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Alone vs. Lonely: What’s the Difference?

What to Do if You Feel Lonely, Enjoying Alone Time and Feeling Lonely, Alone vs. Lonely: What’s the Difference?

A healthy coping strategy that benefits everyone is the ability to enjoy solitary time, especially when it permits you to engage in activities that reflect your unique interests. So what’s the difference between being alone and feeling lonely? Mostly the state of your emotional and mental health.  

Is it Okay to Be Alone?

By many accounts, yes. The JED Foundation, a nonprofit that offers emotional health and suicide prevention resources for teens and young adults, states that strong and supportive social networks are essential to our overall well-being. However, learning to spend time alone offers many benefits, including permitting “space to think about your feelings, ideas, hopes, problems, and experiences. It’s also a great opportunity to get to know yourself better and spend time resting and relaxing.”

Travis Bradberry, an organizational psychologist, notes that being comfortable alone is a sign of, and a boost to, emotional intelligence (EQ). “Self-awareness is the foundation of emotional intelligence, and you can’t increase your EQ without it,” he said in this article. “Since self-awareness requires understanding your emotions and how you react to various people and situations, this necessitates careful self-reflection, and self-reflection happens best when you’re alone.” Expanding your capacity for awareness and contemplation is essential to your recovery and overall health. 

Interestingly, in 2023, the University of Arizona cited research indicating that “people don’t feel lonely until they spend three-quarters of their time alone. However, when their alone time goes beyond 75 percent, it becomes difficult for them to avoid feelings of loneliness.” Results also referenced the U.S. Surgeon General’s advisory about loneliness, as well as the difference in alone time as perceived by younger people compared to older adults. 

Differences Between Enjoying Alone Time and Feeling Lonely 

Being alone and feeling lonely are two distinct experiences. Here’s a more detailed comparison that may help define what you notice.

Physical/Emotional State

  • Alone: Being solitary doesn’t necessarily imply a negative emotional or psychological state. Alone, an individual can experience a range of emotions, including happiness, contentment, or relaxation.
  • Lonely: Comparatively, this is an emotional or psychological state characterized by a perceived lack of connection or companionship. Even when physically with others, a person can have feelings of emptiness or isolation due to a perceived gap in social connections.

Personal Choice

  • Alone: Some people value and enjoy solitude, finding it an opportunity for introspection, relaxation, or engaging in personal interests.
  • Lonely: It’s generally an undesirable and involuntary emotional state marked by a sense of isolation

Quality of Time

  • Alone: It can be a time for self-discovery, creativity, or simply a break from social interactions. Individuals may use this time to recharge and focus on personal growth.
  • Lonely: When someone feels lonely, they are not able to make positive use of their time alone. They may turn to methods of emotional escape (media, online shopping, eating, substance use) to fill the emptiness. 

Independence

  • Alone: Independence and self-sufficiency can be fostered when alone. It allows individuals to rely on themselves for companionship, support, and decision making.
  • Lonely: Loneliness often involves a longing for connection and a desire for social interaction. It may result in a feeling of dependence on others for emotional fulfillment.

Mental Health Impact

  • Alone: Being alone doesn’t inherently pose a threat to mental health unless it crosses that percentage threshold observed in the University of Arizona study above. In fact, some people find solitude beneficial for their mental and emotional well-being. 
  • Lonely: Persistent loneliness may cause negative effects on mental health, potentially leading to issues such as depression, anxiety, and a decreased sense of self-worth. 

Subjectivity

  • Alone: How someone evaluates being alone as positive or negative varies by individual. 
  • Lonely: Loneliness is also subjective, but it’s generally associated with a distressing feeling of being alone even when surrounded by people or not having anyone to turn to for comfort, companionship, and other essential relationship qualities.

What to Do if You Feel Lonely 

The Jed Foundation offers these tips for finding a healthy balance between quality alone time and fostering more supportive connections. 

  • Allow time to adjust. Sometimes, loneliness stems from loss or grief. “Adjusting to the new normal takes time, and it’s important to be patient with yourself and your healing,” the organization states.
  • Make more contact. We all get caught up in our lives, so the people closest to you might not know what you’re feeling unless you reach out. Consider more frequent phone or video calls, schedule regular lunch dates, and use other methods to draw your circle closer.
  • Expand your interests. “If we’re in a rut, loneliness can sometimes be alleviated by trying something new. A new hobby not only introduces you to a new community of people with similar interests, but also adds new stimulation to your routine and improves your overall feelings of self-efficacy and positive self-image,” Jed notes. 

Also ask your recovery therapist or peer support group for more ideas on how to deepen your relationship with others.

Ivory Plains: Helping You Heal

At our addiction rehabilitation program in Adair, Iowa, our residential and partial hospitalization programs include essential components for recovery success, including access to different mutual aid programs that help you build a vibrant sobriety community. Ask our admissions team for more details. 

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