The difference between solitude and loneliness

We're more lonely than ever and this is horrible. Equally horrible? We can't bare to spend time alone. 

The difference between solitude and loneliness
Credit: Pixabay

All man’s miseries,’ wrote the French mathematician Blaise Pascal, ‘derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone’. Often in our busy lives this is caused by having too much to do. Sometimes it is our own inability to set down the smartphone and sit. Our go, go, go lives often leave us with little time for solitude. This is a shame, as many great minds argue, for being able to be alone with your own thoughts is a great skill that more people could use.


However, there is a difference between solitude and isolation, and it might kill you.

Some of us, particularly the more intelligent of us, enjoy a quiet moment to ourselves every now and again. But others are truly lonely. This is more than just a negative feeling - it can have horrible effects on your health. Effects that we have a greater reason than ever for trying to understand.

Research suggests that loneliness can dramatically increase the risk of death in individuals. It can even be a better predictor of early death than obesity. In a meta study of more than 200 studies covering hundreds of thousands of patients it was shown that “There is robust evidence that social isolation and loneliness significantly increase risk for premature mortality, and the magnitude of the risk exceeds that of many leading health indicators,” according to lead researcher Holt-Lunstad.

It is also known that chronic loneliness can cause a slew of specific health problems. John Cacioppo reports that it can even lead to “…increased levels of cortisol, a major stress hormone, as well as higher vascular resistance, which can raise blood pressure and decrease blood flow to vital organs… [and] the danger signals activated in the brain by loneliness affect the production of white blood cells; this can impair the immune system’s ability to fight infections.”

This news would not shock Aristotle, who argued two thousand years ago that friendship was a requirement for a good life. Lacking friends, he posited, we would be unable to truly enjoy being human. The notion that we are biologically dependent on having some level of social interaction would only mean to him that we have an even greater obligation to educate individuals on how to make and be friends.

He was on to something. Today, more than 40 million adults over 45 in the United States are believed to suffer from chronic loneliness. That image that you have of the sad old man in the nursing home is only partly true, however, as this statistic is also tied to other demographic changes. Such as a reduction in the marriage rate and the number of children per married couple. Though it is also true that older people can be at a higher risk of loneliness, 1 in 2 people over the age of 85 in the United States live alone. This is an especially grim note, as this link explains, because the time they can expect to have left is remarkably short.

However, at the same time, people complain of a lack of time to themselves, and studies show that people are happiest when they are able to buy more time rather than things. Hannah Arendt even alleged the inability to sit alone and think was a key reason Eichmann became a tool in the Holocaust. For her, the ability to sit and think by yourself, a key part of solitude, was a tool towards freedom. Without it, the tyranny of the majority, or even outright totalitarianism, would follow. The ability to be alone is the key to individuality, for Arendt.

But one man went farther, suggesting that loneliness was good for us.  

Schopenhauer, the ever-depressive philosopher, made the argument that the best of us would actually choose isolation. Deeming such people “Sages”, these people would be monastic; retreating from society, desire, and distraction to live simple lives. These rare few, so he alleged, were the truly happy people. Freed from vanity and pettiness they could go on to find intellectual pleasures, though even Schopenhauer was unable to make the switch to such a life.

It is an odd paradox - we suffer both from loneliness and the inability to have time to ourselves. Technology has made us more connected than ever, and this has not made us happier or even less lonely. We are going to have to learn not only to re-connect, but to be alone as well. A paradox befitting of the modern, ultra-connected, age. 

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