Loneliness Versus Solitude

Dr. Tieraona Low Dog

Loneliness can have severe detriments to your health, but it is not the same as solitude. I often find solitude to hold many joys and comforts.

— Tieraona Low Dog, M.D.

A recent study by Brigham Young University shows that a surprising epidemic is lurking in our everyday modern lives; loneliness (defined as being socially isolated) has now been proven to be extremely dangerous to your long-term health. After looking at more than a 140 studies, researchers found that being socially isolated is linked to premature death and can be just as harmful as the effects of smoking or obesity. We now know that feeling lonely is so much more than just an unpleasant experience.

But how does loneliness–a natural human feeling we all experience sometimes–become such a serious threat to one’s health? The answer seems to be connected to another major health concern: depression., Humans may be more connected than ever through screens and social networks but we are becoming less and less physically connected. Many extended families no longer share homes; making elder care and parenting responsibilities more and more independent. We take care of many of our needs through the magic of being connected online, but may be lacking in the social connection department.

There is more than a kernel of truth in the old saying “no man is an island.” We need each other, and that goes beyond the physical to the emotional self too. Another wise adage is “a problem shared is a problem halved.” Think of the relief you feel when after a long trying day, you tell a trusted loved one your troubles. They listen intently and you feel the validation and understanding of another who shares in the human experience. It’s the very essence of social healing.

So how then, do we combat the health dangers of loneliness? One surprising answer is learning to love solitude. We’re so often directed to “learn to love ourselves” when faced with personal crisis or extended periods of alone time. But what, really, does that mean? Learning to be your own best friend and companion sounds lovely on paper but what is solitude really?

It is a state of being that is very much removed from the pain of loneliness.

Solitude may be defined as cultivating (and enjoying) your relationship to yourself. Counterintuitively, when you know yourself well, you can form stronger, more meaningful bonds to others. And when you spend time alone in a positive way, being alone with your thoughts, you can reflect on issues big and small. Give your brain and body space to be it’s real self and through knowing yourself, you can more easily build healthy bonds with others.

One way to explore solitude is to get in touch with nature. Leave the technology behind and let the rhythm of your steps and breath come into sync in a natural setting. Nature makes it easy, but you need not plan a trip to an exotic locale to reconnect. Time spent on your porch, or sitting in a comfortable chair by the window simply being with yourself, is as worthy as any other moment of solitude. The point is to listen to your own needs, let the noise of everyday demands (no matter how loving they may be) quiet down for a spell as you open your awareness. Cultivating solitude means also cultivating mindfulness.

You may be surprised to find peace. You may notice you have been empathetically mirroring the speeds of others and the sweetness of solitude is a chance to dance again to the rhythm of your own drum. You may find yourself finally “seeing the forest for the trees” and have a revelation of a personal need you’d set aside. You may see your relationships to others much more clearly with some space. You may remember how much you loved something, like photography, or reading, and you can choose to spend more time letting your passions be fruitful.

When the noise of life is reduced, your thoughts have a little more room for much needed quiet. Solitude can give the amazing gift of perspective, along with a much-needed dose of relaxation.

Learning to enjoy solitude can be an antidote to loneliness (especially when you are forced to be alone). Teach others to learn to love solitude and give the gift of solitude to others when they need it. It can be a great pleasure, and keeping yourself company is a skill many people truly cherish. It’s a tool you can use to reconnect and rekindle your relationships, especially the one with yourself.