York Times article by writer Holly Burns from last year has really stuck with me because it captured so well how I experience being alone:
How we feel about time alone is largely dependent on whether we’ve chosen it, said Virginia Thomas, an assistant professor of psychology at Middlebury College who studies solitude.
People who pursue solitude of their own volition “tend to report that it feels full — like they’re full of ideas or thoughts or things to do,” Dr. Thomas said. In this way, it’s distinct from loneliness, a negative state in which you’re “disconnected from other people and it feels empty.”
The key is to see solitude as a choice, not a punishment. In a 2019 survey, Dr. Thomas found that teenagers who deliberately sought out solitude showed higher levels of well-being and were less lonely than their peers who were alone just because of circumstances. The same was true in young adults ages 18 to 25, who also showed increased levels of personal growth and self-acceptance, and lower levels of depression. In fact, most research shows that we benefit more from solitude as we age, Dr. Thomas said, as we develop more control over our time, along with better cognitive and emotional skills to help us use it more constructively.
Jenn Drummond, a mountaineer in Park City, Utah, has spent a lot of time alone as she trains to become the first woman to climb the Seven Second Summits, the second highest — and generally more difficult — mountains on each continent. If she catches herself “getting into a mopey pattern,” she reminds herself that she’s in charge.
“Loneliness is happening to me,” Ms. Drummond, 41, said. “Solitude is happening for me. That little shift makes the biggest difference.”
You might assume it’s just introverts who benefit from solitude, but research is mixed on whether they are actually more skilled at being alone, Dr. Thomas said. In her view, “anyone, with any personality, can enjoy it — with one caveat: if they know how to use it well.”
That resonated strongly for me.
Loneliness is something that happens TO you.
Solitude is something that happens FOR you.
Social media is full of lonely people
I bring all of this up because a Facebook acquaintance posted this morning about how much time she spends alone and how debilitatingly depressing she finds it.
This must be awful to feel this way, and I’m not trying to invalidate anyone’s experience of loneliness.
I feel fortunate that I never experience being alone as a void, a state of something being missing in my life.
It helps that I have a needy dog who is nearly always near me, but even without a dog I’ve never experienced solitude as a negative thing.
BTW, the Harvard Business Review (of all places) had an article about combatting loneliness that seems to make sense. Psychology Today also has some good resources for people feeling chronic loneliness.
Then again, you can do as I do and simply go visit people near you whom you know to be experiencing loneliness. I think letting a lonely person know you’ve thought of them – that anyone has thought of them – goes a long way in making them feel their existence means something.