One of the many, many challenges we encountered as the world went into lockdown in 2020, was the inability to connect with friends and family. Sure, we were lucky enough to have zoom and Netflix to help us, or to distract us, but many of us still grappled with a whole different level of loneliness. But, as humans do, we adapted. Now, as vaccine rollouts have things going back to something loosely resembling normal, we’re faced with another problem. After a year of being alone, and in our own company, suddenly we’re gathering with loved ones again – often making up for lost time – and for some, that in itself is a challenge. Instead of craving company, we’re now longing to spend some time with only ourselves again – we’re starting to experience aloneliness.
Of course, we’re grateful to be able to physically spend time with our friends and family, and even more grateful that they’re still here for us to spend time with. But as we start filling our schedules with social engagements, and returning to the offices we abandoned in order to work safely from home, the desire to be alone creeps in on us. That desire, it turns out, has a name.
The term “aloneliness” was coined by Robert Coplan, a psychologist at Carleton University in Canada, and his colleagues in 2019 as a term to describe the opposite of loneliness. In the words of Shayla Love, writing for Vice, “if loneliness comes about when there’s a discrepancy between the amount of quality time you want to spend with other people and how much you actually get, being alonely is a mismatch between the amount of quality time you would like to spend all by yourself, and how much you’re actually able to do so”.
For extroverts who spent much of 2020 alone, being back out in the world must be the biggest relief. But for those of us who isolated with people, who were never really alone, the need to be left in our own company never really left. More so in the case of introverts, who need their alone time in order to recharge. Much of the time we would have spent alone – when our partner would have been at work, or out with friends – has been together time instead, and we’re starting to feel the effects of it.
According to love, “in April 2020, MIT Tech Review wrote about how the pandemic brought on a deluge of virtual events and activities, leaving little time for people to decompress by themselves”. I for one, remember a time when I had virtual games nights and zoom dinner dates scheduled on top of my virtual meetings at work. It was, somehow, even more exhausting to be social through a screen than it is in real life. Virtual social events aren’t as satisfying as face-to-face-gatherings, and yet, they can often leave us needing restorative alone time so much more.
In fact, spending time alone has historically been profoundly underrated. Poets and musicians have long lamented the agony of being without company, and we’ve developed myriad technologies to keep us connected 24/7 instead of allowing us to embrace solitude. It turns out, though, that many of the repercussions of severe loneliness result from aloneliness too.
Too little time alone can lead to stress, depression, and negative moods – just like loneliness does. It’s a topic that’s always been neglected as we focused instead on the myriad negative effects of loneliness – that it, until these “unprecedented times” shoved it into the spotlight. Furthermore, being on our own has some obvious benefits.
Studies have found that “teens who spent a moderate amount of time alone (defined as 20-35% of their waking hours) were better adjusted (as measured by depression, teacher ratings, problem behaviours, and GPA) than those who spent either very little or a lot of time alone. They also felt less self-conscious, reported higher levels of concentration, had lower rates of depression and alienation, and reported feeling better after being alone”.
Solitude helps you self-regulate in a way that is impossible when you’re in company. It helps us balance our emotions and self reflect. It’s also a great time to release our creative juices.
Importantly, the difference between loneliness and solitude, is that loneliness is an involuntary state. When we’re alone by choice, we can appreciate the solitude. When we’re forced to be alone, when we want to be with others, we’re thrown into the negative spiral of loneliness. Aloneliness is the mirror image of that. We crave the peace of solitude, but we have to keep on keeping on because we are employees, partners, parents, siblings, and we simply cannot carve out time for ourselves.
What you do when you’re alone is also an important factor in how much you appreciate solitude. Using alone time for activities you enjoy – reading for pleasure, playing video games, working out – imbues solitude with positive feelings. This is the kind of refreshing alone time we crave after returning to a packed schedule filled with social engagements post lockdown. Those who used their alone time for chores or work found that despite being on their own, it did nothing to cure their aloneliness.
Love emphasises the fact that the amount of alone time one needs differs for each person. It may seem that introverts would seek more time alone, but aloneliness is experienced by extraverts too. It does seem that either way, though, “people who have more positive attitudes towards solitude, and want to spend more time alone, are more likely to feel alonely,” she writes. “This makes sense because if you like alone time, you’ll want more of it, and are at risk of having those needs unfulfilled”. When it comes to restorative alone time, it really is quality over quantity.
“It’s also entirely possible to be alonely and lonely at the same time—meaning you’re generally dissatisfied with your social circumstances across the board,” writes Love. “You could be missing out on meaningful social interactions and connections in a way that’s making you feel lonely, but still not satisfying your desire for quality solitude time”.
Fortunately, the solution to aloneliness is pretty simple – get some alone time. But this doesn’t mean it’s easy. Life gets in the way, and loved ones may feel offended if you tell them you’d like to be alone rather than in their company. It can help to communicate clearly with those you live with about how you’re feeling. Sometimes, contrary to popular belief, closing a door between you and your partner can do great things for your relationship. Stronger bonds can be formed if you give each other a little space, and then come together again when you’re both in your best moods.
Coplan advises that we be more mindful of when we need some time alone to decompress, even if we only do so in “micro moments”. He also recommends keeping a journal in order to keep track of time alone, and time spent with others. This simple practice can help find the right balance to stave off the stress or depression that comes with both loneliness and aloneliness.
Although we still have much to learn about alonelieness, and it might take a while to get used to gathering again after we’re all vaccinated, it’s definitely important to pay attention to our need for solitude. By taking care of our own needs for alone time, we can fight aloneliness and go to all those gatherings as the best versions of ourselves.