A loneliness panic has swept the nation and the world.
For years, the popular press and the annals of academia have been spewing out warnings, in increasingly alarmist tones, that loneliness has reached epic proportions, and that it is killing us. But amidst all the angst about loneliness, something profoundly important has been overlooked: Some people like being alone.
They like their time alone. They like living alone. In many nations all around the world, the number of people living alone has reached record levels. More and more people are also dining alone, traveling alone, and making their way in public places alone.
Studies of married couples in the U.S. show that their lives are less enmeshed than they once were. Some couples are even living apart, in places of their own, not because far-flung jobs or other externalities have forced that upon them, but because they want their own space.
For unknown numbers of people, being alone is not just a preference –it is a craving, a need. Deprived of their time alone for too long, they begin to fantasize about it. Nothing feels quite right until their need for solitude is replenished. Who are these people who like being alone?
Stereotypically, they are the weirdos and the freaks, the scary loners planning shocking acts of violence. New thinking and fresh research upends those caricatures. We now have a better idea of the true personalities of people who like being alone, and they are, well, totally badass.
In June of 2017, I published a post to my “Living Single” blog at Psychology Today called “The badass personalities of people who like being alone.”
Immediately, it took off. It was shared and re-shared. It was republished over and over again, with and without permission. It got picked up nationally and internationally. That made me realize that there is a real hunger for a different story about the time we spend alone, one that acknowledges that not all people who live alone or spend time alone are lonely or doomed to an early death. Some, in fact, are spectacularly happy and healthy.
I’ve been writing about people who live single or live alone or like their time alone for decades. In Alone: The Badass Psychology of People Who Like Being Alone, I have collected more than 60 of the articles I have published at places such as Psychology Today, Psych Central, and the Washington Post. Sample what you like or read it cover to cover. Either way, you will come away with a whole new understanding, grounded in research, of what it means to like being alone.
The True Meanings of Alone, Loner, and Lonely
The Happy Loner
“Loners” get a bad rap. “Loner”is the label we affix to criminals, outcasts, and just about everyone else we find scary or unsettling. In my all-time favorite book on the topic – Party of One: The Loners’ Manifesto – author Anneli Rufus offers a whole different take on the true meaning of “loner.”
A loner, she says, is “someone who prefers to be alone.” That person is so very different than all those who remain on the outside feeling isolated but so desperately wanted to be on the inside, feeling that they belong. The intense but thwarted craving for “acceptance, approval, coolness, companionship” is what sometimes sets off people who go ballistic on their objects of their desires.
In an essay in the Guardian, Barbara Ellen lets us know that she has also had enough of the fear and the pity for people who actually like their time alone. Here’s how she opens her commentary: There used to be a fashion for scaremongering surveys about single women, saying things like: “Eight out of 10 women are going to die alone, surrounded by 17 cats.” But to that I would mentally add: “Or it could all go horribly wrong.”
To my mind, aloneness never necessarily equated with loneliness. It wasn’t a negative, something to be avoided, feared or endured. In the tradition of Anneli Rufus (and everyone else who recognizes that alone and lonely are not the same thing), Ellen know that the kind of solitude that is chosen is a whole different experience than the type that is unwelcome.
Riffing on a headline proclaiming that “Britain is the loneliness capital of Europe,” Ellen offers an alternative perspective: This study could just as well be interpreted as saying that many Britons are self-reliant problem-solvers, respectful of other people’s privacy –and what’s wrong with that? Isn’t this the modern British definition of neighbourliness: not over-chummy and intrusive, but friendly, considerate and, most importantly, happy to sign for your Amazon parcels?
Barbara Ellen also poses a question that we should all ponder: Why is it that sociability is considered a skill, whereas the ability to be alone is seen as weird? As she notes: Personally, I’d be more likely to distrust people who can’t bear time with themselves. What’s wrong with them that they can’t abide their own company – what are they trying to hide in the crowd?
Alone in the World or Alone in Solitude?
For such a little word, “alone” carries some big meanings. Sometimes “alone” is used to mean “single,” and I have often found that troubling. When other people are discussing a single person and they say, “she’s alone,” they often do so with sadness and pity. What they mean is, “She doesn’t have anyone”or “He’s alone in the world.” There are single people who truly are alone in the world, just as there are married people who fit that description. (Having a spouse is no guarantee of having someone who cares about you or even talks to you.)
On the average, though, single people are more connected to other people than married people are. I’ve written often about how single people have more friends, do more to maintain their ties with siblings and parents and friends and neighbors, do more to participate in the life of their cities and towns, and do more than their share of caring for aging parents and others who need help.
In contrast, when couples move in together or get married, they tend to become more insular. That happens even if they don’t have children. Single people who fit this typical pattern of maintaining a diversity of personal relationships are probably less vulnerable than, say, married people who invest all their relationship capital in their spouse. Research on susceptibility to depression is consistent with that suggestion.
So is research on “emotionships,” which are the relationships we have with other people that are emotion-specific (for example, looking to different people when we are angry vs. happy vs. sad). “Alone in the world” is the ominous meaning of “alone.” There is another, more uplifting meaning, that many people embrace –single people in particular, and especially those who are single at heart. “Alone” can mean alone in solitude –having time and space to yourself.
To the many people who savor their solitude, time alone is a blessing and a gift. To some (myself included), it may even feel like a necessity. To those who crave solitude rather than fearing it, time alone can offer wonderful opportunities for creativity, relaxation, rejuvenation, reflection, and spirituality.
When I spent some time asking people about their ideal living situations, I found that everyone wants some time alone and some time with other people, but the proportions vary enormously from person to person. When seeking time to themselves, people are making room in their lives for that positive, nourishing, and uplifting sense of being alone. When seeking meaningful connections with other people, they are trying to keep that other sense of aloneness, being alone in the world, at bay. When we find just the right balance of time alone and time with others, it is magical.
Why Alone is Not the Same as Lonely
With more and more people living single and living alone, and so much hand-wringing about loneliness, it has never been more important to understand the difference between the kind of aloneness that people seek out and savor (not loneliness) and the kind of aloneness that hurts (loneliness).
That’s what I talked about when Peace Talks Radio asked me to participate in their special show, “Considering Loneliness.” Here’s the transcript of my part of the show.
Peace Talks Radio Host Paul Ingles talks with Dr. Bella DePaulo, Project Scientist, University of California at Santa Barbara, author of “Singled Out: How Singles are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After and How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century.”
Paul Ingles: Dr. Bella DePaulo is an author and visiting professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara.
Dr. DePaulo, you’ve also authored a blog called “The Happy Loner” that begins: “Loners get a bad rap. Loner is the label we affix to criminals, outcasts and just about everyone else we find scary or unsettling.”
Then you quote author Anneli Rufus who wrote a different take that a loner is quote “someone who prefers to be alone” which you say is different from those who remain on the outside feeling isolated but desperately want to be on the inside.
Help me understand the distinction. It sounds to me like you accept the more troubling definition of loner, but just want to make room for Loner 2.0 or Loner B who just prefers to be alone. Is that fair?
Bella DePaulo: Yes. Well, Anneli Rufus says that a loner is someone who prefers to be alone, so that’s her central basic definition and she thinks that when we call these serial killers “loners” and we affix that kind of dark, menacing meaning to loner, we’re distorting the true meaning of loner.
But let me say that whether being alone, living alone is a good or bad thing depends on how you got there. So if you got there because you want it and you love it and you crave it, that’s great. If you got there because, let’s say a spouse died, that’s more difficult although some people find that once a spouse dies, they come into their own in their own space and time.
The real problematic person living alone is the one who has been rejected, who has been ostracized, particularly if they’ve been chronically ostracized. I think that can be an ingredient to real deep anger and the potential for violence.
Ingles: So let’s say your “Loner B” in our little construct here, you prefer to be alone. Is it valuable to be even concerned about the claims of researchers that they might be at risk of becoming “ Loner A” like distrustful of society or prone to feeling rejected? Is it valuable, if you choose to be alone, to be aware of your place on the continuum and have an awareness of this conversation?
DePaulo: I suppose so, but you know what’s really interesting? There’s a whole cottage industry of loneliness. If you went on Google and typed “loneliness,” you’d probably get tens of thousands of returns and yet the kind of research that would look at whether people have chosen to be alone or not is strikingly missing. So we really don’t know if the people who choose to be alone, who savor their solitude, who get great creative work done, get great restorative benefits, we don’t know if they are prone to some of the same negative risks that we’ve heard about so often in the general literature on loneliness. We just don’t know. That’s my scientific answer.
Ingles: Okay and do you have another answer?
DePaulo: Yes, I wonder about it. Imagine if we tried to force everyone to live with other people because we think that would somehow cure loneliness. Would it really?
I think especially about the change over time and how older people live. It used to be that older people, say if a spouse died, they would almost automatically end up living with other people, often their grown children. Now that older people have Social Security and other ways of actually buying their own independence, more and more of them are choosing to live alone and they’re certainly choosing to stay outside of institutions if they can possibly afford it and so it seems like people are making a choice and so I think we should be cautious about demonizing people who live alone or thinking: you poor thing. Your life is going to be nasty, brutish and short because they’ve chosen this.
Many people who live alone could find other people to live with, but that’s not what they want to do.
Ingles: Well let’s see, let me go here with this then; one of your books is entitled Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized and Ignored and Still Live Happily Ever After, so let me look at the first half of that title to start because it sounds like it’s kind of what we were talking about here. It sounds like that you’re citing a societal preference for coupling.
DePaulo: Yes, absolutely.
Ingles: Are you suggesting that by stereotyping, stigmatizing and ignoring signals that society could be amplifying feelings of loneliness?
DePaulo: Yes, it is, and ironically, what it could also be doing is pushing people to marry who really don’t feel like it’s right for them and what happens then is you have people who end up lonelier than they would have been because they’re marrying because they think they should marry, because they think it’s the only legitimate, respected, celebrated option and so then they end up with what is probably the most painful kind of loneliness; the loneliness you experience when there is someone lying there right beside you.
Ingles: What would you call on society to do for its part in quelling loneliness brought on in part by those attitudes about singles? I mean if someone listening says, “Oh yeah, I guess I have thought that about singles,” what would you suggest they change in their behavior or their attitude that might tone it down a little bit?
DePaulo: I think they should realize that there are so many ways to live in contemporary American society. That’s one of the joys of living in this time and place.
What is the Opposite of Loneliness?
On the eve of her graduation from Yale, Marina Keegan wrote an essay that, within about a week, would be read by well over a million people from 98 nations. It was called “The Opposite of Loneliness.”
But what is the opposite of loneliness? Keegan opened her essay by noting that we don’t have a word for it, but whatever it is, she found it at Yale: “It is not quite love and it’s not quite community; it’s just this feeling that there are people, an abundance of people, who are in this together. Who are on your team. When the check is paid and you stay at the table.
When it’s four A.M. and no one goes to bed…“Yale is full of tiny circles we pull around ourselves. A cappella groups, sports teams, houses, societies, clubs. These tiny groups that make us feel loved and safe and part of something even on our loneliest nights…”
That essay now opens a collection of Keegan’s writings published under the same title, “The Opposite of Loneliness.”
The question it poses, what is the opposite of loneliness, still resonates. For people who are “single at heart,” I think the opposite of loneliness is single life. People who are single at heart live their best, most meaningful, and most authentic lives as single people. I’m one of them. I rarely feel lonely, and when I do, it is usually when I’m with other people.
One time, when I was living in Charlottesville, I was walking the downtown mall with a friend I always loved talking to – she’s smart, wryly funny, and great at getting to matters of depth. We happened upon a big table of colleagues who were laughing and talking. She wanted to join them. I sat for a while, but their conversation was so superficial and so inane, it made me feel lonely. I made an excuse and left.
Another time, two couples wanted to treat me for my birthday. I looked forward to it. But they spent the night talking about babies and daycare. The whole night.
That, rather spending my birthday home alone, is the definition of loneliness. I like the examples Keegan gives of the opposite of loneliness. But I’d add to them the experiences of being all by yourself, and feeling so engaged in whatever you are doing that you don’t even notice how much time has passed or that you’re actually pretty tired. (I think it is an example of what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow.”)
The opposite of loneliness is realizing the answer to what you were puzzling over when you weren’t trying to figure it out –during a long walk, for instance, or in the shower or just as you are falling asleep or waking up. The opposite of loneliness is feeling grateful for all the people in your life you cherish, even (especially?) when you don’t see them all the time.
The opposite of loneliness is JOMO – the Joy of Missing Out. For me, that’s when I’m so delighted not to feel obligated to participate in social events that don’t interest me. I stay home and revel in my solitude, or pursue the social engagements that really do engage me.
Alone is not lonely. Alone is a neutral description of a state that can be experienced any number of ways. Loneliness is, by definition, painful. The opposite of loneliness is contentment or joy. It is living your most meaningful life, the life you want to live rather than the life you think you should be living. For me, the opposite of loneliness is living single.
Six Psychological Insights About Solitude
People who are single-at-heart love the time they have to themselves. In fact, when thinking about spending time alone, just about all of them react with something like, “Ah, sweet solitude,” and almost none of them react with, “Oh, no, I might be lonely!”
With more and more people living single, and more and more people living alone, a better understanding of solitude is becoming increasingly important.
In 2014, The Handbook of Solitude was published. One of my favorite chapters in the book is “Experiences of Solitude,” by James Averill and Louise Sundararajan. It is a chapter that acknowledges the potential negative experiences of solitude, such as loneliness and boredom, but has far more to say about what can make solitude so sweet. Here are six of the authors’insights.
#1 There is a difference between authentic solitude, in which the experience of being alone is mostly positive, and pseudo-solitude, which feels mostly like loneliness. Do you know what it is? It’s choice: “…authentic solitude is typically based on a decision to be alone; in contrast, pseudo-solitude, in which loneliness predominates, involves a sense of abandonment or unwanted isolation.”
#2 Loneliness is not all negative. It can actually be part of an authentic solitude experience, as, for example, when people drift in and out of different feelings, including feelings of loneliness, when they are alone. Loneliness can also be motivating, as when it pushes people to figure out solutions to their problems. Only when loneliness dominates the experience of being alone and seems insurmountable does the experience get classified as pseudo-solitude.
#3 Do we appreciate solitude more as we grow older? I don’t know of any definitive data on this, but the authors believe that we do, as did Einstein when he said, “I live in that solitude which is painful in youth, but delicious in years of maturity.” Averill and Sundararajan believe that “the sentiment is true of many people of advanced age, who have learned to find solitude delicious but who are reluctant to admit the fact due to cultural prejudices.”
#4 How can we understand how some people come to be good at being alone and others just can’t handle it? Again, I don’t know any great data on that, but the authors point to the 20th century psychoanalyst, Donald Winnocott, who believed that experiences during infancy are important. As the authors explained, “he posited that only those people who as infants were free to explore and independently occupy themselves in the security of their mothers’ presence will as adults have the capacity to be alone.”
#5 It is possible to experience solitude vicariously – for example, through art or poetry. Certain portrayals of nature can be especially effective.
#6 The kinds of opportunities we now have to experience solitude were largely missing in the past. “For example, in colonial America, young people were expected to establish a household as soon as they had the means to live independently. Within a household privacy was rarely possible, even in bed; and since households served multiple functions (educational, commercial, etc.), they were, in turn, under constant guidance and surveillance by the community.”
20 Varieties of Solitude
In “Experiences of solitude,” a chapter in The Handbook of Solitude, James Averill and Louise Sundararajan described twenty different experiences of solitude.
Statistical analyses showed that the experiences clustered into five groups, with a few of the experiences not fitting clearly into just one of the groups. (Those are listed under “other experiences of solitude.”)
In research by Yao Wang reviewed in the chapter, American and Chinese university students rated the desirability of the 20 different experiences of time alone. Using the American ratings, I have listed the five main groups in the order of desirability. So, for Americans, experiences of freedom were the most desirable experiences of being alone.
Within each of the five groups, I also arranged the specific examples the same way – the ones rated most desirable by the Americans are listed first.
The American and Chinese ratings were most different for freedom and problem-solving. Americans found the experience of freedom especially more desirable than the Chinese did (though the Chinese rated it on the desirable end of the scale) and the Chinese rated the opportunity for problem-solving as more desirable than the Americans did.
1. Freedom Inner peace: “You feel calm and free from the pressures of everyday life.”
Freedom: “You feel free to do as you wish, without concern for social rules.”
Daydreaming: “You engage in fantasies where you could do anything you desire.”
2. Enlightenment Self-discovery: “You gain insight into your fundamental values and goals, unique strengths, and weaknesses.”
Enlightenment: “You gain better realization of life’s meaning and significance.”
Emotional refinement: “Being alone provides an opportunity to cultivate and refine your emotions.”
Self-enrichment: “You use the time to enrich yourself and to broaden your perspective.”
Creativity: “Being alone stimulates novel ideas or innovative ways of expressing yourself.”
Problem-solving: “You think about specific problems and plan a course of action.”
3. Intimacy Reminiscence: “You recall events you have experienced or people you have known.”
Intimacy: “You feel especially close to someone you care about.”
4. Relaxation Relaxation: “You use the time to rest or sleep and to recharge.”
Recreation: “You engage in distracting activities, for example, watch television and surf the web.”
5. Loneliness Alienation: “You feel isolated from the rest of society, left out, and forgotten.”
Boredom: “You wish for something to occupy your mind.”
Loneliness: “You feel unappreciated, depressed, anxious, and lonely.”
Other Experiences of Solitude Harmony: “Everything seems interconnected with everything else; you are in balance with the world.”
Self-transcendence: “As in meditation, you have a sense of transcending everyday distinctions and concerns.”
Heightened sensory awareness: “Sights and sounds seem magnified; you observe small things that you ordinarily wouldn’t notice.”
Longing: “Yearning for people or things beyond your reach at the moment.”
Why People Who Like Being Alone Are Badasses
The Badass Personalities of People Who Like Being Alone
There are people who like being alone, maybe even love it. What do you think they are like? Does your mind leap immediately to the misanthrope or to the dreaded loner hiding away somewhere plotting the next mass murder?
As Anneli Rufus told us in her wonderful Party of One: The Loners’ Manifesto, those stereotypes don’t capture real loners. True loners are people who embrace their alone time.
Others, such as those who lash out, are typically alone against their will. They want to be included. They want to be loved by the objects of their desire. But they’ve been excluded and rejected instead. That exclusion and rejection (among other things) is what fuels their hostility and rage.
What’s the truth about people who like being alone? What are they really like? Thanks to some newly developed scales for measuring attitudes toward being alone, we now have research-based answers.
First, though, we need to understand what it means to like being alone. One sense of “alone” refers to spending time alone. The “Desire for Being Alone” scale, developed by Birk Hagemeyer and his colleagues, measures that. People who score high on the desire to be alone AGREE with items such as: When I am alone, I feel relaxed. I like to be completely alone. They DISAGREE with items such as: I feel uncomfortable when I am alone. Being alone quickly gets to be too much for me.
A second meaning of alone is the way it is used to refer to people who are single. (I think that usage is misleading and inappropriate, but I’ll save that argument for another day.)
Thinking about single life as something some people fear, Stephanie Spielmann and her colleagues developed a “Fear of Being Single”scale. I’m interested in the personality characteristics of people who are UNAFRAID of being single, so I just reversed their scale.
People who are UNAFRAID of being single DISAGREE with items such as: I feel anxious when I think about being single forever. If I end up alone in life, I will probably feel like there is something wrong with me.
. . .
from her book
ALONE. The Badass Psychology of People Who Like Being Alone
by Bella DePaulo, Ph.D.
get it at Amazon.com
Bella’s Website BellaDePaulo.com
Psychology Today blog LivingSingle.com