The valuable art of being alone without experiencing loneliness

The valuable art of being alone without experiencing loneliness
The View


The BBC is making a series of programmes about loneliness as a result of a study involving 55,000 people that it conducted. The findings are somewhat counter-intuitive. Young people are lonelier than older people.

Some 40% of respondents aged between 16 and 24 years old said they experience loneliness often or very often, compared with just 29% of those aged between 65 and 74.

So while a significant number of older people experience loneliness, younger people experience it more often and more intensely.

Some commentators wonder whether young people have always been lonely but no large study was undertaken say, in the 1950s, to establish if loneliness was a factor then.  It is impossible to know. Perhaps there is something about adolescence and young adulthood, that whole process of trying to find out who you are and what you should do with your life, that makes people feel particularly lonely.

However, the era that we live in is often presented as one of hyper-connectivity, where people are in constant contact on social media. It is not a solution to profound loneliness, it appears. The study shows that people who are lonely have more online-only friends, whereas people who have more ‘in real life’ friends than connections that only exist online are less lonely.


The kind of curating and presentation of one’s life that social media encourage, so that only perfect photographs are posted and only happy social occasions are recorded, adds to people’s feelings of inadequacy.

John Cacciopa, Director of the Centre for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago, is a leading international expert in loneliness. He has a TEDx talk that has been viewed nearly 900,000 times, called the lethality of loneliness.

His basic point is that we are designed to be social creatures. He says that  “we forget that we are members of a social species, born dependent on our parents and for our species to survive, these infants must instantly engage their parents in protective behaviour and the parents must care enough about these offspring to nurture and protect them”.

He continues that even when full-grown, we are not particularly splendid creatures. Other animals can run faster, see and smell better and fight much more effectively than we can. He challenges the autonomous, solitary model so promoted in our society today, saying that interdependence is much closer to our reality.

Despite that, one-person households are on the rise in the US, even though loneliness increases the risk factor for early death by 45%.

However, it would be unwise to equate people living alone with lonely people.

Perhaps another reason that young people are so lonely today is that they have never learned how to be really alone, to experience solitude as opposed to loneliness.

Not that I can talk. Sometimes, our house is so full of young people that I think my head will explode. But when there is no-one in the house, after the first few hours, the house can seem eerily empty.

I like my own company, but some time ago, when I was working and everyone else in my family was away for three days at a wedding, I found myself having long conversations with shop assistants because I needed the human interaction.

However, I think I could cope with 10-15 minutes in a bare room. Apparently, others find it excruciating. In a small study conducted in 2014 by Timothy Wilson in the University of Virginia, participants were given a mild electric shock and most of them said that they would pay rather than experience it again.

However, nearly two-thirds of men and a quarter of women self-administered the very same shock rather than sit quietly in a room for 15 minutes, just thinking.

There was no difference across the age groups. Blaise Pascal must have been grinning wryly, given his famous maxim, that “all of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone”.

There are two separate issues here. One is a loneliness that is deeply damaging, that comes from a lack of profound human connections. The other is an experience that we should all cultivate: the ability to be alone with our thoughts, and with God.

Young people are increasingly frightened of that kind of silence. And of course, adults can be just as dependent on their phones to fill every potential moment of reflection. Gone are the days of casual conversations at bus stops. Everyone is hunched over their phone.

Some second-level retreats demand that young people give up their phones for the day and after initial protests, the young people often comment how much more they interact with each other and how much clearer their minds are.

Solitude is something we can all achieve, while real loneliness can only be alleviated by people who care.