Being lonely is about not having people around us, about not having people in our orbit with whom we are close enough to just be ourselves. We feel lonely when we don’t have enough people we can trust, trust with our deepest selves, trust to lend a hand if we need it. Loneliness is feeling isolated. We can blame ourselves or others for being lonely, and it is generally not a situation that we have chosen. Chronic loneliness can have negative effects not only on our emotional well-being, but also our physical health.
Being alone is also about not having people around us. Being alone does not necessarily indicate or signal distress, however. We can choose to be alone, either occasionally or on a regular basis. Solitude can be an experience fraught with meaning and even adventure. While human connection is the most vital need of all human beings, solitude can be the place we connect with one particular human being – ourselves. It is a place where, without distraction, we can come to know ourselves. It is a place where we can connect to the divine Other, however we might conceptualize that Other.
Our culture values extroversion. Sociable people, people who get on well with others, people who tend to be the life of the party even when it’s a party for two – these folks are seen as desirable and well-wrapped. Introversion, on the other hand, is frequently seen as less than desirable and a sign of personal deficit. But research studies indicate that both introverts and extroverts can be content and high functioning. Both can be adept at relationships. When I’m at a social gathering, I enjoy the life of the party and value his or her contributions to the ambience. But when it’s time to go home, I want to go home with the introvert.
Much has been written about whether social media has made us more or less lonely. The answer is most likely both. Social media does enable us to initiate and maintain connections that we couldn’t do without it. But it also ensures the superficiality of those connections. And while we tend to put our best foot forward in most social situations, on social media we can present a significantly idealized version of ourselves. Since others are doing the same, we can feel diminished by our “contacts”. For that reason alone, it is important that we monitor our time on social media and take the time to assess its effect on us.
Culture has an impact on our family dynamics and our self-images. It is important that we distinguish between being alone and being lonely. We can live alone and still lead connected and meaningful lives. One very good friend can be enough, and superior to a bunch of superficial friends. We don’t have to be the life of the party to belong there.