Being alone can mean peace and satisfaction. Solitude can be a choice.
Is there a difference between loneliness and solitude?
Absolutely, says Kirsten Neuschäfer, a long-distance solo sailing expert.
In her day job transporting boats, Neuschäfer routinely sails solo across the ocean, sometimes for more than 30 days at a time.
Now she’s preparing for a sailing race that will see her alone at sea for almost 300 days with very little contact with the outside world. That said, she’s not worried about getting lonely.
For Neuschäfer, being alone means peace and satisfaction rather than negative thoughts and feelings.
If you find yourself resisting solitude, there are ways to learn to embrace it and reap the benefits of quality time alone.
What’s the difference between loneliness and solitude?
According to Thuy-vy Nguyen, assistant professor of quantitative social psychology at the University of Durham, there’s a clear line between loneliness and solitude.
Nguyen specializes in the study of solitude and social well-being. She defines solitude simply as the experience of being alone. In contrast, loneliness is a subjective emotion that’s always negative.
Characteristics of loneliness
Loneliness is a unique condition that happens when an individual sees themself as
As Nguyen explains, feelings of loneliness occur when there’s a difference between a person’s expectation of what their social life should be like compared with the reality of what it’s really like.
Importantly, you can experience loneliness even when you’re not alone.
A 2020 study of adolescents in Holland also showed that loneliness is often linked to self-esteem and can be influenced by your perception of how much you mean to the people around you.
Loneliness can be made worse by feelings of “anti-mattering,” defined as when you feel invisible or insignificant to other people. A 2020 study of 172 undergraduate students found that increased feelings of anti-mattering were linked to higher levels of loneliness.
Characteristics of solitude
Unlike loneliness, solitude doesn’t have to be negative or positive.
Experiences of solitude often depend on the circumstances and can vary across cultures and demographics.
“Solitude might have many different flavors for different people,” says Nguyen.
Positive experiences of solitude are usually linked to choice, says Nguyen. Being forced into solitude, like when a child is put in time-out, tends to be a negative experience.
According to her research, solitude can lead to relaxation and reduced stress when people choose to be alone. Research from 2019 has also shown that solitude can be beneficial for self-exploration, creativity, and self-renewal.
A 2021 study found that in the case of adolescents, spending time alone is just as important as spending time with others. Solitary activities like hobbies and art are more likely to make solitude enjoyable for adolescents.
In Neuschäfer’s eyes, there’s a very big difference between loneliness and solitude.
As a long-distance sailing expert, she’s used to being far away from family and friends. The longest she’s spent alone at sea was 67 days.
“In a 2-month period of solitude, you kind of get into the groove,” says Neuschäfer. “You kind of get to that point where you’ve absolutely accepted and actually come to appreciate the fact that you’re alone.”
For Neuschäfer, there’s a sense of peace that comes from being completely alone. In fact, the times when she feels most lonely are when she’s surrounded by other people.
“For me, loneliness is a totally different feeling,” says Neuschäfer. “When you’re in and amongst people in a big city and everyone’s in a big rush, no one’s talking to you and you’re all running the rat race, that’s when I feel loneliness.”
However, Neuschäfer also cautions that you need to know your own limits. For her, it’s simply a case of getting used to being alone. But it’s not always the same for everyone.
For Nguyen, COVID-19 has meant that she now tries to be more mindful about when she needs to be alone and when she needs company.
“I live with a partner and we both work from home during lockdown,” she says. “I do vocalize my desire and need to have my own space and time, sometimes quite assertively.”
Like Neuschäfer, she agrees that solitude has a role to play in our life as much as having strong connections to other people.
If you have difficulty being alone, there are some ways you can reduce feelings of loneliness and have a more positive experience of solitude.
Practicing meditation may help reduce loneliness.
A 2019 study of retired older adults who participated in weekly meditation classes over 2 years reported that they were less lonely, more content, and experienced greater life satisfaction and well-being.
These findings are supported by a
There may also be a link between sleep problems and loneliness.
As a result, sleep loss may create a cycle of social separation and withdrawal.
In fact, research from 2020 on the relationship between sleep problems and loneliness found that sleep problems may make loneliness worse, contributing to depressive symptoms.
According to Nguyen, nature can provide a space for embracing solitude.
This indicates that spending time in nature can have a restorative and soothing effect.
Taking time to do activities that you enjoy as a form of self-care can also create a positive experience of solitude.
Positive solitude is often filled with self-interested activities, explains Nguyen, such as hobbies that relate to self-care and self-expression or activities that increase a sense of competence like sport and exercise.
A 2019 study of people who knit in Finland, for instance, found that many knitters prefer to work in solitude, using it as an opportunity to take care of their own needs, organize their thoughts and feelings, and help them work through problems.
Being alone doesn’t have to mean being lonely, whether you’re at sea or at home.
Solitude is simply space for us to regulate our emotions and energy. It doesn’t have to be good or bad.
By embracing solitude as an opportunity to calm your mind and using coping strategies to combat loneliness, you can learn to enjoy the experience of being alone.
Elizabeth Harris is a writer and editor with a focus on plants, people, and our interactions with the natural world. She’s been happy to call many places home and has traveled across the world, collecting recipes and regional remedies. She now splits her time between the United Kingdom and Budapest, Hungary, writing, cooking, and eating. Learn more on her website.