Sweet Solitude, Part 1: Two Meanings of Alone
Monday, June 06, 2011
Time spent alone is not just about loneliness

Published on March 20, 2011 by Bella DePaulo, Ph.D. in Living Single

"You poor thing - you're 'alone' - you 'don't have anyone." I've been railing against this use of the word alone to describe single people for a long, long time (here and here, for example). To say that single people are alone, in this sense, is to believe that unless you have a spouse or romantic partner, you don't have anyone. By this manner of thinking, all of the other important people in our lives, such as friends, relatives, neighbors, mentors, and colleagues, just aren't anyone at all.

There is another meaning of alone, though, that also gets pinned on single people, and in a bad way. That's the time that we spend with no one else around. More than 31 million of us live alone. (That's a striking number, but because more than 100 million Americans are divorced, widowed, or have always been single, it falls far short of the majority of us.) Of course, even living alone does not preclude the possibility of having other people around - even lots of them - but it can add up to lots of time spent with no other hovering humans.

Those who would pity us for the time we spend alone think of our experiences as loneliness. That's the negative sense of being by yourself - having no other humans present with whom you can connect in a meaningful way, but wishing that you did. Surely, there are singles who feel lonely when they are in their homes (or even out and about) on their own, just as there are coupled people who feel lonely when their romantic partner is not at their side. But there is far more to the experience of being alone than feeling miserable and lonely. There is a reason (actually lots of them) why solitude is so often called sweet. We just don't hear about that as often.

Researchers in psychology need to own up to their fare share of the blame in this equation of spending time alone (or living alone) with loneliness. Type solitude into PsycInfo, probably the most comprehensive database for scholarly articles in psychology, and you will get 592 references. Doesn't sound so bad, until you take a close look at them and realize how few are based on empirical research (those articles are tagged as phenomenology, psychoanalysis, narratives, and spirituality, among other categories) and how many construe solitude in a bad way. (For example, #13 of the 592 is about "anxious solitude.") Now type in loneliness, and you get 5,128 references.

Slowly - very slowly - this is beginning to change. Christopher Long and James Averill wrote an article that provides the theoretical grounding that future empirical researchers can use as a guide. "Solitude: An exploration of the benefits of being alone," appeared in the Journal for the Theory of Social Behavior in 2003 (vol. 33, pp. 21-44). Now, when I check back to see if anything new on solitude has popped up in PsycInfo, I am sometimes pleasantly surprised.

Notwithstanding all of the psychologists fretting about loneliness, real people living their real lives often seem to crave time alone, then savor it when they get it. That's my sense, based mostly on unsystematic observations. (For example: A 2008 post, The American psyche: Tipping toward solitude?, has been one of my most popular. A more recent one, Extraversion and the single person, has also been popular.) It is time for researchers to show us the numbers.

It is not only when you are home alone that you can experience solitude. Solitude also happens in nature and even when you are alone in a crowd. I'm withholding Long and Averill's definition of solitude for now, because it would give away too much of what I'd like you to think about while I work on the second part in this series. If you like this topic, generate your own ideas of what's so sweet about solitude. (Post them in the comments section if you are willing.) Think not just about emotional aspects (though those surely matter a lot), but also cognitive and intellectual ones. (For example, are you smarter or more creative when you are on your own?) Consider, too, the big questions of who you are and who you want to be, what (and whom) you believe in, and what you think is most important in life. Is solitude especially good for that sort of pondering? Don't dismiss the little or mundane things, either. Is there something special about making your way through your everyday routines when you are on your own?

Let's take back our time alone! It is about sweet solitude, not just loneliness.

Bella DePaulo is author of Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After. She is a visiting professor at UC Santa Barbara. belladepaulo.com